The Reality We Face
Tod Bolsinger’s Canoeing the Mountains uses Lewis and Clark’s westward journey of discovery to help the church better understand the nature of our journey into a rapidly changing world. It chronicles how Lewis and Clark had to adapt to a new reality vastly different from the one they expected in order to complete their mission. Bolsinger’s thesis is remarkably simple: the church will only be able to carry out the mission God has given us if we are able to adapt to reality the way it is, instead of the way we think it is.
Here’s the reality we face. There is tremendous pain throughout our church. The LGBTQIA community is hurting deeply because they experience their church pushing them out and saying they are not worthy of God’s love. Those who are convinced the church acted correctly because of their interpretation of scripture are struggling with being labeled as hateful even though they believe they accept LGBTQIA persons as siblings in Christ. And nearly everyone is wounded by the realization we no longer are the church we thought we were.
Sadly, there’s also another dimension of this reality. The anger, ugly rhetoric and blame that enveloped General Conference has continued since its adjournment to the point that we are so polarized we’re struggling to find a future together. Tragically, the 2020 General Conference now appears to be our last chance to avoid the United Methodist Church destroying itself.
This means we must make a choice about our future. We can choose to accentuate our differences, be overwhelmed by our pain, dwell in our anger and ultimately decide it’s time to divide into our own tribes. Or we can choose to see beyond these things and work for the unity to which Christ calls the church, embrace those with whom we disagree as brothers and sisters in Christ as persons who are living out their faith with the same integrity we have, and listen to our hearts that tell us we ultimately are better together than apart.
I am convinced the vast majority of United Methodists still long for this second choice because we have experienced time and again the truth of Paul’s affirmation in 1 Corinthians 12:14-26 that we need each other: “As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (vv 20-21).
God is Using Our Pain to Help Us Chart a New Way Forward
When I offered An Opportunity for a Fresh Look at the Connectional Conference Plan this past January, I hoped delegates would consider the Connectional Conference Plan as a viable option, even as I wondered whether it would only be seriously considered when our pain reached a high enough level.
Our pain level is now off the charts. But I am convinced that God is using our pain to help us chart a new way forward. We now see how our current system is designed to get more of the same results we got in St. Louis; we now understand that there may seem to be winners and losers, but nobody really wins and everyone actually loses; and we now are beginning to sense how the Connectional Conference Plan can help us find a new way forward to a new kind of unity.
The Connectional Conference Plan Addresses the Reality We Face
We now know the United Methodist Church faces a reality that potentially could cause fracturing and result in chaos. The Connectional Conference Plan helps us address this reality we now face.
- It recognizes that our differences about human sexuality point to a deep theological division that exists within our church, and creates distinctive Connectional Conferences that provide space for individuals, congregations, Annual Conferences and Central Conferences to exist in Connectional Conferences that fully express their theological preferences.
- It frees the church from the trap of dividing into winners and losers and offers a new way forward for the entire United Methodist Church by doing two things that are essential: creating room for people to live their faith with integrity and also providing a means to stay connected in ways that enrich each other.
- It does not force people to be part of a church with which they disagree or enforce conformity through disciplinary measures. It envisions authentic unity growing out of a relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, core theological beliefs, shared ministry and our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for God’s transformation of the world. It is a powerful expression of the unity Jesus talks about in John 15: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (vv 4-5).
- It offers long-needed adaptive change that will redefine the work of General Conference, Annual Conferences, ordained ministry, itinerancy, the episcopacy and general agencies. These changes will help a new church more frutifully carry out our mission in a variety of diverse contexts throughout the world.
The Connectional Conference Plan Can Work
Many people question whether the same Connectional Conference Plan that was so quickly written off by the majority of delegates can now be adopted, especially since it is still perceived as too complex and complicated to be implemented. Answering that question is easy. Absolutely!
First, the plan is already written in complete legislative form. It has been carefully put together and vetted by the Commission on the Way Forward. This means it can easily be submitted by the mid-September 2019 deadline for 2020 General Conference legislation, although some legislation adopted by the 2019 General Conference will need to be amended by deletion.
Second, the time is ripe for a grassroots movement of laity and clergy, progressives, centrists, traditionalists and those from the Central and Jurisdictional Annual Conferences to do what institutional leaders have been unable to do. Certainly, there will have to be difficult conversations between people who now seem estranged, as well as serious exploration with those in the Central Conferences to understand how a plan that seems designed primarily for the United States can be beneficial for the global church. But the Connectional Conference Plan can become a reality if a broad-based coalition from around the globe offers it as a true “Unity Plan”.
Third, the high threshold of two-thirds support needed from General Conference and Annual Conferences ensures that this is not merely a win for some and a loss for others, but a way forward for the entire church. It is a holy opportunity! Adopting the Connectional Conference Plan would be the church choosing to stay together as the Body of Christ rather than letting our differences tear us apart.
Filled with Hope
We are in a fragile and tender time. The risks are high and the consequences potentially tragic. Embracing the Connectional Conference Plan as a “Unity Plan” will take commitment, involve a great deal of hard work, force us to think about unity in a brand new way and reshape the church.
Yet I am filled with hope that we can still choose to focus on what unites rather than divides us, we can still choose to believe our brothers and sisters in Christ are acting with spiritual integrity and we can still choose to grow into the unity Jesus dreams for us.