A Bridge Over Troubled Water

The waters of General Conference got troubled very quickly today as we began with the news that parts of the newly proposed Plan UMC Revised had been deemed unconstitutional by the Judicial Counsel. Plan UMC Revised sought to restructure our denomination by giving the Connectional Table new authority to direct the work of the general agencies and to hire and fire the executives of the general agencies. The Judicial Council ruled that the proposed legislation would violate paragraph 16.8 of The Discipline which states that the General Conference has the responsibility “to initiate and direct all connectional enterprises”.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

While we have very talented and devoted people leading our agencies, without some structure to help these agencies pull together towards one mission and hold them accountable to being in touch with the local churches they represent, it is likely that our denominational ministries will continue to be disconnected to an unacceptable degree from a common vision for resourcing local churches and ministering to the world.  

Imagine if in your local church you had no pastor to oversee the children’s, youth, adult, music and mission ministries. In fact, the only group that could oversee those ministry areas and hold them accountable for working together was your church charge conference, except that your charge conference only met once every four years. No doubt you would expect these ministries to each do their own thing, protect their own turf, and fail to work together in a way that created synergy and energy for a common vision. Of course, no church would ever organize itself in such a way.

Given this ruling, it seems to me if we are ever to have a shared vision and purpose on a denominational level, we will eventually need to make a constitutional amendment to paragraph 16.8 that would allow some group within the denomination to carry on the work of General Conference of initiating and directing connectional enterprises between General Conferences. There is always a possibility (though it is unlikely) that this legislative idea could come before us at this General Conference which would then allow us to still consider the core of Plan UMC Revised.     

Continuing the discussions from day 1, Rule 44 was debated on the floor. During the debate, several amendments were made to Rule 44, since all amendments to a rule have to be referred back to the Committee on Rules and Order, Rule 44 was once again sent back to the committee and is now scheduled to be voted on tomorrow (Thursday).  

After the lunch break, delegates went though a 2 hour training in Christian Conferencing which focused on cultural sensitivity and leaders were then selected and trained for each of the legislative committees.  

What everyone will remember about day 2 of General Conference, however, was the episcopal address by Bishop Gregory Palmer. Palmer began by quoting St. Bernard of Clairvaux who when asked about the 4 most important qualities for a Christian leader responded “humility, humility, humility, and humility.”  

He went on to remind us that we had not come to General Conference to have a “pity party” or “lick our institutional wounds”. We came to General Conference to discern “the next faithful steps” in our mission and industry together. Though our disagreements have strained our fellowship, Palmer proclaimed, “I have seen too much of what we can be and do to turn around now.”

As I considered the need for humility to see God at work in those with whom we disagree, it occurred to me that perhaps humility is the bridge over troubled water that God has given to the UMC. In Simon & Garfunkel’s great lyrics we hear “like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.” I think they nailed humility. If humility is the bridge across our differences that can enable us to be in ministry and mission together with a power that would otherwise be unavailable to us, we will have to learn to lay ourselves down.  

Humility requires laying down yourself: your ego, your agenda, your self protective pride for the sake of something much greater: the chance to be in fellowship with God and our neighbors. We need humility desperately at General Conference. We need it in the local church and we need it in our souls. Without humility there won’t be room for God to dwell in our hearts, there won’t be room for God to move in our churches, and there won’t be room for those with whom we disagree in our Discipline nor will there be respect for the Discipline in our actions.    

Humility is a simple concept, but a hard earned characteristic. In requires a long look at God’s bigness, a courageous look at our own limitations and temptations, and a loving look at our neighbors. May we have the patience, the courage, and the compassion to cross the troubled waters that divide us on bridge of humility God has provided for us.

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