Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Conferencing, relationships, and denominational unity

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Here is an interesting comparison for United Methodists: The Church of the Nazarene had their quadrennial General Assembly this past summer. Opening worship for the event, which brought together Nazarenes from around the world, emphasized “unity in diversity,” a theme participants enthusiastically affirmed, talking about how much they valued relationships across cultural and national differences in the church. Organizers and participants referred to General Assembly as a “global family reunion.” At GA2017, one of the big debates was whether to have future General Assemblies every four years or every five years. Delegates voted to keep future General Assemblies every four years because they so enjoyed meeting together.

Such a description is nigh-unthinkable for a General Conference of The United Methodist Church. If General Conference were to promote a theme of “unity in diversity,” it would be cynical dismissed by many participants as a top-down attempt to paper over divisions and preserve the institution. Participants often speak of the global nature of the church as a challenge rather than a blessing. Nobody thinks of General Conference as a family reunion. And no majority would vote to keep the meeting every four years for the fun of it. GC might be kept every four years, but the reason would be to address all of the important business facing it.

The Church of the Nazarene’s General Assembly and The United Methodist Church’s General Conference are both expressions of the Wesleyan practice of conferencing. But they seemingly could not be more different. How can we account for this difference, and what can it tell us about The United Methodist Church can effectively foster the sorts of familial Christian relationships necessary to undergird denominational unity?

In his book, The Methodist Conference in America: A History, Russ Richey argues that the practice of conferencing in American Methodism, at all levels from charge conferences to General Conferences, originally served three functions: polity, fraternity, and revival. Polity refers to official decision-making, fraternity refers to relationship-building, and revival refers to spirituality-building. One of Richey’s main arguments in the book is that, over time, the polity function has edged out the other two, especially at less local levels of the church. There’s certainly much to bemoan about the loss of the revival function, but for now my focus is on the loss of the fraternity function.

As Richey demonstrates, the reasons for the eclipse of fraternity by polity are many and long-term. The complexity of Methodist polity has increased. The number of Methodists has increased since the 18th century. The diversity of Methodists has increased. The culture around us has changed. And Richey barely touches on the global nature of The United Methodist Church. There is no simple one thing for us to reverse to go back to a better time in the history of United Methodism.

Yet, with the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and the called General Conference in February of 2019, we do have the opportunity to fashion new ways of going forward, new ways of being for the future, even if we cannot simply go back to the past.

One thing United Methodists can learn from our ancestors and from our Nazarene cousins is the importance of making time and space for relationships in our conferences. If we want our denomination to foster relationships, then we need to allot sufficient time in our gatherings to create genuine relationships.

Instead, United Methodists, following the logic of American culture and under the pressures of a slowly diminishing American base, have prized efficiency and impact in how we structure our conferences. We have prioritized making as many decisions on as many topics as possible. These priorities have left us with little time for relationship, which has not been a priority.

Creating time and space for relationships is not easy. It requires effort. It is expensive. It often means letting go of other things one could be doing with that time and space. Creating time and space for relationships requires prioritizing relationships over other functions.

The Nazarenes have some insight here in how they structure General Assembly: Minimize the decisions you need to make. Nazarenes have a strong practice of subsidiarity: more local organizations have a lot of the decision-making power, freeing up more time in General Assembly. In addition, while General Assembly does speak to important issues in the church and world, it does not try to be comprehensive in its proclamations, freeing up more time. Less is more: the fewer decisions that General Assembly needs to make, the more time for relationships.

Such principles could apply to United Methodism as well, and not just at General Conference. Where can more decision-making be entrusted to locals? What can we afford not to address at our conferences? How can we then open up more space for relationships?

In my post last week, I suggested denominations can’t get more relationship by doing more of what they’re already doing. Here I am suggesting something even stronger: to foster more relationship, we may even need to do less of what we’re already doing. The surprising insight is that in order to have a more unified denomination, we may need to let go rather than grab tight. In order to get more relationship and thus more unity, we must be willing to give up our own power and accept our limitations.

We may find comfort than in so doing, we will be following the way of Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippines 2:6-8). Jesus gave up his own power and accepted limitations, even the limitation of death, all for the sake of relationship, for the sake of love. May we have the courage to do likewise.

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