United Methodist News Service Photo by Mike DuBose
Despite prayers and encouragement to change decision-making processes, politics still rules the United Methodist General Conference.
Now that we've all been spanked by Bishop John Hopkins for having confused the Council of Bishops' Call to Action with the Connectional Table's restructure proposal and the myriad other "adaptive challenges" being thrown around The United Methodist Church, perhaps it's time to throw a little unholy reality on the sacred fire.
First, a shout out to Bishop Hopkins for trying to dismantle the organic relationships among the Call to Action, Vital Congregations, the schemes of the Interim Operations Team, the Connectional Table's restructure proposal, the Ministry Study and all the other winged monkeys flying about amidst fear for the UMC's future. Considering that nobody bothered to try to unpack these clearly related proposals until the heat got turned up at the Pre-General Conference Briefing, we can suppose that now we're meant to be grateful for having been enlightened from On High. (BTW, that was unholy sarcasm, in case you missed it).
Now let's hear a voice from the Land of Actual Political Knowledge, or realpolitik. One of the well-placed but politically vulnerable sources who confide in UM Insight has made the following prognostications on the fate of the CT restructure and possibly other change proposals as well. Some of the political straws blowin' in the wind:
1) Most delegates (at least the US-based ones) are "pro-change," but haven't a clue as to what those changes should be. Most ideas for change reflect more easily accomplished administrative messing about, rather than the hard, deep-down, soul-searching work to elicit common values and live by them. As leadership scholar Ronald Heifetz has written, it is the latter work of culture shaping that must occur before any technical changes are pursued.
2) For most General Conference insiders, the CT legislation serves to open up a whole bunch of paragraphs in the Book of Discipline (the UMC's collection of doctrine and policies) so that delegates can write the "real" restructure proposals in the General Administration legislative committee.
3) Other proposals submitted as legislation are political non-starters, even the eminently sensible plan put forth by MFSA et al. Without divine intervention, expect all these grassroots ideas to be crushed under the insiders' juggernaut, notwithstanding any high-sounding leadership language of "giving the work back to the people."
4) Several additional proposals (not submitted as legislation) are in the works and will be floated in the General Administration legislative committee. Jay Brim, legislative chair for the Connectional Table, already has confirmed one such alternative effort to UM Insight.
5) The final restructuring proposal that comes to General Conference for a vote will look vastly different from the CT proposal. It will be the product of intense negotiations among a very small, select group of ecclesiastical oligarchs -- the United Methodist equivalent of a political smoke-filled room.
6) No one among the many ad hoc groups advocating for a totally different focus, such as trying actual Christian spiritual formation rather than a corporate business plan with performance metrics, will be part of the select group that decides the future of the denomination. The insiders still rule.
7) Add to these a fearless forecast from UM Insight: Expect the UMC to continue to be US-based in its governance. Despite numerical decline in the USA and numerical rise in Africa, America is still where the church's money and power reside. Ain't nobody willin' to give that up, to use the vernacular. The rest of the world may have to pry equitable governance out of the US church's cold, dead fingers -- provided the Central Conferences haven't gone their own ways by then.
We freely acknowledge that these scenarios in no way represent "holy conferencing." However, they are entirely in line with more reality-based questions raised by several people during the Pre-General Conference Briefing last month in Tampa.
Make no mistake: We still pray that the delegates will rise to the higher, holier level of actually conferencing during the April 24-May 4 assemby to discern God's will for the worldwide denomination. Nonetheless, we are compelled to acknowledge that political realities -- evidence of the collective sinful nature that afflicts all human organization -- still propel the UMC's decision-making process.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a word of both judgment and grace. The judgment upon The United Methodist Church is that it has yet to learn it must lose its current life of political machinations and corporate mindset in order to gain a life as an authentic channel of God's unconditional love for the world. Grace will come if General Conference delegates who are not part of the "in crowd" humble themselves collectively to discern and act upon God's will for the denomination.