I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.” Joel 2:28
For two weeks this May, I attended the General Conference of The United Methodist Church as a lay reserve delegate from West Virginia. I remained in Portland the next week for my missionary “End Terms,” the final gathering of Global Mission Fellows who have spent the last two years serving in various placement sites. In both settings, we discussed human sexuality. In both settings, members spoke about strongly held beliefs on the topic. But all the missionaries agreed that the discussions at End Terms were more productive, beneficial, and hopeful rather than the sometimes disheartening proceedings at General Conference. I believe Young Adult Missionary End Terms provides a model for the global church.
There are several key differences which make comparing End Terms and General Conference feel like comparing apples and oranges. Though size, language, relationships, and external pressure/observers vary, the primary difference is simply the purpose of the two events: while General Conference is the legislative body designed to conduct the necessary business of the denomination (in 2016, this means passing budgets, rules, plans, and petitions), End Terms is a processing experience with people who have already built relationships and the goal is constructive dialogue, not reaching conclusions or even consensus.
So no, General Conference cannot truly replicate End Terms, but how can we imagine a new future for the global church after this experience? How could we rethink what General Conference does (or sets out to do) and why? How could we simulate the small group, dialogue-focused atmosphere of End Terms? (In many ways, Rule 44 tried to do this, but was voted down by those who benefit from the current system and were afraid it would contribute to a change of the status quo.) Is there a way to keep what is good (my opinion: worship, prayer, sharing stories/mission) while eliminating the mess that is the Western-centric Robert’s Rules, system of “speeches,” and petitions that are not global in nature?
We continuously hear calls for “unity,” but what does that really mean? Do all United Methodists believe what the United Methodist Church officially declares in the thousands of petitions it passes? What are the real ties that bind us together as United Methodists across our different cultural contexts and how are those ties different from autonomous Methodist churches (non-UMC Methodists)? How can we envision a truly global connection untethered to its colonial legacies?
I believe that through prayer, discernment, and a willingness to open ourselves to God’s possibilities for creation and new life, God will indeed make a way out of no way! Hallelujah!
“Look! I’m doing a new thing;
now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?
I’m making a way in the desert,
paths in the wilderness.” Isaiah 43: 19
Racial Justice Advocate, Columbia/Ferguson, MO