Here is another E-pistle with my reflections on General Conference. Again, if you are not interested, just hit your “delete” button.

During the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, several groups found their “voice” and spoke often and powerfully. Among those groups were:

  1. Young clergy and young adult lay leaders found their voice. Much of that was through Twitter and other social media, but also on the floor of Conference and by speaking about their issues. Although our UMC still needs to add young leaders, they were present at GC in greater numbers than previously and they found their voice.
  2. Central Conference delegates – especially from Africa – found their voice. We have all wanted our UMC to be more of a global church, and now it is becoming such. That means we have growing numbers of delegates from around the world, and they seemed more willing to speak up and to be heard at this General Conference.
  3. Pastors of large membership churches found their voice. People like Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter were present, speaking, and leading at General Conference. Whereas sometimes in the past pastors of large membership churches have stayed home or worked in the background, this time they were front and center.
  4. Individual delegates found their voice. This General Conference, more than any I have seen previously, was the year of individual persons speaking often, cleverly as they used parliamentary procedure, and loudly as they actually shouted and waved to be heard. Whereas some previous General Conferences have been dominated by a few key leaders speaking often on issues, GC 2012 was characterized by lots and lots of individuals demanding to speak on nearly every issue.

I applaud the fact that groups and persons listed above found their voice. Part of the beauty of General Conference and our United Methodist polity is that we allow and encourage participation. Even though we have an Episcopal form of church government, we reflect the values of the early U.S. government structures in the ways we provide for democratic voting and participation.

Now for the bad news: when people find their voice, they also have to learn to use their voices wisely. As I reflect on the groups and individuals listed above, here is my own perspective on the challenge they face to use their voices wisely:

  1. Young clergy and young leaders need to use their voices in ways that are less cynical and critical and more positive and hopeful. I was young once and I still have enough cynicism to appreciate their desire to express those feelings, but I hope that our younger leaders can use their voices to speak to their hopes, desires, and dreams – and not just to dismiss with cynicism the efforts of us older folks. We need to hear the voices of our young leaders, but their voices will become shrill if they don’t move from complaints to constructive proposals. I was especially concerned by the way some younger leaders treated people like Adam Hamilton. Perhaps jealousy was at work, but Adam has proven his love for Christ and the Church in ways that deserve more respect than he received from many young leaders.
  2. Our Central Conference delegates, and especially our African delegates, need to use their voices to say more than “No.” It became obvious that the Africans arrived with a determination to vote against large changes in our UMC structure, Social Principles, or anything else that they considered “surrendering to American culture.” Perhaps the Africans were coached by various caucus groups to vote that way – if so, that is another form of “colonialism” which needs to be changed. I hope that in future General Conferences, we can hear the voice of our African delegates expressing their “Yes” to the issues important to them. There is so much that the American church can learn from Africa, but we need their voice to be more than just “No.”
  3. Our large membership church leaders and other denominational leaders who proposed various changes need to keep offering their voices, but they also need to hear that their proposals can sound presumptuous. Being the leader of a large congregation, a large agency, or a large corporation does not necessarily make one an expert about what is best for everyone. Persons from other experiences of “church” also have a lot to offer, so I hope that leaders will listen while they lead.
  4. While I welcome our democratic processes and the ways we value individual speeches and input at General Conference, our individual delegates need to learn the discipline of offering words when words are most helpful. A little more dignity in the process, with a lot less yelling for the floor, would help, too. I realize that our room arrangement at General Conference really worked against civil discourse (it was arranged more like a long bowling alley where the presiding bishops could not see delegates in the back), and clearly the attempt to sit around tables was a problem because it increased the size of the “bar of the conference” unnecessarily. Still, many individuals seemed to want the floor to speak and make points that had already been made many times, rather than choosing wisely when and how to speak.

I offer these comments not in any way to reduce or quiet those voices, but just to reflect that we are at an awkward stage in the life of our UMC where we want more voices, but we all have to learn and how best to use our voices. At least that was my perspective from the “potted plants” that we bishops are asked to be. I wonder when and how the General Conference in the future will find ways to invite the voices of bishops to be more helpful in the process. For now, we sit and watch, without voice or vote. Reflections like this one are about the only way we can give voice to what we observe and learn at General Conference. I yearn for a day when all voices will be heard, offered wisely, and valued.