Maxie Dunnam's Reflections From General Conference

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In the aftermath of General Conference 2012, the Church continues to sort through reflections from the the gathering. Today we feature the insight of Maxie DunnamAs Dunnam explores the happenings of the Conference, he concludes with, what he says, is the key to revitalizing the local church. Dunnam was the President of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1994 to 2004 and is currently the Senior Pastor Emeritus of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which has more than 6,000 members. Dunnam writes:

The church is terribly dysfunctional.

The General Conference demonstrated this dramatically. In all my years attending General Conference, I have never experienced such a level of distrust among us. A huge portion of this distrust seemed to be focused on leadership, our bishops and our program boards.

This was witnessed to, by the move to institute term episcopacy. For the first time in my five General Conferences, a petition not to elect bishops for life, but for terms, got on the floor of the legislative plenary, and the vote was about 50/50.

Distrust was also witnessed to, by our inability to determine a new structure that might be more effective for our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  The structural plan brought to the Conference by a “blue-ribbon” task force of bishops and outstanding national lay and clergy leaders did not get traction. One reason for the failure was that many thought it was lodging too much power in a few and not all constituencies of the church were represented “at the table.” A substitute plan didn’t make it because it didn’t give enough prominence to leadership by our bishops, and many thought that the Commissions that deal with women and ethnic issues were being denuded of power.

A compromise plan for structure was brought late in the conference, and it was approved but then was ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council. So, we basically came away from the Conference as we went in — with a structure that is top heavy and cumbersome. Thus, my contention is that our structure does not lend itself to revitalization of local congregations where “the action is.” In fact, the structure may restrict revitalization. I am not far along in my thinking about this issue but there is no way for the Church to continue with any degree of Kingdom Witness as it is presently going. We seem to have forgotten that the Holy Spirit gave birth to the Church, therefore, we must “tarry” in prayer, waiting on guidance from and intervention and empowerment by the Holy Spirit.

Theology and doctrine matter.

The General Conference clearly witnessed to a divided church along with a dysfunctional structure. As previous official unity task forces have concluded, homosexuality is the presenting divisive issue.  The Conference held to the position of the Church that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Though much “sound and fury” surrounded that issue, the division is deeper. Fundamentally, the issue is the authority of Scripture, the exclusive claims of the gospel in tension with an ideological system that seemingly makes inclusiveness redemptive within itself.

The hope of the United Methodist Church rests in it becoming a movement again. Movements begin at grass root levels. The local congregation is where the movemental dynamic must begin. I believe, then, that we must focus on the revitalizing of theology, clarifying and enhancing the Methodist/Wesleyan accent for the revitalization of the local church.

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Maxie D. Dunnam is the former president and chancellor of Asbury Theological Seminary. He is now Senior Pastor Emeritus and Executive Director of CCGlobal at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis.

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