Walking the walk after General Conference

This was a General Conference seemingly made for a “reality check.” We thought that the days of denial were over. Bishop Larry Goodpaster and many others were convinced. Bishop Goodpaster said to me not long before General Conference: “There is a groundswell of conviction that we cannot sustain the track we are on.”   

What he and others misread was the failure of the delegates to understand that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  Instead, somewhat like the United States Congress, the body was divided into caucuses, special interests and vested interests. And the hoped for major change did not happen.

We voted for people in our respective annual conferences whom we hoped would rise above “the cries of race and clan, above the noise of selfish strife and hear the Son of Man!”(Frank Mason North.) But prejudice blocked Providence.  Thousands of United Methodists are left saying, “Some things are changed but nothing is different.” This was our “D-Day” and many wilted under fire from peer group pressure.

My career is over; my grandson is in seminary.  What are the possibilities for his generation of United Methodists? Is there any chance that we might, like the women on Easter morning, hear the voice of a resurrected Lord? 

The hope of the proposals before General Conference was to reorganize the general church so that it can help revitalize local congregations.  The latter can still happen.  I remember Lyle Schaller predicting in the early 1990’s that if United Methodism had a future, we would find it in a confederate polity of governance, not in a centralized polity.

Let’s be honest.  The 20th century mindset in government, corporate leadership and the church saw our ivory towers of learning and planning as vastly superior to grass roots.  But locals understand the culture better, have more vital concern for their church to flourish, and use more entrepreneurial creativity in solving problems. 

The truth is that what works in one place will not work in the other, anyway.  In 1939, the power of the old Methodist Church was shifted from the bishops to the general boards and agencies.  The time might have come when we must make another shift and give power to the local congregation.

The General Conference looked the future in the eye and blinked.  The future is now upon us at the local level.  Must the report of finance, property, and personnel continue to take up the lion’s share of Church Council agendas?   Will those agendas continue to give last place to the congregation’s “longest stride of soul the church ever took-exploration into God”? (Christopher Fry.) Will effective worship, challenging nurture, recovery of small group ministry, radical hospitality and radical outreach continue to get a short shrift in most Church Council meetings? Would it be possible to invert the agenda and make evangelism, missions and “holiness of heart and life” the meat and potatoes that the leadership of the church tackle.

Could we immediately set aside a full day of retreat for seeking God’s vision for our branch of the kingdom of God, of which we are the “branch managers”?

Hope and change are not coming out of General Conference, but they can still come.  What if we rethink what’s possible?  First we would covenant mutually to rule out of order any statement that articulated or implied, “That’s not possible” or “That won’t happen here” or “This is not who we are” or “We tried that before and it did not work” or “We’ve never done it that way before.”

I don’t want to be triumphalist, but can we apply to our hopes for United Methodism the words of Jesus with the Rich Young Ruler. First he told him what it would take for him to inherit eternal life.  Hearing that, the young rich man “went away sorrowfully.”  Reading the problem only as material wealth, the disciples asked if any rich people could enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus answers, “With mortals it is impossible, but all things are possible with God.”

Can we move the “center ring” to the local church now that the “flying trapeze” act has pretty much crashed?  Can realize that delegates from different cultures and different visions of the church will not bring nearly eight million United Methodists in the U.S. into a lockstep structure?   If revitalization is not possible with the “this world mentality” of General Conference, what might happen if the Holy Spirit were heard in local churches? Could we see points of light from the mountains to the prairie to the oceans and beyond?    

In my recent conversation with Bishop Goodpaster as he ended his term as Council of Bishops president, he envisioned a mandate for every vital congregation to begin by transforming its community. He concluded, “This happened in the early days of the Methodist movement in England and America, and it’s happening today in many developing nations.”  

Can we “rethink possible”?  Could that unsophisticated little word “localism” be one of God’s secrets?

In 1900, the U.S. Congress awarded the Smithsonian $50,000 to develop a flying machine.  They called in the best minds and designed a plane that used the most advanced technology of aerodynamics.  The plane was launched from a ship in the Potomac River and sank.  

Meanwhile, two bicycle fixers from Dayton, Ohio, learned that the updrafts winds on North Carolina’s Outer Banks were almost invariable. The Wright brothers had a lot of failures but succeeded in being the “first in flight.”  They were untrained, unknown and unfunded. That is not to deny the appropriate role of public funding and trained minds, but it is to illustrate that sometimes turning people loose can be the most creative and visionary means of bringing in a new day.

The reality is that we have differing visions of what congregational vitality means.  In a church of “open minds,” this is a blessing of the diversity of gifts which St. Paul enumerates in I Corinthians: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Then he lists “wisdom…knowledge…faith…healing…miracles…prophecy… discernment…tongues.”

While Paul recognizes differing “forms of leadership,” he concludes, “In the one Spirit, we were baptized into one body..; and all made to drink of one Spirit.” Think of the diversity of the congregations to whom Paul wrote his letters! 

Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  Let’s take that literally; first comes “the way.”  Let’s walk with him and talk with him and learn from him rather than gulping down a prescription written for someone else!

We have “talked the talk.”  Now let’s go home and “walk the walk.”

 

Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He’s the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: dhaynes11@trial.rr.com.

 

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4 Comments on "Walking the walk after General Conference"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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john
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Dr. Haynes, it seems to me that we were in denial when we expected some General Conference initiative to revitalize our churches. Historically, revival has always come from the bottom up. When God spoke to John Wesley , he did not go to Lambeth Palace to encourage the Archbishop to adopt church wide reforms and reorganization. John Wesley followed God's lead and brought revival. I would suggest that we should prayerfully celebrate the failure of General Conference re-organization plans as encouragement for us to get up and follow God into the discipleship He calls us to. Had the re-organization passed… Read more »
stevemulford
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Thank you Dr. Haynes. I wholeheartedly agree with you.

jaltman81
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The thing is-the Call To Action plan and Plan UMC didn't DECENTRALIZE power-They CENTRALIZED power further-with the Council of Bishops and a central programming body. No one at General Conference disputed the need to change. They disputed the MEANS of change.

david
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How appropriate to mention the Wright brothers. Their father, a United Brethren Methodist to be, bishop famously said. "Flight is reserved for the birds and the angels." So much for vision from Bishops, Superintendents, delegates and the up and comers with their unending catalogue of church growth books! We still don't get how grievous the failure of this general conference is. We still pacify it. We still think we can pull it out with a little inspiration. We haven’t hit the bottom yet. We are still in denial. Until we begin to shake and tremble at what has happened we… Read more »
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