Annual Conference this past summer was very different for me than it had been in previous years. I attended a few sessions. I was and am still on medical leave. I was automatically excused from attending any part of it. I attended when I could. I prayed, sang, listened, and took part as I could. I was also a witness to what could very well be a final united Annual Conference. Depending on what the General Conference does next May, our next Annual Conference could involve talk of how we will separate as a church.
I have read enough material and spoken to enough people to know the consensus is that the denomination should either dissolve or separate. What I find interesting is that few people who agree that the denomination should separate also agree that their home congregation should not dissolve or separate. It is enlightening to know that many people realize there will be pain and recriminations if congregations separate. They simply do not see pain and recrimination if the denomination does. The reason is obvious at least to me that regardless of how one views the issues on which division is based no one wants to lose their friends, the people with whom they experience a connection.
Connectionalism is the feature of United Methodist polity that has made the denomination what it is. I once worked within a denomination that was based on the “call system” of ministerial leadership. The ministers in that denomination were not really friends. They were actually rivals. If a minister announced he was leaving a certain church, many resumes and sermon tapes and videos would begin arriving the next day. The itinerant system of The UMC cut down that sense of rivalry and allowed friendships among clergy to blossom. Itineracy has problems as well. The phenomenon of the “Kitchen Cabinet” among clergy was all about envy and covetousness. Who was getting what and whether or not they should was the issue. And there is no denying that motivated the people who took part in it. Another problem of itineracy has been that congregations did not believe they were getting what they wanted in a pastor. I never heard a Pastor-Parish Committee express what they needed in a pastor. For all of its faults connectionalism works fairly well. The failure has been among those who were selfish and craved power. Human beings make up the church after all.
My experience in the last Annual Conference was very heartening though. I got to spend time with clergy members and the lay delegates that I knew. The most important discussion I had was with one colleague in particular. I was walking back to Stuart Auditorium when this person stood up. He appeared excited to see me. He stuck out his hand and said, “Brother, you keep doing what you have been doing.”
I was surprised. I knew what he was talking about. I just didn’t know he knew my situation (even though I have been open about it on social media and other places). And there we stood on the sidewalk, my reconciling ministries rainbow ribbon on my name badge while he had his WCA pin on his, and he was encouraging me to keep getting better as I recovered from my addiction. I won’t name the person here. I will never be able to forget him or his gesture. Our differences over church polity and denominational direction did not matter. Issues surrounding “justice” and “biblical authority” and “inclusion” became words when we two beings that used words used them to support one another. He was retiring. I was encouraging him to continue serving in a new capacity. He was encouraging me to stay alive.
I said that was the most outstanding example. Other times there were examples of kind words exchanged, meeting a friend who was battling cancer, talking to a colleague and apologizing for something I did, shaking hands and hugging people I had not seen in a long while. Recently, a colleague said to me, “I have been keeping up with you and pray for you every day. I have agonized with you and celebrated with you.” My congregation, my home church, is the Annual Conference. And, like any congregation, we have times we don’t get along. Most of the time we do. And I will be sorry to lose it or any part of it.
I understand the issues that are dividing us are important. Still, I believe our biggest issue to overcome is our own self-importance. If the denomination divides, we will all require repentance for this point. I will go where my conscience requires. I will also grieve the loss of the connection.