Burt Ward, as Robin, the Boy Wonder, delivered some of the most delightfully inane “Holys” during the 1960s television show, Batman. He took a normal observation and turned it into an emphatic declaration. But just adding “holy” and some exaggerated energy doesn’t really mean much. We need to pay attention to this simple truth.
I have no problem with the concept of “holy conference.” I do have a problem with “holy conferencing,” or just about any noun we turn into a gerund (fellowshipping, discipling – or my new least favorite, discipleshiping!) Unfortunately the practice of holy conference (or holy conversation, if you prefer) is more than just a churchy way of talking about difficult topics. Holy conference isn’t a “tool” or a “process” or a “technique.” True holy conference is a way of engagement that is cultivated over time and becomes a normative and accepted way of holding discourse.
The botched attempt at “holy conferencing” at this General Conference should stand as a cautionary tale to United Methodists everywhere. When holy conference is poorly offered as a contrived attempt to make people talk nicely to one another, something is bound to go wrong. What went wrong with our “process?” Here’s a short list:
- Inappropriate use of technology that did not work properly and that provided improper guidance for the process.
- Poor instruction and incomplete explanations how to proceed.
- Inadequate context setting and improper application of circle process.
- Disrespectful use of the “talking stick” (flyswatters, beanie babies, a coffee mug).
- No accountability to basic ground rules and shared agreements.
- Inadequate time and no capacity to allow everyone time to participate.
These are just a few of the many things that didn’t work in our truncated attempt at “holy conference.” No time was given to really introduce and get to know each other beyond name and conference and a superficial question, before launching into the BIG questions. No one was taken to task for violations of even the simplest rule of not interrupting. Those who were “in charge” really didn’t know what they were doing or how to give instructions. And the video feed of Gil Rendle was delayed until it was too little, too late, and as was discussed in our circle, it came across as culturally insensitive.
But rather than scrapping the concept as a bad idea, it will be interesting to see if we might learn from this experience (and others – many people have shared horror stories from all across the connection of “holy conferencing” gone wrong…) and reframe holy conference to become a core value of our church. What changes might move us from the unintentionally hurtful and ineffective process we experienced at General Conference and move us to a better place?
- Take more time to let people get to know each other.
- Make holy conference a guiding value, and continuously reinforce what it is, why it is important, and how to practice it.
- Make the whole of General Conference a holy conference, rather than making “holy conferencing” an agenda item.
- Model from the top down and the bottom up. Through regular practice in all that we do, holy conference becomes normative.
- Scrap Roberts’ Rules of Order once and for all. Don’t cultivate hypocritical whiplash by jerking people from prayerful, spiritual conversation and taking them into restrictively-structured legislative process.
- Quit making “holy conferencing” a gimmick or technique that “experts” need to lead in order to “do it right.” Help people learn to talk to one another in Christian love – all the time.
The real tragedy of a bad experience with something labeled “holy conferencing” or “holy conversation” is that it makes people more resistant the next time they encounter it. This is too important to do poorly. We must work hard to cultivate respectful, kind, loving, and compassionate encounters for the people called United Methodist. If we are ever to carry a witness to the world of a better way to treat one another, it most likely will start by our ability to speak the truth in love in the church.