Unicorns at Annual Conference

June 25th, 2018

The annual conference season is nearly over across the connection. The Texas Annual Conference (TAC) took place May 27-29, 2018, where I heard calls for crusades, cries for justice and met a few unicorns. Just your typical gathering. Unicorns? The term was coined in a May 2017 article by Chris Ritter. Chris is one of many voices offering reasoned approaches to the way forward of the United Methodist Church. His article defined traditional compatibilists as a rare find in the United States, hence the term “unicorns.” However, turns out there are many in the TAC who desire to stay in the United Methodist connection, even in the midst of our disagreements, who also hold a traditionalist view point.

I entered this year’s annual conference more informed than years past by reading the rulings, statements, and reports of the Commission on a Way Forward and Council of Bishops. TAC fell two days after the Judicial Council ruling of May 25, three weeks after the bishop’s statement of May 4. Most importantly it came six weeks before the July 8 report from the Council of Bishops, which contains the details of legislative plans presented.

The palpable sense of a looming decision cast a shadow on most conversations with one question: “What do you think will happen?” Responses varied from those resigned to schism and others hopeful new life can enter a beleaguered institution. One thing is clear: We are in a wilderness period, a liminal space. What will be is not entirely clear and how we engage with one another will be just as important as votes to be cast.

Here are three practices a group of my colleagues and I engaged in during annual conference and are committed to until February 2019:

1. Holy conferencing

Admittedly I’ve logged this as an excuse to skip business sessions in order to meet a colleague for coffee and bemoan the politics of annual conference. However, skipping business sessions only left me uninformed and resigned to an echo chamber of my current beliefs.

Holy conferencing is not a term for polite disagreement. So make it a habit to attend the business sessions, and make time later for coffee too. Trade stories of how you are feeding your soul with the means of grace. Here are some of the life-giving conversations I had with fellow clergy:

  • A deacon entering a detention center for adolescent women in order to introduce spiritual practices which nurture the soul scarred by trauma. 
  • An elder developing training for children and adolescents on steps to take if they come home from school and their parents have been deported. 
  • Congregations working to reform systems to provide treatment and support for persons and families suffering from substance use disorder. 
  • Discipling leaders whose biblical literacy and practical theology ignites the mission of the church in congested cities and self-contained suburbs.

2. Convicted humility

This term may have originated in the Council of Bishops and was offered as the root of our collective prayer by Bishop Scott Jones. Bishop Jones called for more engagement not less during times of high conflict. The Commission on a Way Forward has modeled for us (local churches) how to engage in dialogue. Start with a smaller group (four to six persons). Read the biblical basis of viewpoints. Be inquisitive. Listen to stories. Look for the unspoken fear. Embody empathy for the other. Many resources are already available for group discussion.

Our convictions are rooted in biblical interpretation of the core tenets of our faith which guide our ecclesiology to create disciples who proclaim and demonstrate a Wesleyan expression of grace and salvation. Our humility is guided by the Spirit. She softens my heart to recognize I might be wrong or blinded by my ego. A posture of humility fully recognizes Jesus is the head of the Church, the Body.

3. Posture of heart

Posture not political positions. Attend a breakfast or luncheon sponsored by a group you wouldn’t normally attend. In my conference a new breakfast was hosted in order to hear from members of the Commission on a Way Forward and conduct round-table discussions with delegates to General Conference. For a first-time event, the attendance was surprising — just over 450 persons from all perspectives.

Many of us are pastors of churches that disagree on the biblical understanding of sexuality yet want to engage in the mission of the church for and with all people. My eyes are wide open to the critical time we are in. There will be no fairytale ending, and by God’s grace for his Church, just maybe there will be a revival of the Spirit for our churches to display a prophetic message to the culture of polarization.

Texas Annual Conference resolutions

Some annual conferences ruled votes on resolutions out of order during the run-up to the special General Conference in 2019. The Texas Conference voted on four resolutions that came forward (five were submitted, one was withdrawn before conference began). 

Resolution 1: Affirmation of the Holy Spirit in Scripture, our Tradition and Current Context. Voted down 391 to 782. The vote of 33% - 66% is within the historic trend line of TAC.

Resolution 2: Gracious Accommodation. Voted down by only 10 votes, 558 yes to 569 no. The close vote signals perhaps space to continue to engage in dialogue and not agree to divorce terms before General Conference 2019.

Resolution 3: Heart and Mind Listening Sessions with delegates across the conference. Overwhelming supported. 965 yes, 135 no.

Resolution 5: Suspend the rules to consider any petitions. Voted down as current AC rules allow for the suspension of the rules by 2/3 vote at any point during the conference. Perhaps this signals an unwillingness by the body to have an open-door approach to any petitions to be considered and risk filibustering an entire annual conference.

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