I leave this Wednesday for Portland, Oregon, to attend the meeting of the Council of Bishops ahead of General Conference, and then I will stay through General Conference and not return home until May 21st. It is a long time to be gone, and it is also an experience, as a bishop, of being "set aside" at General Conference with no voice or vote. I will have responsibilities behind the scenes as President of GCFA (the General Council on Finance and Administration) to work with GCFA and CT (Connectional Table) to resolve any budget adjustments or issues that arise from actions of the General Conference. Other than that, we bishops sit on the stage like potted plants with no leadership roles – except for some participation in worship, some bishops will be preaching, and of course some bishops are selected to preside during the sessions. Otherwise, we bishops have no real role in the General Conference, so we do try to provide some pastoral care and encouragement.
It is truly strange how we bishops are "set aside" during General Conference. Imagine any other organization in the world which would set aside its global leaders and not ask for their input and wisdom!
So, I am going to take the risk of sharing what I would say if the General Conference were to ask for my advice. Here is my unsolicited advice:
- Keep the main thing the main thing – and that is our mission of "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." General Conference so easily gets distracted by the concerns and issues of many people and groups, but what our UMC needs is for the General Conference to stay focused upon our mission.
- Make all decisions in a Christ-like manner. In some ways it is more important HOW we make decisions than the actual decisions we make. I have attended General Conferences since I was first a clergy delegate in 1980, and I have been appalled by the behavior, language, and attitude of many persons during the past few General Conferences. Common courtesy and respect for one another have been lost, and those who are already planning to disturb and interfere with the work of General Conference should realize that they actually damage their witness when they engage in such behaviors.
- Don't be afraid to adopt statements or proposals which acknowledge our disagreements and lack of unity on difficult issues. Everyone knows we have such disagreements and divisions, so be honest about it. In 2012 the proposal from Mike Slaughter and Adam Hamilton to acknowledge our disagreements on homosexuality (without actually changing any of our rules) would have been a helpful and healing action. But that opportunity was missed. I hope similar opportunities are not missed in 2016.
- Don't be afraid to consider creative compromises which could allow us to stay together for the sake of our mission while allowing "positive divergence." It is not helpful when so-called Progressives and so-called Conservatives draw their lines in the sand and refuse to compromise. I have seen some creative ideas that deserve consideration, such as the "local option" which allows individual congregations and clergy to make decisions based upon the pastoral needs of their people; the "jurisdictional model" which would allow non-geographic groupings based upon affinity groups, and most recently the "Love Alike" proposal of Rev. Christopher Ritter of Illinois Great Rivers Conference which would allow for "dissenting" congregations and conferences. I don't know if any of these ideas are the solution, but General Conference needs to look for new answers and not just fight over old positions
- Most importantly I would urge everyone at General Conference to maintain a sense of humility. The United Methodist Church and the Christian movement will move forward no matter what General Conference votes. In many ways the General Conference is probably 20 years behind the church, following along and trying to codify the new movements of the church. General Conference does not lead the church, and that is not its legislative function. So relax, breathe, pray, and seek God's guidance rather than your preconceived positions. The prayer of Jesus "not my will but Thine be done" would be a great place to start.
That's my advice, not that anyone asked for it.