Things are going to get messy: new rituals can help

May 2nd, 2022

Across our connection, many United Methodists are engaging in conversations about the future of the denomination. Some conversations are formal, some informal, some heated, some even-keeled, but most are imbued with an existential anxiety of what might be. 

The United Methodist Church is a spiritual home for all people, and because we are a "big tent" denomination, we find more space for wide-ranging convictions.[1] While I believe pluriformity in the widest sense is our strength, our methods for engaging diverse thoughts and convictions could benefit from the Holy Spirit's refining work.

With the recent launch of the Global Methodist Church on May 1st and the forthcoming Annual Conference season of the UMC this summer, it is an understatement to suggest that things might get messy. I'm already imagining the passionate speeches, the unsettling rebukes, and the strained friendships. I wish these scenarios didn't come to mind, but Christian Conferencing has not been our strong suit as of late—even if it is a means of grace.

Difficult conversations are not new to small groups, churches, annual conferences, or general conferences. However, we have insufficient examples in The United Methodist Book of Worship for grappling with difficult conversations on a corporate level. The "Acts of Congregational Centering" (BOW, 470-473) may prove helpful to some, but these acts do not acknowledge situations where tension could be cut with the proverbial knife.

This is where new rituals come in. As United Methodists, we are in a season where we need ritual moments (rites) that frame important and/or contentious conversations. Ritual theorist Ronald Grimes offers a helpful definition of what rites might do for us: "Rites are choreographed actions; they exist in the moments of their enactment and then disappear. When effective, their traces remain—in the heart, in the memory, in the mind, in texts, in photographs, in descriptions, in social values, and in the marrow, the source of our lifeblood."[2]

What if leaders across our connection—clergy and lay—crafted rituals to help their contexts move through difficult conversations effectively? For us United Methodists, perhaps this "effectiveness" could be measured by John Wesley's hopes for Christian Conferencing: words that are rightly ordered, grace-filled, seasoned with salt, ministering grace to hearers, well-timed and planned, and soaked in prayer.[3]

The time is now to plan ahead. 

Bishops: empower your cabinet, staff, and planning teams to create rituals for impending difficult moments. Pastors and lay leaders: have conversations about how you will approach contentious conversations in your churches. Create liturgies and ritual moments that make sense for your context.

Planning for these moments does not have to be laborious, but it should be intentional. From leading a centering song such as “Spirit of the Living God” (UMH 393), to encouraging a communal breath prayer, to invoking the presence of the Holy Spirit, use the tools at your disposal that make sense for inevitable moments of tension.[4]

Annual Conference season is coming. Special, called church conferences will be proliferating. Difficult conversations will not be going away. Let us shepherd these moments with ritual words and actions that help us move through them with grace, tact, and faithfulness to the reconciling work of the Holy Spirit.

Below, I provide a brief example of how one might employ ritual to address a contentious moment at an Annual Conference session.



Setting the scene: A plenary voting session of Annual Conference. The delegates are discussing a resolution that has divided the gathered assembly. We have heard one speech "for," and one speech "against," both offered with conviction. There have been audible signs of dissension and the room feels heavy. 

The presider may share why they are calling for this liturgy of resetting, then direct worshippers to the liturgy, on screen and/or printed..

One: The Lord is in his* holy temple;

ALL: Let all the earth keep silence before the Lord!

Silence is observed by all.

One: Let us pray,

ALL: Let the words of our mouths 
and the meditations of our hearts 
be acceptable in Your sight, 
O Lord, our strength, 
and our redeemer. Amen. 

*One might also consider the singular "their" here.


[1] For more on United Methodism as a "big tent" of generous orthodoxy, see Bishop Ken Carter's book, Embracing the Wideness: The Shared Convictions of The United Methodist Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018).

[2] Ronald Grimes, Deeply into the Bone: Re-inventing Rites of Passage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 7. (emphasis mine)

[3] "Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers? Do we not converse too long at a time? Is not an hour at a time commonly enough? Would it not be well to plan our conversation beforehand? To pray before and after it?" See, “The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley,” vol. 10 “The Methodist Societies: The Minutes of Conference,” 856-857. Quoted from Kevin Watson, "Christian Conferencing as a Means of Grace," It must also be noted that, historically speaking, John Wesley's comments about Christian Conferencing are most directly applicable for class meetings. However, this does not preclude one from adapting these remarks for Methodist gatherings of a larger setting.

[4] You could try a breath-prayer version of the Jesus prayer, i.e., inhale: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God”; exhale: “Have mercy on me.” For more possibilities, check out Sarah Bessey’s recommendations at

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