UMNS Photo by Kathleen Barry
Divina Castilla, reserve delegate from East Mindanao Philippines and Willy Vargas, delegate from Bicol Provisional, prepare to vote on the proposed church restructuring May 2 during the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. They're using handheld wireless electronic voting devices to record their votes.
Confession: Sometimes I feel like one of the things that United Methodists are best at is shallow optimism. In looking at the events of our most recent General Conference, I am not sure I am willing to put a positive spin on things, or accept the attempts some made in the immediate aftermath of General Conference to put it in a positive light. While I can certainly understand why delegates would want to find meaning in the way that they have poured themselves out over the last two weeks, I’m not sure we have much to be proud of. I’m not sure anybody won. And I’m pretty sure The United Methodist Church lost. And yet I sense that people are already putting a positive spin on things. Something about the catharsis of a stressful ten day meeting ending seems to make people feel better about the meeting itself, even in the face of the apparent evidence.
For my part, I wish we could be honest: we are sick and we do not appear to have the necessary resources to heal ourselves.
There were many ways our inability to heal ourselves was illustrated during the meeting in Tampa, FL, but none display the communal brokenness more clearly than efforts around restructuring the church. Coming into this General Conference, there seemed to be widespread recognition that the denomination was at a crossroads. We are in serious decline and the time to act is now, lest it be too late to make meaningful change. I may have missed it, but I do not recall hearing or reading any arguments that suggested that everything is great and there is no reason to worry. So, people of good will and gifted ability invested countless hours and resources in trying to identify ways forward and make the case for the necessity of the agreed upon way forward. The results are before us and they give us no grounds for having hope in ourselves.
The General Administration committee was so divided that it voted down every single substantive proposal that was before it and did not bring anything to the floor of General Conference.
A heroic effort was made to bring a compromise plan directly to the floor of General Conference. A compromise was hammered out and brought to the full conference. It passed, though few seemed very enthusiastic about it. The general idea, among those who voted for it, was that something was better than nothing.
And then, halfway through the last day, Judicial Council announced that the plan was unconstitutional and unsalvageable.
During the dinner break, another heroic effort was made to find a way forward. The final proposal was tabled, never to be retrieved.
Look, I was not in Tampa. So I may be missing something. And I mean no disrespect whatsoever to those who poured themselves out for so many days. I believe that each person at General Conference took their job as a delegate with utmost seriousness and I am grateful for their work. I believe men and women were scratching and clawing, trying to find a way forward, trying to do something to turn this thing around. But it does not look like that happened.
I am almost embarrassed by how closely I followed this General Conference. I even made my students in all three undergraduate classes I am teaching this quarter watch part of a session live.
One of the things that continues to amaze me is how wide a disconnect their sometimes seemed to be between what actually happened as the result of a conference and what we act like happened.
At Methodist Conferences, I am often reminded of the children’s story with the emperor who has no clothes on. You know the one. It is pretty straightforward, the emperor has no clothes on, but everyone tries really hard not to notice. Sometimes we put so much effort into putting our best face on things that it feels like we are saying that decline is a sign of vitality, that spiritual malaise is a sign of holiness, and that mistrust and division are reasons for a hopeful future.
When I am the closest to Jesus, I am the most aware that I cannot do in myself what God in Christ wants to do in me. I have found that growth in my life is usually related to my awareness of my own brokenness and my need for salvation. I cannot save myself.
From where I sit, in sackcloth and ashes, it sure looks to me like what is happening in the church that I deeply love is not a new thing being done in the name of the Lord, but walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Does anyone really think that all is well in The United Methodist Church? Is this what spiritual vitality looks like? In our present state, do we resemble the Body of Christ? The harder we try to whip ourselves into a frenzy and pretend that everything is great and that God is doing a new thing in our midst, the more it feels to me like The United Methodist Church has no clothes on.
And from my perspective, the worst possible news would be that this is what health looks like!
When I look at The United Methodist Church, I do not know what God is up to. I am pretty sure that collectively, despite our best individual efforts, we are making a mess of things.
We cannot save ourselves. Based on the results of our best efforts, we have no basis for hope.
There is always hope in Christ, individually and for The Church. But I don’t know what God’s will is for our part of The Church. I hope that better days are coming. But I wonder if there is more of a role for lament, for weeping, and for repentance than we are currently making room for. I wonder if the most appropriate posture that we could have in the wake of General Conference is one of confession and repentance. I wonder if we need to be silent and weep instead of trying to wrap a pretty bow on what was a pretty disappointing meeting.
Early in this General Conference, someone said “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.” If that is true, the 2012 General Conference should teach us that “it” isn’t going to be, because we can’t pull it off. If we learn nothing else, may God help us to turn away from self-reliance and self-confidence and turn toward the living God, who brings life after death.
God, help us! We cannot help ourselves.
The Rev. Kevin Watson teaches Historical Theology and Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of A Blueprint for Discipleship: Wesley's General Rules as a Guide for Christian Living.