Today starts General Conference 2016. For months, years maybe, I have heard our church, my church, the church I love so much is broke. That we are weak and lost and maybe beyond repair. I have heard all the negative awful stories of decline, seen them with my own eyes, and felt it in my heart. In the days leading up to today, I have felt, like so many of my friends and colleagues, a tremendous pressure on my heart, a pressure we are laying very firmly on the shoulders of 864 delegates.
This morning however, I woke up praying. I hardly ever wake up praying as I am not a morning person and I do not have the peace of mind to talk to anyone in the morning, much less God. But this morning, before I even knew I was awake, I was forming words of prayer around General Conference. And I was lighter.
As I came in to the office, the thought struck me that perhaps, just perhaps we are wrong. Perhaps, the United Methodist Church is not worse off today than it ever has been. Perhaps we are not in as terrible a place as the ubiquitous “everyone” wants us to believe. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is our own panic and need to have things the way we want them that has made us forget how to hold in perspective where we are now with where we have been. I am not saying we don’t need to improve. I am not saying that there are not changes we as a church need to make. There are. But maybe we are making death inevitable by seeing only death instead of celebrating the death we have cheated to get to where we are today.
When I came into the office, I pulled out my 1956 copy of the Book of Discipline. (I was given this by a male colleague when I started in ministry who told me every clergy woman should own this BOD. I think there may soon be more UMC clergywomen then there are copies of the 1956 BOD. What a thing to celebrate!) Sometimes I like to just hold this book in my hands and remember how far we have come.
In 1956, as General Conference prepared to meet, there was no United Methodist Church. There was a very divided Methodist Church. There was a Methodist Church. There was a United Church of the Brethren. There were African Americans who were segregated into the “Central Jurisdiction”, regardless of where their churches were located geographically. There were no clergy women in full connection. Sure, we had pastors who were going to new Methodists who move into the community and making sure they stayed Methodist. Sure, had a million committees that did a bazillion things that reported at a quarterly conference so everybody better look busy. There was way more accountability that, at least on paper, seems better. But we also has trials for church members who bought, sold or made liquor. Shaming people for their sins was the order of the day. Excluding people, lots of people, was accepted and expected, not just in the church but in the world.
In 1956, I don’t know what the delegates were feeling or thinking. I am not sure what pressure was on them. We don’t have blog posts or tweets or emails to tell us their every thought. What we do have is a forward thinking decision to include women as full members of the clergy. What we do have is a courageous decision to remove the Central Jurisdiction and allow African American Methodist churches to join the geographical jurisdictions to which they should belong.
Are we a better stronger church today? I believe so. When I can name more women clergy that I know than men, I say so. When I see the global reach of the United Methodist church, not as missionary outposts but as churches that are part of the communities where people live, I say so. When I listen to former church member tell me how much her Korean pastor has changed her life, I say so.
Do we have much work to be done? Yes.
Are there more people to be included? Yes.
Do I pray that the General Conference of 2016 will be as courageous and bold and visionary as the General Conference of 1956 was? Yes.
In all things God works. Whatever our delegates leave us with, our church, my church, will remain the church through which God worked and works in my life and in the lives of many people I know and love. We cannot let the work of Christ stop. It goes on, regardless. And I am convinced with God and with the people of God committed to doing kingdom work where they are at, the church will only be better each year than the one that has past.