Here’s what I think happened in the delegation elections at the Missouri Annual Conference in 2019. (For background, click the lead story of this conference daily journal.)
It was about principles, not labels.
The national UMC Next gathering generated four clear, succinct principles. Written as commitments, these principles provide an unambiguous way for people to self-identify. Labels like conservative, centrist, and liberal can mean different things to different people and at different times. I am conservative in some ways and progressive in others. Does that then make me an aggregate centrist?
Instead of those subjective terms, the Missouri UMC Next group took the four commitments and asked potential delegates if they supported them. People were then able to say, “Yes, I affirm the four principles of the UMC Next movement,” rather than, “I am a centrist” or some other nebulous label.
It made some people mad.
I am truly sorry that some people were upset or angry or disappointed by the lack of theological diversity on the Missouri delegation. And to be honest, in past years I would have shared their disappointment. I am an advocate for a “big table” church in which many different theological perspectives have a voice. But this isn’t “past years;” this is a profoundly significant time in the history of Methodism.
In this season, I am particularly mindful of the voices who for decades have been at best only partly included at the table if not excluded completely. And one of the UMC Next commitments is to “build a church which affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, and abilities.” Actually, that sounds like a pretty big table to me!
It was driven by hope and trust.
At a pre-conference meeting of 225 people or so, hosted by the Missouri UMC Next group, there was a notable buzz in the room. I said to my colleague Lori, “There’s a lot of energy tonight.”
Lori looked at me and without missing a beat said, “It’s hope.”
There was a generally positive, hopeful outlook among those who affirmed the UMC Next principles. The 2019 General Conference had sucked a lot of life out of a lot of people, and here for the first time since February were some tangible ways to respond. That generated a lot of really good hopeful energy.
This hopefulness spilled over in an abundance of trust. The Missouri UMC Next list of suggested delegates would have been nobody’s personal preference from one to twelve. The names came from a series of regional meetings held all over the state, countless personal conversations, and several flurries of group emails. There was broad participation, as many, many people connected in a variety of ways to pray and talk and discern together.
So yes, people were voting for people they had never actually met before. Nobody knew each and every one of the slate, much less had spoken to each one about how they would serve on the delegation. But here’s what happened - personal preferences were set aside, because if you didn’t know someone on the list, you knew someone who knew them. It was relational and organic, the Methodist connection working like the connection can and maybe should.
It was a small part of a great awakening.
Here in our conference, there has been a reluctance to dialogue about points of disagreement. Sidestepping difficult conversations has generated an ethos that some would describe as unity. I do not see it as unity; I see it as conflict avoidance.
But the church is awake now, in a way it hasn’t been before. It happened all over the country at one annual conference session after another. United Methodists are pretty strongly rejecting the petitions passed at General Conference 2019 and the manner in which they were passed. And while that doesn’t mean we ought to seek out conflict, it very clearly means we will no longer be avoiding it for the sake maintaining a veneer of artificial unity.
There are so many things that are going to happen between now and General Conference 2020, and nobody knows how everything is going to shake out. Bishop Farr said at our Annual Conference session this year, “The United Methodist Church is experiencing an earthquake. But maybe we need to be shaken up.”
However you view this season in the UMC, very few can deny that Easter people are raising their voices all over the place. Hope and trust and grace and love abound! God’s Holy Spirit is alive and on the move!
The church is awake. It is glorious. It is terrifying. It is in God’s hands. All shall be well. Amen.