"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way..." -- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
This could describe the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church. There's been a lot of anxiety over what we accomplished but maybe more anxiety over what we didn't.
The Call to Action received some major support by some heavy hitters in United Methodism. A lot of bishops put their stamp of approval on it. Rev. Adam Hamilton spoke out for it before and during General Conference. He even showed a video interviewing a woman who was closing her church. The implication was that this is where all our churches are heading if we don't get it together.
It was stated by Rev. Hamilton as well as many others that what we do with the structure of the General Agencies really won't make or break the denomination. The future lies at the local church level. These moments of clarity didn't subdue our anxiety though.
I'm wondering if the fact that the majority of our leadership is coming from the Baby Boomer generation makes a difference in the level of anxiety. They've always had the biggest numbers and they may be concerned about their legacy. But schools have closed due to changing population dynamics and churches are now experiencing some of the same.
The Call to Action failed to secure enough ground support to pass. And yet there was a great pressure to change due to the impending population shift within our denomination. Basically, we have aged as a people. The majority of our churches are old. Everyone's looking ahead ten or twenty years and all we can see is tumbleweeds blowing around our sanctuaries.
Plans to change our structure abounded. The Methodist Federation for Social Action was the first group to fire a shot across the bow with their own plan. Then a collection of lay and clergy largely from the Southeastern Jurisdiction put forward Plan B.
None of these passed through the General Administration committee. Those serving on other committees seemed to be shocked that no new plan passed and would be presented with majority support. Derogatory comments were made about the committee members as if they were less holy or intelligent than the rest of us for not being able to get something -- anything -- passed.
The set-aside bishop did not pass (more distrust of our bishops) but guaranteed appointments were done away with (distrust of the competency of our clergy as well as our laity - where do we think clergy come from in the first place?).
A hybrid Plan UMC was thrown together and brought to the floor of General Conference (we suspended the rules to do so). It passed with a strange feeling among the delegation. No one was really happy with the plan and yet the anxiety generated leading up to the General Conference left many feeling that we needed to do something (even if we weren't really sure what we were passing).
Then the Judicial Council ruled Plan UMC unconstitutional and we had to scramble. We passed the original General Agency proposals to restructure their own bodies. Not as sweeping but it did cut the budget to what our projected income would bear over the next four years.
The feeling leaving General Conference was unusual. For the first time, legislation was left on the table without seeing debate on the floor. The current structure stayed basically intact. We didn't add any over-site to the General Agencies which didn't help the mistrust of them (which may be a carry-over of the distrust of big government by the US delegates).
There's been a lot of blog posts lamenting our lack of movement. There's been a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth. I'm not sure why anyone who's studied systems theory was surprised. This was a demonstration of the main tenet:
Systems resist change.
We saw the same thing in 2008 when the Worldwide Nature of the Church proposals passed General Conference (barely) and then failed to secure the two-thirds support needed by the annual conferences.
We see that change is needed by the population dynamics but we are unable to agree on what that change should look like. And yet change will come.
It will likely come at the ground level. Churches will learn to successfully share the gospel with a changing society and they will grow or they won't and they will close. Unfortunately, there will be more closings than growth. But we will survive.
And this will facilitate change.
We may have forgotten that God is a part of this process. We believe that God precedes us wherever we go. That includes what we do as a denomination.
I shared a devotion with our Annual Conference Council leading up to General Conference. It was about when Elijah thought he was the only faithful one. Then God informed him that there were 7,000 faithful subjects left (which indicates the perfect number left to accomplish God's designs). Elijah remembered that something larger than himself was a part of the change.
He learned to trust in God and not worry.
A Tale of Two Cities ends with revolution but it also ends with sacrifice for the greater good. If we can learn to trust in what Christ has taught us about this, we will be fine.
The church will look different but that is to be expected.
We're better off leading out of confidence rather than anxiety.
It is a confidence that God is out in front which really is the best of times.