Community at General Conference

One of my absolute favorite parts of being able to advocate for campus ministry for two weeks at General Conference 2012 was getting to know amazing campus ministry colleagues from around the connection as we lived together in two homes in Ybor City.

First of all, if you’re with people for 24 hours a day for two weeks – eating together, sharing living space, driving back and forth together, taking breaks together – you get to know them really well. In the midst of legislative committees and watching debate you find out really quickly where people stand.

We had specific legislation that we were tracking that related to campus ministry and advocating was a lot of what was on our agenda as members of the United Methodist Campus Ministry Association (UMCMA). One of the other things that was a goal of ours was to make campus ministry visible and to tell a positive collective story. We did this by handing out awesome buttons, cards, creating a prayer station for delegates, helping staff “Higher Education and Ministry night,” and overall telling the story to anyone we saw. When we first arrived at the Tampa Convention Center we were constantly being stopped by someone that one of us knew. I might not know that person from Cal-Pac but chances are that Rob or Alissa did. I might not know that person from Iowa, but there’s no doubt in my mind that West and Paul did. By ourselves we have our own contacts, but together we handed out buttons to people from all over our church.

It was beautiful.

It was amazing sharing in the Monday night Higher Ed reception and getting to talk to our African brothers and sisters about campus ministry, while spreading the word about all of the critical and necessary work that our general agencies do on behalf of those of us that don’t look quite like a typical local church.

Our collective voice is so much stronger when we come together.

This is not to say that we didn’t have some disagreements. I realized quickly those first few days in the house that I was the only one from the SEJ (Southeastern Jurisdiction) or SCJ (South Central Jurisdiction) and we are not always the rest of the church’s favorite group of people. Yes, my name is Narcie and I’m a member of the SEJ but I don’t want to squash your voice, I’m not an old white man, and I can jam and have a good time right along with the rest of you. Just having that back and forth dialogue about perceptions was critical in all of us knowing and understanding each other better. I’ll never forget Alissa, a Clairmont graduate, and Richard, an Asbury graduate, getting to know each other and bonding saying that they should stand up on the floor of General Conference, say where they went to seminary and that they are friends, and then drop the microphone. I’ll never forget my mom as I drove her to the airport saying that getting to know everyone and talking to everyone helped her understand so much more about campus ministry and our connection, and her then sharing that she now understood why sometimes people look at our name badges that say South Carolina and they don’t have the happiest look on their faces.

You see as we all have learned, have said, and know it to be true that – it’s all about relationships. It’s a heck of a lot harder to try to demonize someone if you’ve shared a meal with them. It’s a heck of a lot harder to shut your ears and ignore someone if you’ve been living with them for a week and you have a whole other week to go.

The reason we handed out so many buttons and had voices at many of the tables is because we had formed relationships with many of these people and in our crazy world of Methodism there’s not many a time when you can’t figure out some kind of connection with someone. That’s one of the beauties of campus ministry – we know it’s all about relationship. We know that this most sacred “work” and journey comes out of community. We have seen students that fundamentally disagree with each other on many levels come together around the communion table. We have seen people join together in a common cause whether on a mission trip, local service, or outreach. We know that’s where transformation takes place.

So those two weeks – although they were crazy and I still have a hard time articulating the insanity – were a gift. They were an absolute gift from God. Because whether we agreed or disagreed or whether our “side” won or lost, we all came together at the end of the day as one and we all were hopeful and ready to start the next day as we piled into the cars to head back over.

My campus minister during his retirement speech said that the only way to live life is in community and I couldn’t agree more. What if instead of living out of hotel rooms for two weeks, delegates lived in community with each other or with others in the local community? What if instead of just sitting at tables together and making quick introductions, committees and sub-committees actually shared meals and got to know one another before lines are drawn? What if we could re-create the schedule of General Conference completely and the focus not be on the “business” but on building relationships with one another so that the work and ministry flowed naturally out?

I hope that the community built in two lovely little homes in Ybor continues to bridge into the rest of our church. I know one thing for sure – we’ll be getting some houses for Portland. After this special time with colleagues and the perspective of being a little bit out of the bubble – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

General Conference and The Avengers

After spending two weeks at the United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida, I took a much needed date night with my husband on Monday night. We watched The Avengers. And because my brain is still in United Methodist land after two intense weeks of watching, listening, tweeting, and engaging – I couldn’t help but think about GC2012 in light of The Avengers.

While at General Conference I had many a friend and colleague talk about GC2012 in relation to The Hunger Games. And I get that. I get that in some ways it seemed like people were just out for themselves trying to slaughter the opponent so that they could move on to be the victor. I get that those references came from a place of frustration, of anger, of fear, of disillusionment.

One of the joys of this General Conference was the effect of social media and multiple voices being lifted up in a type of call and response. It was powerful and gave great voice to many. But in kind, one of the great hurts of this General Conference was social media. It’s easy to be snarky and give one-liners when you’re not face to face with people. And it’s easy to jump on the wave of criticism and complaint even in the midst of prophetic voices as people sharpen their favorite knives of choice.

Part of the beauty of The Avengers is that they’re all superheroes in their own right. They’re each bringing gifts to the table. The hard part is to get them to work together, valuing not just their own power/place in the world.

In describing General Conference to a clergy friend this morning, it’s hard to explain. There were times when you could visibly see the presence of God and the beautiful tapestry that is our church. There were other times when there were so many power plays and undercuts and self-interests that it was hugely discouraging.

I don’t doubt any of these people’s conviction. Captain America in the movie talks about each of the Avengers’ conviction and it’s not that they don’t have it, but sometimes it’s different. They believe strongly in something, but that something is not always the same. We each have those non-negotiables. We each have those things that are hard limits. I’ll agree to restructure, as long as… I’ll agree to support this piece of legislation, as long as these words are used…

It’s not that they lack conviction, it’s just that they’re not on the same page because they’re bogged down in their own egos, opinions, hang ups, and contexts.

No matter which restructure plan you were for, where you stand on language on homosexuality, or your thoughts on pension, guaranteed appointment or a set-aside bishop, there’s no doubt in my mind that the people at General Conference love The United Methodist Church. There would be no reason to come and be in the hard work of holy conferencing if you didn’t care. Whether we agree all the time or not, whether we acknowledge or gloss over some of our divisions and cracks, whether we shout and point fingers or just wash our hands of it, we should all be committed to at least some of the same things.

I don’t like using soldier/fighting language, but what united the Avengers, was a common cause – something they each believed in as a whole. What are those things that hold us together? Do we believe as Wesley said, “In essentials, unity…in non-essentials, liberty…and in all things charity.” What are our essentials?

I know it may be a crazy place to find hope, but watching The Avengers made me feel a lot more positive about the future of our church – and more than that – the kingdom of God. Over the past four years we’ve heard a lot about death tsunamis, the cancer of the church needing oncologists to come in and diagnose us, and other doom and gloom, and I don’t know about you, but scaring people and taking our ball and going home has never worked to inspire people in my mind. My dream for the UMC is that we don’t spend the next four years wringing our hands and talking incessantly about our decline or the lack of relevance, but that we actually start preaching and living the Gospel and let the rest come. It can’t just be a structure for a few big church pastors or vocal bishops or a handful of radical church plants or even awesome campus ministries that try to “save” our church. It has to be each of us – each pastor and lay person – not just looking out for our own interests or own needs, but actually living as Christ in the world.

So maybe you’re mad about how things went down at General Conference this year. Go for it. The whole add a sticker to the 2008 discipline that says “2012” is funny and snarky and there’s a bit of truth in there. Use that frustration, disillusionment, and unsettled feeling to get started with you. Don’t just point at particular conferences or jurisdictions or parts of the world and lift them up or tear them down. Start with you. Because we each have a common heritage, not just as United Methodists, but as children of God. Sometimes this heritage calls out for prophetic witness and sometimes it calls out for some non-negotiables, but even in the midst we have to remember the things that unify us. And we can’t just wait for the general church to give us permission to grow because of the latest nifty research or plan.

May we come together as one – all of us – with our gifts and graces and instead of hurling critique and distrust may we be intentional in actively asking the Holy Spirit to pour down on all of us – our communities, our churches, our world. May we unite not just against a common enemy, but for a common purpose.

Elections are Coming, My Friends…

Sitting in the chiropractor’s chair, well “laying” and “table” are more like it – I was talking to him about just getting back from Student Forum Sunday night and then leaving again for Annual Conference next Tuesday.  He asked if I frequently travel like this and I said not really, just on school breaks and throughout the summer, but I guess that is a lot more than just not really.  So number one – as pastors I don’t think we realize how busy we are and how strange we look to the outside world.  And number two – have you ever tried to explain Annual Conference to someone?  Much less, that this is a big election year.

So for those that are United Methodist and haven’t been to Annual Conference on an election year and to bore the rest of you to tears, every 4 years each Annual Conference (Central Conference) elects delegates to General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference.  Every four years those delegates then go and represent their lovely people and vote on various and sundry things like budgets, foci, resolutions and bishops.  Sounds fun, right?  As someone I talked to recently wisely said, if you don’t like going to your district meetings or sitting in the sessions for Annual Conference, you won’t like General Conference.

Each conference only gets so many delegates that they can send.  Half of these are clergy and half of these are laity.  So what are some important things to think about when electing delegates and deciding who to vote for?  It’s such a wide range and I guess it depends on what your motivations are for your votes.  This will be my first time to vote since I wasn’t ordained until 2007.  I am super pumped which probably makes me a way over excited nerd.  I’m looking for people that have a good handle on both the intimate issues that affect congregations (and within congregations I’m not just talking about local churches but extension ministries, etc.) as well as the broader strokes of what’s happening in our general church and agencies.  I want people that know what’s at stake and the underlying issues and not just what sounds good.  Does that make sense?  So I’d like these folks to be pretty educated.  And very awesomely there is now a course that people can take called “Exploring General Conference.”  I’m not throwing around the “experience” word here to indicate that I want us to elect only people that have been before.  Not even.  But I am saying that we need folks that are actively engaged in the conversation of our denomination and who are actively leading and shaping and learning and discovering.

I also think that it’s very important to represent all of the diversity of our conferences.  I have several young clergy friends that are tweeting from various annual conferences right now and hearing how their elections are going has been both fascinating and eye-opening.  One of them the lovely (@MegEdmondson) tweeted: #txac clergy:  the YOUNGEST clergy elected has GRANDCHILDREN.”*  That’s kind of a big deal.  So yes, we need to pay attention to all of the diversity that we encompass – race, gender, age, type of ministry, etc.  I know I’m probably leaving things out of that list but it wasn’t meant to be all encompassing but merely to point out that we need a multitude of voices at the table.  If we believe in the “future” of our church as its “young people” then as both laity and clergy, we need to take that into consideration when we’re voting.  Not saying that people that are out of the young adult bracket can’t be strong and amazing advocates for youth and young adults, but there is a different perspective and issues at stake.

I’m one of those weird people that like the full tapestry that is our United Methodist Church.  As crazy as it may be with a gaggle of voices at the table, that’s what can make it awesome in the midst.  Like a family, we sometimes can shout over each other and stick our fingers in our ears, but if we’re committed to this crazy family of ours, we’ll take the time to sit beside each other and share a cookie or two and actually have some dialogue.  (Yes, the cookies offered during the breaks are essential I think to General Conference!)  So yes, part of my voting decision is going to be based on how people stand on some of the missional, theological, societal, and practical issues facing our denomination.  We’re talking a lot about the Call to Action and indicators and metrics and all that jazz, but we’ve also got to talk from a place of Hope and Spirit and Renewal and Revival.  Can’t we live in a world of both/and and not continue in the either/or?  Can’t we work our butts off and be faithful in our calling while also following the leading of the Spirit that is sometimes (actually I would say rarely) not all about numbers or statistics?  Maybe it’s a chicken and egg idea, but somehow I think that if we are following the moving of the Spirit and we are being intentional in continuing to up the ante and be in ministry doing as Wesley says, “all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can,” then the fruit or the numbers or the metrics will come.  And maybe they or a great conference or a wonderful sharing of ideas or a Spirit-filled conversation or retreat of renewal will give us the motivation and inspiration we need to keep stepping forward in faith.

So here’s what I say – before we go to Annual Conference – may we pray for the delegation that we are electing – both lay and clergy.  May we all pray for discernment as we cast our votes.  May those that aren’t voting be in prayer for a delegation that will fully encompass all that is the United Methodist Church and all of the beautiful work in progress that is.

We need to not just be in prayer for the delegates that we will elect, but for the delegates being elected across the connection.  None of us hold the speaking stick alone or keep the megaphone in hand.  This wave needs to continue over the next few weeks as we are in prayer for all of our leaders elected and the conferences that are electing them.

You’ve now read what’s important to me in voting and how intentionally I think we need to take these elections.  What do you think?  What helps make your choices about who to elect?  What are the critical issues you see in the UMC right now?  What would your ideal delegation look like?

* They have now elected a young clergyperson!  Yay!  Also to note that Josh Hale (@expatminister) said that they wisely started a pre-balloting prayer from the words of Acts 2:42 – “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.”  I hope that this year’s Annual Conference isn’t all about elections, but it’s also about our learning, sharing, fellowship, sharing in the body of Christ together, and being church with one another.  Looking forward to it!