How Can the United Methodist Church’s Bishops’ Commission Lead Well?

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If insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results, then the United Methodist General Conference is a great example for how to push people to insanity. While the topic of human sexuality has been wrapped in a different conversation at each General Conference since 1972, the mood and tone of our gatherings continues to remain the same. However, as a church, we continue to gather each four years with even more tension, more political maneuvering, and more distrust. In the meantime, there will likely be more protests, more trials, and more frustration in the local church. We continue to position ourselves for the same conversation in the future, driving ourselves insane.

I voted for the Council of Bishops recommendation to form a commission to examine the United Methodist Church’s stance on human sexuality because I believe that a commission has the ability to lead our church to a better place.

The apparent and deep distrust among and for delegates combined with the limits of time and other barriers at General Conference keep us from being able to make real progress on this sensitive topic. If there is any chance of finding a way to move forward together or finding a way to part with encouragement and love for one another, those ideas will not likely be borne from the plenary session of General Conference. It will require a small group of committed individuals. I am praying for this commission to be a team that is in covenant together—a team that can learn to trust each other, become vulnerable instead of political, and make decisions in the interest of the church (not individual agendas). I believe there is room for God to do miraculous things through this group in this setting, but it will require the intentional efforts of the Council of Bishops to organize them in such a way. Here is what I would hope to see:

A Small Commission

As United Methodists, we spend a great deal of time making room for everyone at the table. As a lay/female/young adult, I benefit greatly from that practice! But this commission needs more than just representative voices at the table; we need the right voices at the table.

Covenant

Together, the people in the room need to form a covenant that includes mutual accountability and submission to one another in love. This commission needs to know how they will move forward together and what they expect from one another. Some questions I would ask – what do Romans 12 and Ephesians 4 look like lived out together? How do we hold one another accountable in love? How do we submit to one another? The commission should have clarity around how they will be in communion with one another, and they should begin by crafting that understanding together.

Trust

Before working on problem solving, this commission needs to trust one another. They need to know that their words won’t be used against each other, and that they can disagree in love. I’m not talking about trust-building exercises at a retreat center but, rather, building an environment where people can be authentic with one another without fear of offense or harm. A commission has to take time to build trust – a conversation group at General Conference does not have that luxury. It is evident that we hold a deep mistrust of one another at General Conference, and because we cannot trust one another, it is impossible for us to make progress together. In order for any success to be borne of this commission, they must show us that we can trust one another.

Continual Spiritual Formation

This commission cannot be only about the business of the church, but must foster a continual desire to grow in love of God and love for one another. This is not done by only opening with worship and closing with prayer but instead with the members of the commission committing to pray for one another, committing to mature personally, and being willing grow and be challenged as disciples together. This can include any number of spiritual disciplines, but it must include some of them. Will the people on this commission walk away becoming more like Christ in all they say and do?

Focus

We have given this commission a big task, but we may not know exactly what that is. In light of our church’s mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, how will this commission keep their eyes on that mission while discerning how to deal with the issues before them?

These are also what I hope for in the teams that I lead in my church. If you are worried about how you or your church committees will lead through this struggle, are your people able to have trust-filled conversations with one another? Can teams of people handle the challenges that come before them with grace and confidence? General Conference cannot solve the largely adaptive challenges that the United Methodist Church is facing, nor can a solo heroic figurehead (or council). But when a dozen disciples come together, seeking God’s will through the power of the Holy Spirit and Scripture’s teaching, miracles can happen. Sounds like the making of a powerful movement – one that changes the world. Here is what I am praying for this commission, for our church, and for the leaders who are guiding us into the future:

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.
Ephesians 1:18-21

A lot of other people are gathering to pray for this commission and the United Methodist Church as a whole – will you join us on Mondays to pray for our church? If so, check out Pray UMC on Facebook or @pray_umc on Twitter.

Kathy Rohrs is a lay person who serves as the Director of Leadership Development at First United Methodist church in Marysville, Ohio. Using her Master of Arts in Christian Leadership, and coaching through Spiritual Leadership Inc, and she is passionate about leading teams of lay people equipped to make disciples in the Wesleyan tradition. She is a married with two daughters, and loves spending time with youth ministry students, or gathering with friends for ice cream (black raspberry chocolate chunk from Graeter’s, particularly).

2 COMMENTS

  1. I like your thoughts about the commission; I hope it digs deeper beyond the Bishop’s vague wording. But there is one thing you don’t address that has been bothering me for several years: the role of General Conference in all this. General Conference is the one and only thing designated to speak for the UMC as a whole and over 40 years it has spoken very clearly re same gender relationships and it just may have been prepared to do so again with even harder wording. How can/Why is this continually being ignored? My biblical reference on this is the Apostle’s choosing the replacement for Judas: they narrowed the choice down to two and decided to let a roll of the dice determine the final answer. They trusted in the process they had designated to give them an answer, accepted that answer and moved on. So why are we still mired down in this to the point the word schism keeps emerging? A lack of trust has been clearly identified as a major problem within the United Methodist Church. I cannot help but wonder if that lack of trust originates in the fact that the Bishops themselves are not unified in their trust of General Conference. Just since GC2016 Bishops have shown two totally and completely different understandings of what needs to happen in the meantime while they are working on the commission. A liberal Bishop made this statement in a letter to his parishioners:

    “I do want you to know that we here in the Greater Northwest will continue to work for full inclusion in our church, even as the general church lags behind on this issue. The recent statement by the Pacific Northwest Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry acknowledging that they do not consider one’s sexuality as an indicator of ministerial effectiveness is truly indicative of our practice in this episcopal area.” http://greaternw.org/a-pastoral-letter-to-the-greater-northwest-area-from-bishop-grant-hagiya/.

    In contrast, two other Bishops are committed to upholding the Discipline as it is now written:

    “The bishops will uphold the discipline of the Church while these conversations continue.” http://www.bishopmikelowry.com/council-of-bishops-letter-to-the-church/

    And this is only one thing that divides us. So yes, I am most definitely praying for the commission and for them to humble themselves and lay everything on the table for examination so that they may come up with a consensus of what God is really telling us. It just may be something along these lines:

    “Don’t expect Jesus to save us by teaching us to depend on the things we are afraid of losing. He loves us too much to let our health, marriage or work [or doing church] become the savior of our lives. He will abandon every crusade that searches for salvation from anything other than God. So he delays, he watches as we race down dead-end streets, he lets our mission du jour crash and burn.”
    M. Craig Barnes, “When God Interrupts: Finding New Life in Unwanted Change”

    • Hi Betsy! Thanks for taking the time to comment. I think the General Conference has a very important role, but there are a couple things that come to mind for me, as the mistrust is incredibly deeply rooted in our sessions.
      1. The scheduling of petitions at General Conference. In 2012, we weren’t given a chance to vote on any of the petitions surrounding human sexuality because of a back-room compromise. I think this may be the greatest overstepping of boundaries by our episcopal leaders (not the authority to form a commission or to direct a conference in a specific way). I believe that there will continue to be maneuvers that keep us from voting on the issue at hand. It’s hard for us to trust a General Conference session to operate without incredible bias from every side and voice, and I think that will be an upward battle.
      2. The ability to hold bishops and annual conferences accountable to the decisions of General Conference. While the General Conference has the power to change the Book of DIscipline, we can’t force leaders/conferences to uphold it. The General Conference has definitely spoken for decades, it’s not working, and even if we think that people should trust the process (as you mentioned, and for the record, I think it’s a good process!) that is not happening.

      While the General Conference of the UMC continues to be our main voice, it is clear that what we are doing is not working. Our trust seems irreparable – especially in a two-week General Conference session – and that’s what led me to have some hope that a commission which brings together the most diverse voices could work (at least better than what we keep trying)!

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