UMNS Photo by Kathleen Barry
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Visitor Janet Gollery McKeithen uses her iPad to record images of the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. McKeithen is from Santa Monica, CA.
The 2012 General Conference ended in legislative disarray, but in the broader tide of change it marks a major tipping point for The United Methodist Church. Future church historians will study the 2012 session as the last stand of 20th century theology and practice, and the beginnings of a 21st century faith community.
However, the new United Methodist Church will look nothing like any of the structure plans presented at the April 24-May 4 sessions in Tampa, Fla. Everything about the way United Methodism operates institutionally and spiritually is now undergoing ground-up change. Despite studies, plans and protestations to the contrary, no one has any real clue what's about to happen to the denomination. About the only way to get a handle on the change now sweeping through the UMC is to examine its propelling forces:
- Widespread use of personal technology;
- Grassroots social networks aided by the aforementioned technology and arising from failure of 20th-century institutions;
- Rise of a global identity, including U.S. young adults;
- Recognizable action of God's Holy Spirit, which arrived at General Conference in the form of a unanimous Judicial Council decision declaring Plan UMC unconstitutional.
Widespread use of personal technology. One has only to look at the many excellent photographs produced by United Methodist News Service photographers to realize how significant a role technology played for the first time at the 2012 General Conference. Unlike the 2008 session when use of mobile phones and laptops was banned from the bar of the conference (the cordoned-off area where delegates work and vote), the assembly wisely allowed all forms of technology in the plenary hall.
Hardly a delegate or an observer was without a mobile phone, a smartphone, an iPad, a digital camera/video recorder, or a laptop computer. In addition, United Methodist Communications turned in a stellar performance with a General Conference website that provided news reports, blogs, Twitter and Facebook feeds, live video streaming and the aforementioned still photographs, transmitted via the image-sharing website Flickr.
The results of all this technology are twofold.
First, those present captured for their future study all the topics and moments important to them. Each equipped delegate or observer became a firsthand reporter of General Conference proceedings. These citizen journalists have taken their personal accounts directly back to their constituents in annual conferences and local congregations. The debates, discussions and actions of General Conference are having an immediate effect on the lives of annual conferences and local congregations, and there's no way to tell the eventual results.
Secondly, official General Conference proceedings were immediately available to the folks back home through Internet video streaming. Grassroots United Methodists who before cared hardly a whit previously about the churchwide assembly watched the legislative process live this year. Everything about the sole body that speaks for the entire denomination was laid bare for any United Methodist with access to the Internet, and the images of those interactions weren't pretty. The cognitive dissonance between the high-sounding words of worship and the factionalism that resulted in a consistent series of 60-40 percent votes are but one example of how dysfunctional the denomination's global congress has become.
What's more, grassroots church members are realizing that the General Conference does not speak for them at many respective points along the faith journey. They long for a structure that places less emphasis on political models and more on spiritual discernment. This especially holds true for the 40 percent of delegates – a sizable minority – whom many think represent far more United Methodists than the highly manipulated delegate election process allows. This new knowledge leads to the second major result.
Grassroots social networks outside official United Methodist channels. Arising from the obvious failure of 20th-century decision-making institutions, United Methodist grassroots leaders formed new social networks even before General Conference adjourned.
The most active Twitter conversation before and during the 2012 session was #gc2012, in which reports, questions and comments on the proceedings appeared within seconds of a real-time action. While frustration occasionally gave way to snark, by and large the Twitterers conducted themselves with civility. Succeeding this conversation is a new discussion, #dreamUMC, which began its formal association with a Tweetchat on May 14. Two young clergy who organized the event, the Revs. Becca Clark and Jeremy Smith, reported that more than 1,200 participants took part.
Over at Facebook, similar conversations that took place before General Conference have evolved into new discussion boards. The grandmother of these, United Methodist Church, continues to operate, but a new group, Vaguely Progressive United Methodists, emerged in the week after the 2012 session ended. VPUMs started out discussing the loss of guaranteed appointment for United Methodist clergy, but it wasn't long before the conversation opened to many UMC topics.
Make no mistake: While their virtual nature seems inauthentic to longtime church members, social networks will have major influence henceforth on The United Methodist Church. Wise denominational leaders will start now to find ways to incorporate their vital information into the UMC's institutional workings. A good example is the May 12 blog post of M. Garlinda Burton, general secretary of the General Commission on Status and Role of Women, on how her agency will incorporate the positive and negative feedback gained at General Conference. Ms. Burton, who got her start in religious communications, has emerged as one of the denomination's wisest leaders. Another is the denomination's top communicator, the Rev. Larry Hollon, executive of United Methodist Communications, whose blog posts disclose a devotion to transparent church governance and a global perspective. These and other leaders "got" both text and subtext of the 2012 General Conference. Their insights will prove invaluable as the church moves forward.
Rise of a global UMC identity. If anything good could be said about the Call to Action/Connectional Table debacle, it's the rise of influence and authority for delegates outside the United States. African and Filipino delegates in particular served notice that they will no longer be the pawns of political games among U.S. church factions. Prickly as they were to both delegates and observers, each clash of culture and language was a moment to be celebrated because it marked the maturing of The United Methodist Church into a truly global denomination.
Young adults from around the world, where the average age is around 26 years, can be grouped in this global rise as well. The Young People's Conference provided the rules for holy conferencing that were used by the 2012 General Conference. U.S. young adults in particular found their voices at this year's session, and those voices proved both wise and passionate. These young adults repeatedly proved that they are leaders of the church today, not tomorrow, and that they deserve the same respect and authority granted to their elders.
Action of God's Holy Spirit. When the Judicial Council decision invalidating Plan UMC as unconstitutional was announced around 4 o'clock on May 4, more than one observer remarked: "The Holy Spirit just descended on General Conference." Besides that fact that a unanimous ruling on such a major issue is a rare and stunning event, the Judicial Council's unequivocal rejection of Plan UMC as irredeemable had a Pentecost effect on the assembly. The emotional force first struck delegates and observers speechless, and then caused them to speak vociferously in their own languages in ways that everyone present could understand.
The more spiritually attuned delegates kept returning to that momentous decision as some leaders made a last-ditch effort to carry forward with Plan UMC. Once again, Africans and Filipinos kept pointedly asking the leadership why they were attempting to resurrect a structure that the Judicial Council had ruled unsalvageable. In the end, the Holy Spirit's influence prevailed, and thanks to prior efforts of general agencies, the UMC retained its existing denominational structure with vastly reduced numbers.
Delegates and observers marked well the spiritual power behind Plan UMC's downfall and other less flamboyant soul-stirring moments. Examples among them: large numbers of delegates, observers and even some bishops wearing rainbow stoles signifying full inclusion; a smallish but regular stream of visitors to the prayer room even though it was located inconveniently; and constant participation in daily Eucharist held at lunchtime on the Tampa Convention Center's channel-side portico.
These and other happenings bear out the contention of many devoted United Methodists that what ails their beloved church is a spiritual issue, not structure, money or institutional viability. In-breaking signs of God's Holy Spirit working through the 2012 General Conference give credence to assertions that United Methodists should attend to deeper spiritual disciplines in order to perceive correctly what God wants, not what humans desire, for The United Methodist Church in the 21st century.
If the Apostle Paul is correct in his assertion that God can use any happening in human life to work God's will for the world's salvation (Romans 8:28), then surely the church should embrace the change forces that have emerged from the 2012 General Conference. As the wise rabbi Gamaliel said of fledgling Christianity in Acts 5:34-39, if these forces are of God, they will thrive; if they are not, they will wither. Therefore, contending against them could put the UMC in the position of opposing God's will for its prosperous future as part of the body of Christ.