Seven Signs On Our Way to General Conference 2020

February 11th, 2020
This article is featured in the The Future of Methodism (Feb/Mar/Apr 2020) issue of Circuit Rider

Bishops lead and influence the church in work leading up to a conference (Annual, General).  At that point, bishops preside with fairness, according to the rules of conference bodies, helping the delegates to do their best work. In this season, bishops are accompanying conversations across the church and contributing to the dialogue. Some bishops have drafted their own petitions. Others have spoken from their contexts of their colleges (geographical regions), and others from distinctive traditions of the church.  

In each instance, this is an expression of our teaching office. And yet in the end the legislative work will flow through the delegates, authorized by annual conferences. According to our polity, they speak on behalf of the church. Most bishops have served in leadership roles as delegates to previous general conferences, and as a Council we respect where our authority ends and where the appropriate work of the delegations begins. As we journey together in these months leading to the 2020 General Conference, these seven signs or considerations offer guidance to the work we will do on behalf of our beloved and yet strained connection.

1. In the U.S. church, we are living in between two realities—the actions of the Winter 2019 Special Session of the General Conference and the actions and statements of the 2020 Annual Conferences. This is the tension in which we are living, and it has produced anxiety and uncertainty about our future.

2. The U.S. church is learning about what it means to be a global church, and the connection across our four continents is maturing. Most significant is the recognition of Central Conference Colleges of Bishops that the U.S. should become a “regional conference”, able to adapt the Discipline to its context. The language of missional partnerships across annual conferences located across the world is at the heart of our connection. Mission truly is from everywhere to everywhere and is a mutual experience of giving and receiving (Philippians 4:15-19).

3. The nature of our redefined connection is at the heart of decisions to be made at the 2020 General Conference. Will we experience needed renewal and reform? Or we will instead experience destabilization and dissolution? The former does less harm to the vulnerable and creates more continuity of mission. The latter produces winners and losers and disrupts the lives of ordinary clergy, lay leaders. and institutions.

"Embracing the Wideness" by Kenneth H. Carter, Jr. Order here:

4. It is possible that we will redefine the connection in a way that gives birth to two or three expressions of Methodism: a conservative/traditional stream, which includes but is not limited to the organized work of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and its ecosystem of institutions (publishing arm, mission agency, theological school, etc.); a liberationist stream; and a center/progressive stream. How this develops depends on how much space and separation we need from each other and how much compromise we are willing to make in order to be in relationship.

5. A focus on younger generations and the implications of these decisions for future ministry is a critical factor. Many of those most visible in the conversations over the last years (myself included!) have a few years of active ministry ahead. Some of the loudest voices for division or dissolution are retired from active leadership. And yet, many leaders across our global church have twenty to forty years of service ahead. It is also true that there was a generational shift in the election of many U.S. delegations to the 2020 General Conference. Those who gather will be attempting to construct a house, or houses, in which they can live.

6. There will be a need for patience among people who are weary, anxious, disillusioned and on the way to some form of next church; this is difficult. This is based on the complexity of our polity, the nature of a global church, the role of the annual conference in response to decisions made by a general conference, and the sacred assets (people, property, funds) affected by any outcome. Simply put, we will be doing this work for some time. This fact has been one reason for my request for a moratorium on LGBTQ related trials, which do harm to all involved and become the public narrative of our conflicted life together.

7. Across a spectrum, there is an imperative to avoid the outcome and experience of the 2019 Special Session. That outcome was narrated by the external media in the U.S. and was then communicated again across the U.S. in local media outlets. Traditional conservatives felt blamed and stereotyped; centrists and progressives left demoralized and ashamed. While the reaction in the U.S. came through elections and actions of annual conference sessions a few weeks later, the response to the May General Conference will take the form of new structures, whatever the outcome.

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