I attended the pre-General Conference 2020 briefing Jan. 23-24 in Nashville, and for only the second time in my five years serving as communications director, I came away from a gathering of Methodists from around the world with a truly positive feeling.
The briefing, conducted by United Methodist Communications with help from other agencies of the denomination, provided a snapshot into the major legislation and topics that will be discussed in May in Minneapolis. It is there, after all, that the 862 delegates from around the world will gather to determine, most likely, the fate of the denomination.
Cue the dramatic music.
I admit that I wasn’t looking forward to this gathering. As a communications professional, the briefing is what I have learned to count on to scope out the venue, determine logistics and, in general, get a feel for where I’ll call “home” for nearly two weeks. By conducting the briefing in Nashville, I didn’t get any of that. But while I think conducting such a meeting in the host city is still the best idea, I do think there was value in getting people together in the same room to worship, to listen and to build relationships.
It’s clear there is one goal above many others for the 2020 General Conference: that it looks and feel nothing at all like what we experienced during the acrimonious 2019 special session in St. Louis.
Others may have very different feelings about the time in Nashville, but from my perspective this was a cordial, friendly gathering. It’s the first time I walked away from a large-scale meeting of the worldwide church feeling this good since the conclusion of an Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D) workshop UMCOM put together soon after I arrived in the Great Plains in 2015.
What made this briefing so good, at least from my perspective? For the first time, it didn’t seem like people — at least most people — were talking at others but instead were talking with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. It seemed like people actually were listening to each other instead of blocking out what some would consider noise from another’s perspective.
It’s how you would expect a bunch of followers of Jesus to act.
Bishop Bruce Ough, from the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area, set the tone with opening worship reminding everyone present through a telling of the Exodus story that while we may be wandering in a wilderness of discontent and disconnect — my words, not his — the Lord remains among us.
What followed was a well-designed flow of informative presentations. With just two days, the agenda was packed, but UMCOM did a good job of organizing things. The first day focused on the hot topic: human sexuality. After presentations by Upper Room and the Minneapolis host committee, we dove right into the various plans already offered for consideration, all aimed at bringing a close to the hurtful debate that has been going on in the church for, literally, as long as I’ve been alive. And all of those presentations were framed in some way with the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation. It was impossible not to look at each and every one of the plans without peering, at least in part, through the protocol lens.
We heard about the Indianapolis Plan. I have to give a shout out to the Rev. Dr. Kent Millard, president of United Theological Seminary, who spoke for the Indy Plan. He admitted that the protocol sorted out something that his group couldn’t: the all-important finances. As a result, he said he would be happy to see the protocol move forward in place of the Indy Plan.
Millard provided the best analogy to describe our shared situation. He talked about two animals observed in Denali National Park. They fought and got their horns caught together in such a way that they couldn’t free themselves. They eventually died as a result. Millard’s point is that separation actually can be life-sustaining. In my opinion, the Indianapolis Plan is a cleaned-up version of the Connectional Conferences Plan that didn’t even get any discussion or debate in St. Louis. And yes, I understand that I’m oversimplifying things with that statement, but it’s how it shaped up in my head.
Next came UMForward, a group that basically calls for a full dissolution of The United Methodist Church because its supporters see the denomination as having a history of oppression toward women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. They also take issue with LGBTQ+ persons being described as inanimate objects, such as “issue” or “subject” or “theological differences” or even the overall term so often used (I’ve used it even in this blog) “human sexuality.”
I was captivated by the presenters for this plan. They were young and spoke with an energy that grabbed my attention. They showed passion, and I found their end-goal extremely appealing: “just, equitable treatment of marginalized people.” It may be a case, however, of letting “great” get in the way of “good.” As a business teacher I respect once taught me, organizations don’t become great without first becoming good. Delegates will have to determine if this plan is a case of running before walking. This was the one plan discussed that sounded like organizers in no way would withdraw it in favor of the protocol. They simply see the protocol as not going far enough. I may not agree with the presenters on their hardline stance at this point, but I do greatly admire their passion and desire to — as they challenged those in attendance — “dream into a different world, to trust God that we, as a people, can do better.”
UMCNext then presented its plan, which calls for separation much like the protocol. It has four main components: Repeal of the Traditional Plan that passed during the 2019 special session, staying open to new forms for methodism that would allow local churches to leave, removal of the prohibitive language from the Book of Discipline, and amend ¶140 to remove discriminatory language. It also calls for a rewriting of the church’s constitution so it better addresses 21st-century concerns. Its organizers said they fully support the protocol.
There is much more to all of these plans. You’ll find a chart that provides details of the plans assembled by United Methodist News Service here.
Finally, the protocol was presented by the Great Plains Conference’s own Rev. Junius Dotson, general secretary of Discipleship Ministries, and by Rev. Keith Boyette, a leader in the traditionalist Wesleyan Covenant Association. Both talked about the deep love for Christ and for the church held by the people who came together to hammer out an agreement, now known as the protocol.
This plan has been sliced and diced in the past few weeks, so I won’t go into detail here. To learn more about it, please watch this presentation by Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. from the annual Orders & Fellowship clergy gathering earlier in January. You can even download his PowerPoint presentation.
Here are the anticipated next steps: A smaller group of participants in the negotiation team will get together to write the protocol into a real piece of legislation. The Judicial Council then will be asked to review the legislation to ensure that it is constitutional. And an annual conference or two will conduct special sessions in an attempt to pass the protocol legislation onto the General Conference by some point in March to meet deadlines to allow it to be considered by delegates in Minneapolis.
Delegates and communicators at the pre-General Conference briefing heard about many more subjects. One, from the Connectional Table, provides a mechanism called a regional conference for the church in the United States to discuss and decide topics that don’t impact anyone outside U.S. borders.
We also heard some perspectives from delegates outside the United States. We heard about potential changes to pensions from Wespath. We heard about legalities for disaffiliation, the proposed quadrennium budget of $493.77 million — a reduction of more than $110 million — and a variety of other legislation that will be before the delegates ranging from ordination to a revision to the Social Principles to full communion with the Episcopal Church.
Videos of some of the presentations are expected to be available in the next week or so. When they are available, I’ll post to this blog so you know you can view them.
It was two days’ worth of sitting, listening and absorbing information. I think it was worth it. Of course, we won’t really know for sure until we get to Minneapolis in May. But I do think what I witnessed in Nashville provides reason for hope.
Todd Seifert is communications director for the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church. He can be reached via phone at 785-414-4224, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to his "In Layman's Terms" podcast. Opinions expressed are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Great Plains Annual Conference or The United Methodist Church. Follow him on Twitter, @ToddSeifert.