Photo Courtesy of Laurie Haller
A "detour" sign in Glasgow, Scotland led Laurie Haller onto a movie set pretending to be Philadelphia.
Stressed-out in Tampa? No way! What’s there not to like about this fun-loving city of sun, warmth, water, and Busch Gardens? In two weeks thousands of United Methodists will descend upon the Tampa Convention Center for our 2012 General Conference. While the vast majority of our time will be spent inside in meetings, I haven’t heard a peep from anyone who isn’t thrilled about being in Tampa.
Yet just two months ago Sterling BestPlaces, a research firm specializing in livability rankings, released its report of the 50 most stressful cities (including suburbs) in which to live in the United States. Guess which city is the most stressed-out in the country? Tampa. In fact, 5 of the 10 most stressful cities are in Florida.
The Sterling team used the following criteria to determine the stress levels of our cites: divorce rate, commute time, unemployment, violent crime, property crime, suicides, alcohol consumption, mental health, sleep troubles, and the annual number of cloudy days. Consider these distressing stats for Tampa.
- Divorce rate: 12.3 percent
- Commute time in minutes: 28.3
- Unemployment: 11.2 percent
- Violent crime per 100,000 population: 500
- Property crime per 100,000 population: 3,387.2
- Suicides per 100,000 population: 15.5
Tampa isn’t as “sunny” as we thought, as Sterling researchers report that Florida residents are more likely to report feelings of stress, depression, and emotional problems, in addition to the high unemployment and crime rates. Tampa is in the 97th percentile for suicides.
How will General Conference contribute to the stress level of the city of Tampa? This is my fourth General Conference, and I sense that the anxiety in our denomination is at a record high. The good news is that we are finally facing the reality of our decline. We are determined to make whatever changes are necessary to restore our vitality and health so that we can make disciples and transform our world. Discerning exactly what those changes should be is the present locus of our stress. So much is at stake: massive restructuring, the proposal to eliminate guaranteed appointments, the possibility of a non-residential bishop, the challenge of becoming a global church. How will the Holy Spirit guide us through this maze of options?
Will we make a positive difference in Tampa or use the city for our own purposes...? Will we be a witness to God’s love or mere amusement for the locals? Will our grace and gratitude bless the city, or will the diversion of our demanding presence create more stress for Tampa?
In the midst of our own stress, how are we going to act and, perhaps more important, how are we going to be in the midst of this most stressed-out city in America? While visiting Glasgow, Scotland, last summer I discovered that a few square blocks of the downtown were blocked off to traffic, with big signs that said around, I soon realized that something was amiss. The street signs said, “Arch Street,” “Broad Street,” “I-676”, and “JFK Boulevard.” I wondered, “Where have I seen those signs before?” Then I noticed police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, and taxis that were definitely not Scottish. The street banners said, “Philadelphia Museum of Art.”
It finally dawned on me. They must be shooting a movie that is meant to take place in Philadelphia, which is near my childhood home. Sure enough, Brad Pitt and a cast and crew of 1,200 were in town for the filming of a post-apocalyptic movie about zombies. World War Z will be released this Christmas. Look for me!
World War Z created quite a buzz in Glasgow. The movie studio chose Glasgow over Philadelphia because the film was cheaper to produce. Everyone enjoyed the diversion, the city was paid handsomely, and all was back to normal in a few weeks.
How are the citizens of Tampa going to react to the diversion that the United Methodists will create for 2 weeks? Will we be a curiosity? Will we bring joy to local hotels and restaurants whose coffers will fill with United Methodist dollars? Will the citizens of Tampa be blessed by our patience and good manners? Will the convention center workers be touched by the respect and honor that we show to those with whom we disagree and spread the news, “See how they love each other?” Will the city of Tampa experience calm and peace during those 2 weeks, as United Methodists around the world bathe the delegates and the entire city in prayer?
It’s not too late for our delegates to prepare to be gracious guests as well as engage each other in the legislative process. Will we turn outward and find a way to embrace the city of Tampa, or will we retreat for 11 days and obsess about ourselves? Will we make a positive difference in Tampa or use the city for our own purposes, as the filmmakers did in Glasgow? Will we be a witness to God’s love or mere amusement for the locals? Will our grace and gratitude bless the city, or will the diversion of our demanding presence create more stress for Tampa?
Some may think that our relationship with Tampa is minor compared to the magnitude of the decisions that delegates will make on behalf of our denomination. However, I would argue that how we relate to this most stressed-out city in the United States speaks volumes (maybe as much as the 2,355 pages of Volumes 1 and 2 of the Advance Edition Daily Christian Advocate) about who we are and the integrity of this General Conference.
Consider Sunday, April 29, our only day off at General Conference. Delegates have a wonderful opportunity to become acquainted with the city of Tampa and find a way to give back, even if only for a few hours. I receive a dozen emails a day about how to vote on this, that, and the other petition, but I’ve heard nary a word about how we can become salt, light, leaven, seeds, and hope for the city of Tampa.
It’s not too late to make April 29 one of the most significant days of our General Conference. How can we make a difference in Tampa on that day? After all, we have great models in ReThink Church and Change the World events. Is it possible for 988 delegates and an expected 2,500 visitors to fan out to area churches, especially in the inner city? Will those who are able have opportunities for mission and service? Can we give up lunch that day and use the money to help a local soup kitchen? Dare we perform 3,488 random acts of kindness? Sign me up!
If the General Conference cannot find a way to incarnate Christ’s love in this stressed-out city, what does that say about our denomination? Could our lack of foresight, inability, or unwillingness to relate to the city of Tampa be a metaphor for the loss of vitality and health in the United Methodist connection? Are we inadvertently modeling the paralyzing anxiety that results in local churches turning in on themselves when stressed about their future?
In my ministry as a district superintendent, I have discovered that the most vital congregations are those that have found a way to reach out and serve their community. Their outreach and mission are intimately wrapped up in their unique context, which, in turn, fosters life, health, and hope for both church and community. Yet not one of the 16 drivers of vitality in the Call to Action relates to missional engagement in the community. Is it a coincidence that no opportunities have yet been advertised on the General Conference web site for service and outreach in Tampa?
- I am not interested in being a diversion in Tampa. I want to be a disciple-maker.
- I don’t want to live in my air-conditioned, insulated world in the Tampa Convention Center. I yearn to experience the reality of daily life on the streets outside because that connection will help me make better decisions inside.
- I don’t want to magnify a city’s stress. I want to be a catalyst for justice, love, laughter, and shalom, even if only for part of a day.
- I don’t want the intensity of our dialogue to turn us into zombies who create World War GC in the Tampa Convention Center. I want to be a servant and bring hope to the darkest corners of this city and our world.
The people of Tampa are watching us. The people in our local churches, from the rural farming church, to the Hispanic-Latino inner city mission, to the suburban megachurch, to the North Katanga, Mindanao Filipino, and Estonian churches, are watching us. United Methodists around the world are watching us by live streaming, Facebook, Twitter, and other means of communication that were unimaginable just 4 years ago. They all wonder: Are we who we say we are?
Is General Conference 2012 committed to making all things new through the power of Christ’s resurrection? I believe so. Each delegate is prepared, diligent, prayerful, and open to God’s leading for such a time as this. As we give ourselves away to the world and the city of Tampa, the anxiety will fly away as well, for we know who holds the future. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Laurie Haller is superintendent of the Grand Rapids District of the West Michigan Annual Conference. This essay is reprinted from her blog with permission.