Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Culture of Distrust – Emulating Principalities and Powers

I have been attending Annual Conferences since 1986. I took a pastoral appointment in 1987. I even came to conference while away in Atlanta in seminary. I sat at the secretary’s table for several annual conferences. I now chair a conference commission. I represent the Order of St. Luke at the General Board of Discipleship. All to say that I think I am qualified to share some observations after attending twenty-three (23) sessions of the Memphis Annual Conference, as well as four General Conferences and three Jurisdictional Conferences, serving once as a delegate.

For several years, I thought we were unique among annual conferences – we are small, we all know each other fairly well, and we are very good about caring for and being involved in the lives of others. I think we are very good at nurture, especially when tragedy strikes.

But I fear that we have a very bad side – we are extremely ingrown, and annual conference sessions can become a time of jockeying, horse trading, oneupmanship, and manipulation. These are things that should not happen in a covenant community, but they do happen in a culture of distrust. If the divisions were as simple as conservative/liberal or orthodox/progressive, it might be a little more tolerable. But as one “outsider” remarked to me, it’s more like “20% vs 20% vs 20% vs 20% vs 20%.” We have factions. We have meetings after the meetings. And then sub-meetings after that meeting. I suspect there are text messages going on during THAT meeting.

It showed on the conference floor again this year. One person was able to “guilt” the conference into budgeting additional funding for a new conference position AND for our conference camp and retreat center. Both are certainly worthy causes; in fact, I don’t know any conference agency or outside agency that we help fund that isn’t a worthy cause. However, we only had enough income to fund 79% of our budget last year. Our conference finance folks held hearings to give folks the opportunity to make their case and allow them to prayerfully consider our conference budget – and presented their best work. We also managed to insult the Director of Program Ministries in the process – without a word or reprimand from anyone else. So not only did we guilt the conference into passing a higher budget that we are probably unable to fund, we did so AND shot down both a conference committee and a brother in Christ at the same time.

I got to thinking; heck, I could make an emotional case for the commission I chair (Equitable Compensation). I could say – and support – that we need more money to help supplement the pay of ethnic minority pastors and women in ministry. I could make an emotional plea on the basis of equality. I could say that we need to level the playing field for pastoral remuneration and that this is a justice issue. I could say that we are a commission bound by church law with fiduciary responsibilities to prior claim items. And I am willing to bet that I could have been persuasive and eloquent enough to have gotten it passed.

That doesn’t mean it would have been right. More to the point, it is not the way a covenant community should function. Do we want to model this kind of behavior for our children and those new to the faith? That might makes right, or manipulation makes success? If we don’t, we had better change – because that is exactly what we are modeling for them and preparing them to inherit. That is assuming as a conference we survive financially and in number.

No one seems to want to say it: we are dying.

An Annual Conference should not just be about business – it should be the public model for how Methodists are faithful to the Body of Christ. As Methodists, conferencing has the status of being a communal practice that is a means of grace – something that helps us become sanctified as we move on toward Christian perfection. My concern is that our annual conference’s way of “doing” annual conference doesn’t even come close to doing that – and people leave feeling numb, cynical, and often defeated.

Is it possible that instead of being counter-cultural and leading people to the Kingdom, we have simply given in to the culture around us, modeling the principalities and powers of the world instead of wrestling against them?

Instead of doing a 180°, we Methodists may have done a 360°, and ended up right where the Wesley’s started the Methodist movement.

Can we do conference better? I think we can. Can we clergy reacquaint ourselves with the spirit of Christ, and the spirit of the Wesleys to make Methodism vibrant, instead of a lifeless, dead sect? I certainly pray so. Otherwise, the great Methodist experiment is going to fail.

No condemnation now I dread;

Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;

Alive in Him, my living Head,

And clothed in righteousness divine,

Bold I approach th’eternal throne,

And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Bold I approach th’eternal throne,

And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

- “And Can It Be, That I Should Gain?”
Charles Wesley, 1738



Unknown said...

Great post. I really appreciate your observations and the spirit they are presented.

Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

As one of those who was honored and full of energy and spirit when I first came to an Annual Conference in 2002. I have to say that I am sad that the environment at conference encourages me to play political games which are bad for my spiritual journey.

I have witnessed what scarcity will do to people, and I am concerned that our financial condition has pitted our ministries against eachother. I can not blame ONE for speaking up for the cause that they are passionate about without recognizing that I would be the same way if I had to keep the ministry in my care going in troubled times. As you said, it does not make it right. It creates winners and losers, those who are deamed worthy and those whom are rejected, acceptance and rejection, and competition, none of which are Biblican concepts.

You also admitted something that isn't talked about...we are dying~ When there are too many workers to collect the dwindling harvest you are on ground that is not a Biblical Model, and you are also in a vineyard far overdue for pruning. God's Church will survive whether we die or not, but we are not beyond salvage if we will be subject to the Master's skilled hand. Anyone who has ever had vines understands, you cut off the oldest vine which no longer bares fruit, not the tender vine which is ripe with potential...hum...what would that look like? We would hear many emotional stories if everything that is without fruit was pruned, And I suspect that we would hear just as much about the type of fruit produced by the new, tender vines.