With a special General Conference called for February 2019 to address human sexuality concerns drawing nearer, Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. has assembled a team of leaders from throughout the Great Plains Conference to develop a process to offer resources, tools, disseminate accurate information and to hear the hopes and concerns from people throughout Kansas and Nebraska.
The group – known as the Forward in Unity Process Team – is comprised of six district superintendents, seven large-membership church pastors, six General Conference delegates, four associate conference lay leaders, two at-large members and two conference staff members, plus the bishop. The team met for the first time Tuesday, March 6, in Topeka at the new conference office. See who is on the team.
After a brief worship service featuring a message from Luke 9:46-56 and a team-building exercise using Legos kits, the group spent time discussing the Arbinger Institute’s book “Anatomy of Peace,” a story of a man’s strained relationships with his son, wife and employees at his startup business. The institute helps individuals, teams and organizations move from the often-default self-focus and an inward mindset to a results-focus and an outward mindset.
Arbinger’s book promotes the concept of seeing all others with whom a person interacts as people instead of as objects. The premise is that by objectifying people, it becomes easy to “horribilize” them and justify discounting their stances, beliefs and worth. Through the narrative, readers learn how to become self-aware of the “box” they often find themselves in when in conflict, and the various justifications for their thinking that keep them in that box. Then they learn strategies for getting out of the box and for achieving personal peace and harmony in all human interactions: in the home, at work, in the community, and for our purposes, in the church.
“Interactions by people who stay within their individual boxes exaggerate the differences between them,” said Michael Werner, a trainer with Arbinger Institute who led a 90-minute discussion with the team on interactions via a video call. “Small things look huge. And we, perhaps, even exaggerate our values, because those values justify me and my beliefs.”
The exercises led by Werner helped the group understand their personal “red flags” that can escalate a disagreement or at least hinder a discussion that could, instead, result in understanding.
“We use these strategies to blame others with more precision,” Werner said. “We use them as ammunition instead of considering how we can use the experience to learn more about ‘me.’ In the box, we are not thinking about what others’ challenges are. In fact, I’m only thinking about how they are burdening me.”
The team then reviewed actions related to human sexuality taken by the General Conference since 1972 through the most recent worldwide church delegate gathering in 2016 in Portland, Ore. In some cases, team members shared their experiences from General Conferences they attended in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, Tampa and Portland.
Bishop Saenz presented the two most recent possible alignments of The United Methodist Church, as presented to the Council of Bishops for consideration by the Commission on a Way Forward. The council formed the Commission on a Way Forward – comprised of 32 people from around the world – after the 2016 General Conference when an impasse over human sexuality was breached, at least temporarily, by a motion from the Rev. Mark Holland, pastor at Trinity UMC in Kansas City, and support from delegates from the Great Plains Conference. The motion urged the bishops to provide leadership on how the church could be open to new ways of embodying unity that move us beyond where we are in the present impasse and cycle of action and reaction around ministry and human sexuality.
The vision of designing a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and the balances an approach to different theological understanding of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible led the development and furthering of two models.
One model maintains a single church and removes restrictive language from the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s book of governance. A second model reorganizes the five U.S. jurisdictions into three branches, known as connectional conferences – with one branch being more progressive, one being more traditional and one taking into account the context for ministry for a given region. In the second model, annual conferences would decide to which connectional conference they belong, and individual congregations that differ with their annual conference could vote to affiliate with an annual conference in one of the other branches. If neither model is approved by the 2019 special General Conference delegates, the current Book of Discipline would remain in place.
Bishop Saenz told the team that the task ahead will require work, discernment, prayer and people being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
“I want to provide conference leaders and congregations with a process, tools and resources to strengthen the resiliency and robustness needed to maintain our unity and move forward in mission together,” said Bishop Saenz. “That is my first objective as an episcopal leader for our conference and the worldwide United Methodist Church.”
As part of this first meeting, team members discussed and signed a covenant duplicated from the document agreed upon by the members of the Commission on a Way Forward.
The Forward in Unity Process Team is scheduled to meet next on April 3 to discuss resources that will be developed for local churches, networks and districts, as well as to devise the method by which human sexuality will be discussed in a pre-annual conference listening session scheduled for 2 to 4 p.m. June 13 at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Wichita.