Wednesday, August 28, 2019

With, Not About, the Central Conferences

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.

During General Conference 2019 and since then, queer United Methodists and their allies have had an important slogan: "with, not about."

This slogan indicates that The United Methodist Church should not talk about LGBTQ+ persons in a way that does not include them in the conversation. Instead, the church should talk with them when discerning matters related to their lives so that their perspectives and insights can inform the whole body's decision-making. This commentary by Jorge Lockward gives a good introduction into the problems that arise when the church talks about without talking with.

A quick review of mission history also shows many of the problems of talking about, not with. Missionaries who sought to impose their cultural understandings upon potential converts without seeking to understand the world and the gospel through the eyes of others often did much harm and were much less effective in sharing God's good news. Those missionaries who were most successful and most beloved by the people among whom they ministered were those who were willing to talk with, not about, native peoples and to learn from and be transformed by them.

Thus, this principle of "with, not about" follows important missional insights from the last century. I have written elsewhere about how mission is a conversation about God's good news, where those conversations take place in the context of relationships across boundaries. Conversation is never one-sided. A conversation about the good news that God has for LGBTQ+ persons is a conversation that must involve them and be informed by their understandings of what is good and how God brings about newness in the world.

Conversation does not presume that one side's pre-existing views will predominate. It is instead a space for each side to learn from and be informed by the other. Ideally, this process of mutual learning will allow God to create something new through that interaction reveals God's goodness in a way that goes beyond the ways that any one party understood at the beginning. But that transformation cannot happen if not all parties feel like they have been heard in the conversation.

Thus, the principle of "with, not about" is a good one and should be affirmed in its usage for the LGBTQ+ community. Yet it should also be extended beyond its present usage.
If it is important to include LGBTQ+ persons as marginalized people in conversations that directly impact their lives and their place in the church, then when we are having conversations that directly impact the lives and place in the church of other marginalized groups, we must have those conversations with and not just about those groups.

In particular, in discerning the future of The United Methodist Church, we must have conversations with, not about, persons in the central conferences.

The possibility of breaking apart the UMC is an issue that directly impacts the lives and the place in the church of members in the central conferences, whose views and voices have traditionally been marginalized in the church. US United Methodists must talk with, not about, those in the central conferences regarding what our relationships will look like in the future, how we can be the church together, and what God is saying to us as a group at this moment.

Note here that I am advocating that we talk about the nature of the relationships we have. I am not saying that pre-existing central conference views on sexuality should predominate. Sexuality is one issue that US United Methodists need to hear more from central conference sisters and brothers, in part so that our understanding of their concerns and perspectives can go beyond stereotypes and charicatures, but it is a part and not the whole of the conversation we need to have.

The real conversation we need to have together is what our mutual relationships will and should look like in the future. There have been several plans that have already come out proposing one way or another of splitting The United Methodist Church. From what I can tell, all of these plans have been drafted by US Americans with the impacts on US Americans as their main concern. To my knowledge, none of the plans thus far have been significantly informed by talking with United Methodists in the central conferences. The plans address the status of those in the central conferences, but in a way that is much more about than with.

This is not an acceptable way to try to discern the future of United Methodism for several reasons. First, it violates the ethical and missional principles set forth in the slogan of "with, not about." Second, from a practical perspective it is likely to fail. Central conference delegates are not likely to vote for any plan that they do not think takes them or their interests into consideration, and no plan is likely to pass without significant central conference support.

The principles of "with, not about" the central conferences is why I'm eagerly waiting to see what comes out of the group led by Bishop Yambasu. That seems to me to be one of the few conversations about the future of the church right now that is following the principle of "with, not about" the central conferences.

Yet whatever form it takes, for United Methodists to figure out a future, even a future of division into multiple bodies, it is crucial that those conversations happen with, not about, all those impacted by such significant decisions - LGBTQ+ persons and those in the central conferences both.

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