An Open Letter to the SEJ (with salt)

An Open Letter to the SEJ (with salt)

To Whom It May Concern:

As played-out as the “open letter” format has become, I see now that sometimes it’s hard to come up with a better title, so here we are.

There’s a lot I want to say and do after the events this past week in the more obscure recesses of the United Methodist Church known as Jurisdictional Conference. I haven’t really been sure the best way to share, or how few people even care to hear it. That’s been true for my feelings since 2008. But I do want to take a stab at giving my best and briefest summary of recent things, based on no more than my own private reflection rooted in my own personal experience.

To do that, I’m gonna have to start by describing this past week as a little bit sweet but mostly pretty dang salty.

For one, our Southeastern Jurisdiction (SEJ) certainly did a powerful thing in finally electing its first African-American woman bishop in Sharma Lewis. It also seems like the election of several of the others this week was a great thing. Since I’m going to make an occasional reference to past Jurisdictional Conferences, let me say here that I think the same was just as true in 2012. Bishop Holston has been an excellent bishop in every way, and I also appreciate a few others who were elected at that time alongside him. But with that said, here is the one thing that I want to make as loudly and as publicly clear as possible: if you’re unfamiliar with the deep inner-workings of United Methodism, I suggest you consider never attending larger-level UMC conferencing.

We all know how political even a local congregation can be. We know it. We say things like, “Well there’s just as much politics in the church as anywhere else, maybe more.” I hate that, but it’s only natural if the Church is just a group of human beings whose individual nature is fallen and, oftentimes, ridiculous. It’s just as natural that the larger the group of people, the greater the potential for overall ridiculousness, as we build institutions and bureaucracies in our own broken images. Everybody, from doctors/nurses to school teachers to senators to pro athletes, knows how corrupt their systems can get. Church is no different. Now, Church IS different in the sense that it’s the only such group that can actually offer any remedy to the systemic problem — the singular effective remedy being, in fact, the redeeming work of Jesus. But, unfortunately, being able to offer the remedy doesn’t also render us immune to the illness. So, yes, the Church is at once home to the most beautiful and excellent human activity that has been or ever will be (insofar as God’s grace works in us); and it’s equally home to our worst tendencies. To get back to the point, there is no doubt for me that the highest-level conferences of the United Methodist church are the personification of the worst and most political parts of us.

Let me tell you with my own eyes and ears. I will never forget being a brand-new clergyperson in 2008, coming to the SEJ since my Dad was a first-time nominee. The election wasn’t that heated, with only one position to fill. But it blew my mind, as a fresh-faced young adult pastor, to see the extent that voting blocs dominated the proceedings, that inter-conference deals permeated everything, and how much foul interpersonal politics saturated Lake Junaluska. The conversations that I overheard were unfathomable. One instance that stands out is that beginning early on in the round-robin interviews, some members of other delegations started to bring up questions over whether or not Dad was Native American. Not only what they were asking, but how they were asking it, gave off the vibe that something was strangely askew, especially since Dad had not even made his Native American heritage a focus of his platform. But by the next day I understood that this was my first taste of SEJ tactics, as the subject had become an intentionally-manufactured buzz in other delegations. I need to be confessional here in saying that when I personally overheard several delegates from other large Conferences make snide (and, frankly, racist) remarks about whether or not Dad was “a real Indian,” I think it was only my shock that kept me from immediately asking them to “step outside.” That, and the fact that it would by no means be what Jesus would do. But still.

I’ll never forget coming back to Junaluska in 2012, having spent the year leading up to the SEJ far more attuned to things, and feeling far more informed about the nominees and other delegations. The proceedings and the results and the overheard commentaries were similar. To this very moment, it boggles my mind to understand how large groups of 15-40 delegates, or at least their power-brokers, can manage to strategize deals that stretch across quadrennia, four and eight years in the making. But it was overheard, obvious, and rampant. The theme was: “You vote for ours and we’ll vote for yours this time, or next time,” without regard to anything but the selfish agenda of “We got ours elected!” What’s been most clear to me is that, if folks want to talk about inclusivity in the election process, we must discuss not only race and gender but also geography and the delineation of Annual Conferences. The fact that our two or three largest conferences can ultimately dictate together how the entire jurisdiction is led, is absurd and harmful. The reality that some of these conferences are so accustomed to having their own nominees chosen every time there’s an election, and that they have such an influence on the outcomes that it’s become like a kind of sporting event to them, is definitively sinful. And after the 2012 elections, to talk to first-time delegates from all over the SEJ about what they had chosen and why, it was even more mind-boggling to feel how little concrete, prayerful discernment went into their work. They admitted, more than anything, being caught up in the pageantry of being a delegate and voting according to what their senior delegation members parlayed to them.

Here in 2016, it all feels mostly similar. To think that voting blocs and larger-voting conferences directly shaped the outcomes according to far-in-advance planning, blows my mind. I have a strong sense from multiple peers that not only did a small handful of conferences band together to decide the elections, but they did so based on deals that promised the ability to trade with one another their preference of nominee. In other words, “We’ll get your person through if you get ours through, and if you get our person through then we’ll have yours come to serve us here.” I would say it’s confusing except that the math is really pretty simple, particularly if you glance at the recent release of the new episcopal assignments. The real confusion is how anyone who travels life under the banner of Christ would think that any of this will escape his notice. Mind-blowing.

My frustration is only amplified by the fact that the official rules for proper campaigning have been consistently tightened in recent years, so that nominees were asked to no longer answer invitations to visit other conferences, nominees were instructed not to use social media for self-promotion, and nominees had rigid limits on how many mailings/communications they could share. Those guidelines almost make sense. Who wants to see a flood of self-gratifying social media posts, and a litter of mailings, from potential future bishops? The only problem is that, alongside these regulations, there has been no effort to hinder the behind-closed-doors dealings that have been the real factor in voting outcomes for God-only-knows how many years. In other words, we have been over-policing some of the more transparent and natural means for a nominee to develop relationships with other conferences, while the most ridiculous and influential of political machinations continue to go completely unchecked. Mind-blowing.

This is a good time to be clear again that none of my above observations are meant to take away from the fact that, very truly, we seem to have elected some great folks over the years, including in 2016. But my most sincere takeaway is that when a good election has happened, it has only been by God’s grace working in spite of longstanding, broken power structures. That, for me, taints even the best elections that we’ve ever made as a Jurisdiction. In that sense, what has frustrated me most of all, and called into question whether or not I feel morally obliged to be yoked in any way with the United Methodist Church, is the massive lack of Spirit-led discernment in these schemes. And it’s not just that alone. It’s this glaring absence of the Spirit which is then paired simultaneously with a constant, artificial charade of attentiveness to the same Spirit. It’s seeing some of the most manipulative maneuvers in the UMC dressed up in the incessant language of “God’s will” and “God’s Kingdom” and “prayerful discernment.” That’s what I can’t abide quietly, and it’s what has been adding to my growing grief over this denomination.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that God’s Spirit was utterly absent. Like many of you, I experienced God move in the hymns and some of the sermons, some fellowship and liturgy and the rest of what went on this past week. I know the Spirit can move regardless of what human beings think, say, or do. And I thank God that the Spirit moves regardless of whether or not we falsely claim it out loud so many times in one sitting that it sounds like we’re trying to convince ourselves. I also know that there are a ton of great, hard-working, Christ-centered, Spirit-led delegates all over the SEJ, folk who really try to be discerning and who have victories in the whole process. So many in South Carolina are just like that. There’s plenty of great stuff and great people in the overall mix, so I don’t mean to sound like I’m pointing a bony, judgmental finger at the totality of the SEJ. However.

However, despite any signs of life, my overwhelming experience is this: I witnessed as much falsehood, duplicity, and political trash at work in and around Stuart Auditorium (and especially in the months leading up to being there) as in any other corrupt human arena on earth. And the most disheartening part was how this backdrop of shady deals was combined with the foreground of claiming that the Holy Spirit was moving in all of it, that the Lord was sanctifying every ounce of it, and that we were all God’s instruments of a glorious new future just because we were there breathing that hallowed air. To use an innocuous version of the language I’d really like to apply here: For Pete’s Sake!

Other delegates will disagree with my understanding of things, some perhaps fervently. I know it may sound like I’m trying to cast my own personal “Debbie Downer” pall over everything. I know that this could sound like no more than sour grapes. I know that, for some of you, a white-male clergyperson like me crying “foul” over the outcome of elections in the Southeast is the picture of preposterous irony, and there are far more significant battles to fight. I know that in the context of real life, it is absolutely the silliest of “first world problems” to be overly concerned with some of this. I know that the nominees that went unelected will continue stellar service in whatever capacity the Lord leads them. I know that God’s grace can work through our newly-elected bishops. I know that the real impact of anyone’s ministry is ultimately disciple-making in the local church, so we can all just double down on that and maybe larger-level conferencing really is fairly irrelevant. I know that, above all, most of the world doesn’t know what I’m talking about here, what all these acronyms stand for, and why it might matter – including plenty of United Methodists.

But I don’t know exactly how to feel right now. I don’t know, all in all, what rationale our SEJ delegates have been following, not really. I certainly don’t know how we got here or how it shapes what’s in store for Methodists. Even though some historic moments have occurred, I don’t know if everything I’ve seen in these conferences isn’t just the greatest snapshot of our denomination “doing the same old thing, the same old way, and expecting different results.” I don’t know that we’re even the tiniest bit more equipped to weather an impending split or the fabled “tsunami of doom.” I don’t know that either of those things would even ultimately be bad for us at this point. And, more than anything, I frankly don’t know that I care, because maybe we could all use a little less institutional loyalty/attachment/control in favor of a little more simple Jesus following.

In closing, I hope in writing not to diminish anyone’s joy or peace or faith, and certainly don’t intend to undermine the office of the episcopacy. I still believe so firmly in (at least the theory of) Connectionalism. But I do hope to offer solidarity to those whose experiences resonate with mine. I hope to help clarify for those who watched SEJ2016 with a vague sense that something seemed to be amiss. I hope to explain to those who ask, “What on earth went on up there?” And I hope to offer an alternative perspective, and perhaps a little pause, for those who have only experienced unicorns and rainbows and the so-called “movement of the Spirit” at Jurisdictional Conference.

For those who will claim that my impression of SEJ2016 was only badly-colored because the results didn’t come out the way I’d hoped, I’ll put this back to you: could it be that your impression was only rosy-colored because the results did come out as you’d hoped and planned? If so, the far more meaningful thing that we all need to wonder together is this: regardless of the actual outcomes of the ballots, was the way that it transpired actually pleasing in the sight of God, who looks on the hearts of all? Lord have mercy.

Rev. Josh McClendon




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