My goal was to be coming home from Jurisdictional Conference excited about the future of the church.
I don’t know if “excited” is the word that best fits. I am excited / scared / embarrassed / happy / proud / angry / inspired / hopeful. What’s the word for that emotion? It may be "terrifyingly wonderful," but could also be "wonderfully terrifying." You pick.
So this will be kind of rambly, almost stream of consciousness. But somewhere in what follows will be the beginnings of my thoughts about what happened at the 2016 meeting of the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. Here goes...
I’ll start with the Missouri Annual Conference’s new bishop, Bishop Bob Farr. Who, at this time last week, was Missouri’s Director of Congregational Excellence. He is a colleague and a friend to many in Missouri, and now he is our bishop. That dynamic is … unusual.
It is extremely rare for a bishop to be elected and immediately assigned to her or his home conference. It is not forbidden in our rule book, but it is hardly ever done. No one on the Missouri delegation could remember it happening before in our Jurisdiction.
I’m excited about Bishop Farr’s election and assignment for two reasons. First of all, it is an unusual situation, a new and different way to organize, and that’s what Missouri is all about! We are not now, nor we ever have been known for doing the same ol’ same ol’. Bishop Farr’s leadership will be innovative, just by its very nature. And secondly, I am excited that the South Central Jurisdiction has finally managed to elect a bishop who is not from the state of Texas. Not that that’s a huge deal, but it was starting to get kind of monotonous.
Bishop Farr is going to continue to focus on local congregations, and equip, encourage, and allow churches to organize for and engage in ministry that makes sense and bears fruit in the wide variety of diverse contexts around our state. He loves the church with all his heart, and loves Jesus just as much. I am happy and proud to call him my bishop.
With that said, I am embarrassed by the lack of diversity among the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction. There is only one active bishop who is a woman, for example. Rev. Lynn Dyke would be a phenomenal bishop, and I was working to help her election happen until the moment she removed herself from consideration. Furthermore, Rev. David Wilson is a gifted leader, and would have brought a new perspective to the council of bishops, that of a Native American. Neither was elected.
There are ten bishops in the SCJ, and NINE of them are men, and SEVEN of them are white men. This is embarrassing to me, and not at all reflective of who we are as United Methodists. But it should be noted that across our denomination the other Jurisdictions have done a better job of electing bishops who reflect our diversity, including four African-American women.
With THAT said, the voting in the South Central Jurisdiction was neither sexist nor racist. Those making such claims are making some huge assumptions, often without actually being present during the conference. Both Lynn and David were in the thick of it on many ballots; David received over a hundred votes on one (ballot 24).
I am not naive, so I know that there were some individuals likely voting based on gender and/or race. But anyone who claims the final outcome was blatantly sexist or obviously racist would have a lot of explaining to do to back that assumption up. And based on my experience there, there were a myriad of other factors involved with the decisions the delegates made in selecting bishops.
(Um, isn’t that point a contradiction to the previous one?
Yes. Sure seems like it. Are you still wondering why my reaction is so mixed up?)
Next thing: The politicking made me angry. There’s no other way to say it. It makes me angry when a delegation huddles up, then the next ballot has a large number of votes for a random person who had zero on the previous ballot. Or two delegations get together and then on the next ballot one candidate who was running well has dropped while another one has bumped up. Deals are offered, bargains are struck, delegations “fish” for attractive candidates, heels are dug in. People campaign. And it’s politics. And I did it too. I was a part of it, in the mix. It is what it is, and that doesn’t mean I have to like it. If there’s a better way to do it, I’m all for giving it a try.
Then there was this: A surreal moment happened on Friday night. Simultaneously to the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, we in the South Central Jurisdiction were debating whether or not to send a request to the Judicial Council of the UMC for a ruling on the election and consecration of people who are gay to be bishops in the United Methodist Church. (FYI, Bishop Oliveto is gay).
It was well rehearsed, planned out in advance, and timed exquisitely. As the petition was read from the floor, slides on screen displayed the text. It was pretty obvious that it had been in the works for a while, to be initiated if it looked like a gay bishop was close to election.
The vote was close, but we voted to go ahead and submit the request. People who believe that sexual orientation is not a hinderance to ordination think that this move is an attack on inclusiveness. People who think being gay disqualifies someone from ordination think this move is simply trying to be obedient to the Book of Discipline. So it goes.
And then, immediately after the vote, my friend and fellow Missouri delegate Andrew Ponder Williams went to the microphone and asked that we stand and pray, specifically for all who had been “hurt by what just happened.” I know exactly what he meant, but the way he worded it, he may have meant hurt by Bishop Oliveto’s election OR hurt by the South Central Jurisdiction’s request. After some urging by Justin Coleman, essentially the entire room came and gathered around Andrew, who was by the way standing two feet in front of me. We connected hands on shoulders, hand in hand, reaching for whoever was closest.
Rob Renfroe has said that the election of Bishop Oliveto has put us on “the brink of schism.” He was sitting just a few feet on the other side of the microphone from which Andrew was speaking. I am sad to say that I did not notice if he stood up to pray with the rest of the group, but I am assuming that he did. If he did, he was literally three or four people away from Andrew.
Several people have asked me what I think about Bishop Oliveto’s election and assignment to the Mountain Sky Area. I don’t know; I’ve never even met her, much less have any thoughts about her potential effectiveness as a bishop. What I do know is that she is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, a member of the California-Nevada Annual Conference, she was nominated for bishop by her Annual Conference, and duly elected bishop by the Western Jurisdiction. I trust that process, and the people involved in it, in their discernment of Bishop Oliveto’s call to be a bishop.
And here is another thing of which I am certain. The gender of the person that Bishop Oliveto happens to love has no impact on the gifts and graces that God has given her to serve in ministry. Nor, by the by, does it have an impact on how we are going to do ministry at Campbell UMC in Springfield. I’m not going to obsess over that aspect of her identity, and I hope you won’t either.
One of the inspiring and hopeful parts of Jurisdictional Conference was meeting and getting to know some really cool people from around the South-Central Jurisdiction. It’s all about relationships, making connections with one another, and I had a lot of opportunities to do just that in Wichita. And by the wonder that is social media, it will be so much easier to remain connected.
I love being a part of a connectional church. I love the frustrating, beautiful, messy diversity that comprises our “big tent” denomination. I still don’t know what’s going to happen. People may leave now that we have a gay bishop. Other people may leave if the Judicial Council comes back and rules her election invalid.
I’m not leaving. I am Methodist, through and through. God has called me to serve in the United Methodist Church in this unsettled, uncertain season. The open table, the way of salvation, knowledge joined with piety, personal and social holiness together, grace upon grace upon grace - Methodism has something beautiful to offer people, and I’m all about offering it.
The Holy Spirit is so obviously at work in the church, in the nation, in the world, creating new expressions of church, deconstructing outdated ways of organizing, reviving old forms and practices in new and creative ways, tossing away old wineskins and providing brand new ones. What a truly terrifying and coincidentally wonderful time to be a part of the United Methodist Church!