Day 7- I Thank God General Conference is Not the Church
This was posted on James' blog on Monday, May 16, 2016
by James Howell
I thank God that General Conference is not the church. Yes, General Conference makes high level decisions about official policy. General Conference controls a lot of money, although the pie is shrinking. General Conference gets a lot of press coverage and makes people wring their hands, shudder, shout, rejoice, weep, or pump a fist or two. But General Conference is not the church.
First, imagine if all the delegates, bishops, staff and observers were in fact a local congregation. Good worship – but if you were a visitor you would quickly detect a few problems that would make you shy away from joining. Factions, tension, little whispering campaigns, constant dickering over how to proceed, gridlock on actually doing anything, no clear leadership… Everything that bedevils the dysfunctional congregation we have in frighteningly acute degrees. Such a congregation would repel visitors, members would drift or bolt away, mission and learning would fracture, and the church would shrink and then fold.
Also, the people who wind up as delegates, even though they are asked to be representatives of their conferences or even of the broader church, are not in fact representative. I told my bishop once that the delegates to annual conference, generally speaking, are not actually representative of their churches. When my congregation elects their delegates, they don’t choose the most centrist, “average” members. We pick the people who are willing to take days off to sit through fairly dull business, people who are ultra-Methodist, lovers of conference doings. The people who are at the very heart of my church aren’t interested or can’t go.
Who gets elected to General Conference? We elect activist people, big names, people with razor sharp agendas, folks who fit various diversity slots, individuals who’ve not given much offense – and people who are willing and able to lose two weeks of their lives, can endure the intensity of the proceedings, and not be so disgusted as to exit the church when the conference has ended. These are not normal United Methodists.
At one level, the weirdness, or perhaps we should say the loveliness of those at General Conference should disturb us, and it sobers us up a little about the decisions made. But for me, this idea that General Conference is not the church is a relief, and cause for hope. I love being back at church the Sunday after General Conference. I hug a little more than usual, and feel so very grateful to be part of a church family that is utterly unlike General Conference. There really is so much life, and joy in our Church.
This distinction between General Conference and the Church also enables me, with all due respect for our connectedness and our accountability to the Book of Discipline and other denominational decisions, to give comfort to people wounded by votes taken. A few always want to exit our church because of a vote; a few exit because we even bother voting on something so obvious. I can assure them General Conference is not our church.
A woman emailed me the other day to say I pray that one day my church will love my son. I could confidently respond, I love you and him, our church family loves you, both and there are actually millions of United Methodists who love you.
I can also try to undermine any smugness among the victors. Once in a while, some big vote changes or clings to things – and there are those who, like fans at a championship game, declare We won! But in the Body of Christ we don’t have winners and losers; we don’t even have any we and them. We are we, we love, we are the Body.
We might be wise to dream of a day when we come to General Conference and remember the hearts of those at home, and more importantly, the dispositions required back home to make church work. Back home we have the advantage of time and familiarity. So at General Conference, where you might know a few dozen people, but most are strangers, you have to fast track the relationships, and remember what is true about all of us: we really are one family in Christ Jesus, and we bring with us the ability to listen and care and even compromise a little to keep the family together and more importantly in sync with the holy head of our family, Jesus our Lord.
Rev. Dr. James Howell is a clergy delegate from Charlotte who blogs at revjameshowell.blogspot.com
Resources for Vital Congregations
Lewis Center for Church Leadership
Lewis Center for Church Leadership: Books
Lewis Center for Church Leadership: Serve Your Neighbor
GBHEM Leadership Resources
Living Faithfully: Human Sexuality and the United Methodist Church
Englewood Book Review
Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations
Ted Talks: The Golden Circle
Ted Talks: The Power of Vulnerability
Ted Talks: The Price of Invulnerability
Meditations on the Ministry of All Christians
Be A Disciple
A Disciple’s Path; A Guide for United Methodist
Lewis Center for Church Leadership: Adult Christian Studies from the Wesley Ministry Network
Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple Forming Congregations
Living As United Methodist Christians
Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials
Reclaiming our Wesleyan Tradition: John Wesley’s Sermons for Today
John Wesley Sermons: Anthology
Get Their Name
Evangelism & Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit
Canoeing the Mountains
Fresh Expressions: Dinner Church
Lewis Center for Church Leadership: Reach New Disciples
Lewis Center for Church Leadership: 50 Ways to Reach People
Community: The Structure of Belonging
RESOURCES TO CONNECT WITH THE COMMUNITY:
Institute for Emerging Issues
Congregations 4 Children
The Royce and Jane Reynolds Ministry Fund Grants
The Duke Endowment
The Appalachian District Church Vitality Team has been prayerfully seeking ways to help support you and the ministries of your local congregation during this COVID-19 pandemic. Together they have diligently researched and connected with others throughout the conference and our denomination to identify resources and offer them to you. We hope they will be helpful to you and bless you greatly in leading your churches and communities through this unprecedented time. We are very grateful to the District Vitality Team and other contributors for their great work on this resource.
This faithful team has created three documents, two of which you are receiving today. They include:
- Family Home Worship – designed to help families establish a regular worship space within their homes as well as a time where they can worship together.
- Tech Strategies – to help guide you in selecting effective tools and resources within your budget to best communicate in the digital world.
We believe these resources will be of great benefit to you. Also know that the District Vitality Team is available to answer any questions you might have in regards to the documents attached. If you have questions, you may email Rev. Howard Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org.