Breakdown: Holy/Unholy Conferencing (5/x)

The last post described Conferencing as one of the unique marks of the UMC. Here I want to touch on my own experience of its strengths and weaknesses.

A Lot of Upside

Let me start by saying that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Methodist conferencing in countless ways. As a preacher’s kid, the South Carolina Conference is a family I was born into. Across dozens of local churches, different Districts and Superintendents, and different Bishops over the years, my brother and sister and I grew up right in the midst of it. We relocated throughout our early years and sacrificed, but also gained, much along the way. The Conference runs thicker than blood for us.

When I became a pastor, I entered into a different kind of relationship with it. Other clergy became colleagues, and lay people partners in ministry, so the Annual Conference each year was a cross between business and pleasure. It was like a homecoming to see the countless familiar faces: members of the church where I was born (dad literally delivered me in emergency childbirth in their parsonage bathroom); lay people from the different congregations where I spent grade school, middle school, and high school; the campus ministers and mentors who helped form my faith in college and in seminary; delegates from every church where we’ve served; lifelong friends from campus ministry or Asbury Hills (UMC summer camp) or Salkehatchie (UMC summer mission program); leaders from my parents’/grandparents’ home churches; and more.

An annual game of wiffle ball with other clergy at Annual Conference

Annual Conference provided hours and hours of priceless fellowship. Some called it “Pastor Camp” because we all got to get away for a little while, bunk together, share a lot of meals, go to the movies, and more, in between voting and business sessions. In South Carolina, for several years we organized an annual Bocce Ball tournament (I’ve still got a winner’s jacket). We had wiffle ball games, ran a 5k, played ultimate frisbee, and more — just occasions for everyone to build relationships. In an environment that could easily be cliquish and reserved for “insiders-only,” many of us committed to making it an open invitation, “all-are-welcome” kind of affair.

As a young preacher, the Annual Conference also provided space for personal growth and empowerment as a leader. I was tapped to spearhead the Conference social media team when, at the time, new technology like Twitter and Instagram were getting off the ground. Dozens of us took hourly shifts during Conference to communicate to the folks back home and to navigate the convoluted mishmash of UMC hashtags (#umcsc).

2013sleepout
Annual Conference Sleepout on the Florence Civic Center grounds

For many years I also got to organize what became known as the “Conference Sleepout.” Anyone willing to sacrifice their hotel room, in exchange for a tent on the Conference Center lawn, was invited to give the money saved on lodging to a ministry of the Bishop’s choosing. We helped raise several thousand dollars each year, and dozens of people participated despite the fire ants and locker room showers.

Another particular year, as a brand-new minister (probably age 24), I got to preach to the full session of Annual Conference. My congregation had just gone through the wild ride of opening a men’s homeless shelter, so I had the honor to share the witness of that ministry and those men with the several thousand people in attendance. I’ve also been able to serve almost a decade as the Chairperson of our Conference’s Board of Higher Education & Campus Ministry, in hopes of contributing to the Wesley Foundations that gave so much to me.

These have been awesome opportunities, and just a few highlights of the overall reality: this Annual Conference blessed me through thick and thin. For example, it was during one of my first Conference meetings that my sister was notably absent because she was in process of giving birth to her first child — and as soon as my nephew entered the world, a photo of mama and baby went up on the big screen. Just a few years later, Narcie missed another Conference gathering: this time she was in the middle of brain surgery to remove a recently-discovered malignant tumor. In both cases, the whole meeting paused to pray for my family by name, and in both cases their prayers availed. Thank you, Lord. It’s the kind of thing that we did for each other back then. We celebrated together, and we grieved together. It was beautiful. And, at all levels of the UMC, I’ve experienced similarly powerful worship and fellowship and the movement of the Holy Spirit in our Conferencing.

Unfortunately, the polar opposite is also true. Really, over the passing years as the UMC draws closer to a full split, I think the holy side of Conferencing has grown increasingly rare.

So Much Downside

How is it going wrong? Well, I don’t want to *shock* anybody, but when you get a bunch of human beings into one room, each of us doesn’t always serve as a vessel for the Spirit’s work. “Even a room full of preachers and church leaders?” Let’s be real. Conference turns out to be the place where UMC politics are most alive and well. Sometimes it’s just a crowd of broken human wills vying with one another for our various agendas. When there’s a chance to have time at a microphone, or get yourself up on the big screen, some people’s narcissism kicks into high gear. When there’s a critical vote, partisanship and game-playing are often afoot. In a system where top-down leadership holds a massive amount of power, self-promotion and sycophantic behavior runs rampant.

As a family of pastors, with a father who’s served at most of the highest levels of the UMC, we’ve been immersed in it. My Dad was South Carolina’s nominee to be Bishop for three consecutive quadrennia (four year cycles), something which I believe is unheard of in our history. I think it’s because he garnered widespread respect as someone who has run himself ragged working tirelessly on behalf of the people and churches in our Conference. It’s certainly in part because he has an unmatched knowledge of United Methodist theology and polity, and because he’s been overwhelmingly fruitful in every church/district he served. He also builds relationships wherever he goes.

Plenty of people in the Conference have given me the benefit of the doubt because of his credibility. I’ve also inherited plenty of enmity from people who have an adversarial relationship with him. It’s just the nature of the beast, especially since Dad is someone who speaks his mind without much filter, who has zero tolerance for lazy/ineffective clergy, and who does not suffer duplicity or arrogance very well. He came to the UMC after finding the Lord largely through other channels in Christendom, despite being many generations a Methodist. He didn’t attend a United Methodist seminary or stroll into the Conference riding those kinds of connections for the rest of his life. He just threw himself into serving God’s calling. And he’s taken plenty of heat and plenty of hits for it over the years. The Lord only knows. Anyway, the result is that I’ve mostly steered clear of Conference politics, after spectating the worst of it for years. But I appreciate his and other faithful leaders’ efforts to steer us in the right direction.

After all, our Conferencing at all levels is riddled with jockeying for position, especially through the work of different interest groups. For decades there have been official and semi-official factions for women, for African-Americans, for young adults, for retirees, for LGBT advocates, and more. I’ve belonged to and/or supported some of them. To their credit, these caucuses assert that they only exist because their particular views are overlooked or under-represented. Without special effort, they tell us, the denomination would run rough shod over them. In principle, they’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, in practice, sometimes some of these groups spend great time and expense making deals and serving their own interests rather than the people they claim to champion. It can be so many “clanging gongs” without much authentic love for the Church.

In UMC conferencing, there’s also an incessant effort to check boxes to be sure that people of every nationality, race, and gender have equal opportunity — which I wholly appreciate. For instance, we have formal bodies in the church dedicated to constantly monitoring sexism (the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women) and racism (the General Commission on Religion and Race). Unfortunately, zero attention is given to the currently most relentless type of discrimination in today’s UMC: theological. Whether someone is progressive or traditional is the present litmus test shaping almost every aspect of our denomination, but rarely is it uttered out loud. There certainly is no accountability for it. Instead, some of the most progressive Methodists have quietly worked the system for decades to accumulate power and influence, particularly at the very top.

I witnessed it first hand here in the Southeastern Jurisdiction (SEJ) as we watched Dad endure those three SEJ Conferences as a nominee for Bishop. It was the worst experience of anything Methodist I’d ever seen. I wrote a post about my full feelings at the time, and I encourage you to read it here. I saw the same toxicity at General Conference in unhinged protests, hateful rhetoric spewed by progressive leaders in the sessions, and horrible treatment of conservative delegates (especially international ones). Most recently, this kind of partisan behavior came even closer to home in South Carolina. After traditional victories in 2016 and 2019, progressive leaders began a coordinated political effort to explicitly elect left-leaning delegates in every Annual Conference. Their sole purpose was/is to take the denomination in their own preferred direction despite the serious concerns of a large majority of Methodist lay people. I wrote a post about it at the time, too, and encourage you to read that here as well.

Their effort was successful, since a majority of UMC preachers even in South Carolina is now substantially more progressive than the everyday person in the pews. The result is that our Conference delegation has near zero representation for moderate/traditional clergy. Just this week we saw their handiwork, as Jurisdictional Conferences all over the UMC elected the most far-left-leaning group of bishops the church has ever seen. The Western Jurisdiction even just elected its second openly gay bishop, another breach in our shared covenant at a time when human sexuality is at the forefront of our division. Is this the “big tent” model that we’ve all been promised? A major contingent of the church has virtually no voice or vote, no place at the table? While progressives appeal to traditional Methodists to be gracious by not bringing charges against those who break our doctrines on sexuality, in the same breath they continue to utterly disregard the moral conviction of the majority of the church. So here is the endgame of those who claim to prize diversity and unity above all else — to simply steamroll those they disagree with through a domineering monopoly on political leadership.

UMC pastor, Cedrick Bridgeforth, with husband, Christopher, recently elected openly gay bishop in Western jurisdiction

The saddest part of it all, for me, is that it’s been accompanied by a sense of personal division from people I consider friends and family. I mean, I’ll always maintain deep, lifelong relationships with many of those with whom I disagree. But right after those 2019 elections, plenty of my peers wouldn’t look me in the eye. I think they knew that it was no longer a question of choosing the most adept or experienced delegates to shepherd our Church; they knew that it wasn’t about helping the average Methodist grow in the faith that they choose for themselves. It was about one thing: imposing their personal views on the rest of us at all costs. It was about believing that they simply know better than the masses of good Methodists who take a traditional view of Christianity.

Most lay people I know are infuriated that this stuff is going on, but they’re uncertain what they can do about it. After all, when our Conferencing gives undue influence to ministers and bishops, millions of Methodists can be beholden to the whims of a relatively tiny group of leaders. I believe this is the real source of deep conflict in the UMC, the real root of schism and separation: progressive bishops and pastors coercing, manipulating, misdirecting, ransoming, and extorting the very flocks that they claim to serve. Even plenty of progressive-leaning laity have told me that while they wish for changes in the church, these heavy-handed tactics represent the opposite of open-minded Christian love. They recognize that this is the road to a messy separation full of collateral damage.

I have no doubt that progressive church leaders believe they’re working with the best interests of the church in mind. I have no doubt that they’ll continue describing what they’re doing as some kind of movement of “prophetic transformation” and “new life” and “fresh vision” and “the Spirit’s will” and “the glorious future of the UMC.” Matter of fact, those kinds of canned empty phrases are the only things you’ll hear from progressive Methodist leaders right now. “All is well,” they’ll tell you, “There’s nothing to see here. All you have to do is #stayUMC.” But at the very same time many of them are punishing conservative congregations and pastors in most Annual Conferences, tightening their control over the bureaucracy, and drawing the UMC farther and farther into left field.

No wonder hundreds, and what will be many thousands, of traditional congregations are fighting every kind of battle to be free of their once-beloved denomination. Why would they be willing to do such a thing? Why would those holding the large majority view feel impassioned to be the ones to leave it all behind? The answer is plain. They feel like this church they helped to build, this UMC that was built by a great many good and God-fearing Methodists, past and present, is in a state of hijacking.

From that point of view, if any of this is a movement of God, then I’m afraid I’m not sure which god it really is.

And so much of this breakdown, in so many ways, comes back to unholy conferencing.

6 thoughts on “Breakdown: Holy/Unholy Conferencing (5/x)

  1. Enjoyed the family story in that I have watched it from a distance, and been a part of it to. Retiring in Jun. I’ll still be doing ministry somewhere on my schedule. Got a wife and five grandkids that need a granddaddy. Will the traditional lawn camping be open this year or is that a thing of the past – hijacked?

    Pastor Mike Burgess Bethel-Armenia UMC Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Lay people get it now. It has spilled into the local church already. Plus we are all reading the news now. It was also obvious how our pastors and delegates always came back from conference devastated by the politics and games even 10 years ago. It can no longer be overlooked. You are either along for the ride or looking to get off so you can focus on more important things. Sadly, how many will just stop going to church or even believing if this is the example we set? It’s checkmate on the UMC – everyone understands the point of no return has been passed. Identity is self worship. Paul said we all one in Christ without the distinctions our culture celebrates now.

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