General Conference: What happened and what does it mean??

I wonder if Acts 15 could happen in the Age of Twitter.

Christians disagreeing is not new. Christians meeting to discuss matters of disagreement is not new. It’s happened pretty much from the start.

The first members of the Church, the first people to be filled with the Holy Spirit were Jews. Members of God’s Chosen People. But then the Holy Spirit started filling Gentiles, too. Paul was sent as Apostle to the Gentiles, they converted and wanted to follow Jesus. And become members of the Church.

This didn’t sit well with the Jewish cohort in Jerusalem. So they convened a council to discuss how to approach this situation concerning Gentile converts.

They met in a room. They discussed all the theological, ecclesiological, and practical implications of this issue. And they came out an announced a plan to move forward. And the Church moved forward.

I wonder if that could happen in the Age of Twitter.

I support the Council of Bishops recommendations that were presented to General Conference this past week and were officially accepted by the legislative body. Let me elaborate by answering some general questions about what took place and what it means.

What happened?

For years now there has been a growing divide in the United Methodist Church over issues of human sexuality. The 2012 General Conference was painful to watch at times as these divisions grow deeper. Given all this, in the run up to the 2016 General Conference there were attempts to create an alternative system within General Conference to have these conversations. Many felt that we cannot have these conversations in the normal legislative process. Look what happened in 2012, they said. An alternative way of addressing these issues was devised, but ultimately failed to be adopted by the General Conference delegates.

On Tuesday, General Conference petitioned the Council of Bishops to not just preside, but to lead; General Conference requested the Bishops meet and come back to General Conference with a proposal and plan to move us forward. Wednesday morning, the bishops presented that plan. Wednesday evening the plan was accepted by General Conference.

That plan can be found here. Essentially the plan calls for the creation of a special commission who would be empowered to study the issue of human sexuality from all sides. They would be empowered to look at current language in the Book of Discipline and to rewrite it wholesale if necessary. The commission would be made up of people appointed be the Council of Bishops who would represent all perspectives and regions. If the commission completes their work prior to the 2020 General Conference, a special General Conference could be called in order to specifically address the commission’s work and recommendations.

What does this mean?

Part of this plan called for General Conference to defer all petitions and legislation regarding human sexuality to this commission. This means that the 2016 General Conference did not vote on specific pieces of legislation related to human sexuality.

Did they just kick this issue down the road a couple years? Yes. However, the Bishops and General Conference have also chosen to handle these issues in a way I feel is more responsible than another legislative floor fight watched and commented on by people both inside and outside the church. Simply put, I feel like the United Methodist Church is at an impasse, a log jam, on this issue and it is greatly and negatively impacting our public witness. In deferring these matters to a special commission, a space has been created where work could get done to move us past this log jam together. Away from the judging eyes of Twitter, perhaps another Acts 15 moment is possible.

This is why I am for the Bishops’ recommendations. Because they represent to me a new hope for a united way forward that the legislative process of General Conference was never going to offer.

What happens in the meantime? Simply put, we wait. We wait in the same anxious position the United Methodist Church has been in since the 2012 General Conference.

Why not just split already?

Finally, I want to end with this question. For some, denominational schism is inevitable. For some, we have simply become too divided, too entrenched, too different to stay together. And as I watched General Conference play out this week on the livestream and on Twitter, I too questioned the likelihood of sustained unity. So why are we doing all this work? Why are we going to all this trouble to stay together? Why are we going to spend so much time and money to try to come to an arrangement when it would just be easier to go our separate ways?

The United Methodist Church is more than just a loose confederation of local churches. It’s more than just a collection of churches that get together to pay for a bloated bureaucracy. At the General Church level there are several boards and agencies that are engaged in global ministry at a level that no single church or small collection of churches could accomplish.

The United Methodist Committee On Relief (UMCOR) is a worldwide emergency relief organization whose effectiveness rivals groups like the Red Cross. Their overhead costs are paid for through the General Church budget so that 100% of every dollar you donate to UMCOR goes directly to helping people affected by natural disasters.

United Methodist general boards and agencies provide millions of dollars annually to provide higher education to African students through Africa University and to provide theological education to African who want to become pastors.

The General Board of Discipleship (now Discipleship Ministries) prints a daily devotional read by countless people and published in 78 languages called The Upper Room. They also provide leadership resources to help train and develop new leaders in our local churches.

The United Methodist Publishing House (Abingdon Press and Cokesbury) develop curriculum for children, youth, and adult bible studies, Sunday school classes, and Vacation Bible School.

The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry provides guidance and scholarships to people trying to follow God’s call into vocational ministry.

These are just a few of the things that our general boards and agencies do that allows the United Methodist Church to be engaged in ministry throughout the world. If the denomination splits, what would happen to these boards and agencies? If not eliminated entirely, certainly their effectiveness would be drastically impacted.

Working hard to hold the United Methodist Church together isn’t striving to save a dying institution or about maintaining a bloated bureaucracy. It’s about ensuring that African students have access to higher education. It’s about being able to respond when an earthquake cripples a city in a developing nation. It’s about deepening people’s relationships with Jesus Christ through daily devotionals. It’s about equipping local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

It’s about staying connected because together we can do amazing, miraculous things like cutting the worldwide malaria deaths in half. (That’s not a dream, we did that in 2015)

Surprisingly enough incredible and incredibly important work happened at General Conference over the past ten days. What is perhaps not surprising is that the good things did not receive nearly the attention as the fighting. United together, the United Methodist Church can do miracles, with God’s help. My hope and prayer is that God can do a miracle through us and we’ll find a way to stay together.

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