What just happened? (My take on #GC2016)

General Conference 2016 is now in the books. After a long season of great anticipation and some trepidation, our denominational leaders have now gathered and adjourned, leaving the rest of us to reflect on just what happened in those ten days of conferencing.

There were moments along the way that were downright embarrassing. At least once, I found myself weeping as I listened, wondering just how much more this corporate body could bear without breaking. Much of the proceedings were painfully stifled by the combination of Roberts Rules of Order and an obvious spirit of distrust.

And yet, beneath the surface a trajectory seems to have formed in Portland that is leading us forward in a surprising direction.

My prediction before #GC2016 was that on the most controversial issue to be discussed —  the language of the Book of Discipline — we would maintain the status quo, leaving our denomination without clear answers and many without peace and resolution. That prediction has proven true. What I would not have guessed, however, is what happened beneath the surface of General Conference.

It seems, from an analysis of multiple votes on various issues, that the United Methodist Church has taken a decisive step in a more orthodox direction, and certainly a more global direction. The presence of non-American delegates was more powerfully felt and from comments to reporters one gets the sense that our African members especially now have a stronger voice in the process. Our global connection has not only been retained but deepened.

Here is my take on what happened at General Conference:

  1. An overwhelmingly strong vote (75% to 25%) disaffiliated the UMC from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. This represents a significant shift in thinking for the global Church.
  2. The church continues to pursue important justice and mercy issues including human trafficking, stamping out killer diseases like malaria and AIDS, environmental stewardship, and the sanctity of human life.
  3. The language of the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality remains as it is. Other votes related to this issue were shelved in favor of a future conversation guided by the Council of Bishops after further study.
  4. The Conference defeated motions to separate the American Church from the global Church. The call to remain a global Church became one of the more important themes of the Conference.
  5. The body of the Conference requested and received the leadership of the Council of Bishops on the issue of human sexuality. A commission was formed which has been charged with studying the issue and developing a strategy for graceful exit and disaffiliation for those who disagree with its findings.
  6. A disaffiliation-with-property proposal passed a committee vote, signaling support for an eventual conversation about this. While that proposal did not make it to the floor of the Conference, it should be a priority of the Bishops’ commission to explore this option.
  7. The margins in the votes on key issues signal that the weight of opinion has shifted toward a more orthodox theology.
  8. Both the University Senate and Judicial Council received a number of new members who are more theologically orthodox. For the first time, the chair of the Judicial Council is not an American.
  9. A proposal was made and accepted requiring bishops to hold one another accountable for decisions in their individual Conferences.
  10. For the first time (or so it seems), those on the far left publicly discussed a possible exit, signaling that none of us on any “side” is ready to settle for the UMC as it currently exists.
  11. The strength of the UMC is now clearly in the hands of the global church. The African church, growing at significant rates, now holds the power in our denomination. The General Conference is scheduled for the first time outside the U.S. (in 2024 in Manila, Philippines, followed by 2028 in Harare, Zimbabwe).
  12. The UMC grew by a total of 1.2 million members in the last four years, mostly outside the U.S. The Africa Central Conference has grown by 329 percent, while in the United States the denomination has declined by 11 percent.*
  13. The charge to the Council of Bishops has no definition beyond the formation of a commission. No timeline or specific goals other than the discussion of human sexuality were assigned to this commission.
  14. Through two weeks of meetings, there was an obvious conversation about separation that needed to happen, yet no one presiding on the Conference floor was willing to step up and lead that conversation publicly. Consequently, that conversation happened at every level except on the Conference floor.
  15. There is a growing disconnect between the theology and ethos of the American church and the rest of the world. Rev. Jerry Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia, is quoted as saying, “The church has taken on strangely a new direction. People from the country that brought the Gospel to us are now preaching a different Gospel.”*

As the gavel fell on Friday afternoon, it seemed from this distance as if no one on any side of the conversation left #GC2016 with a clear path or encouraged spirit. Yet, many who have been deeply discouraged left with the realization that (as we say in the south) it ain’t over yet.

And what is ahead may surprise us.


* Emily McFarland Miller. “African Methodists Worry About the Church That Brought Them Christianity.” Ministry Matters: May 20, 2016.

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The High Cost of Unholy Fear (or, how to miss God’s best)

Two years after the Israelites were delivered from slavery, Egyptian silver clinking in their backpacks, they stood with toes touching the border of the land God promised them.They’d seen waters part and enemies drown. Yahweh was intimately involved with their lives. They knew him. They followed him. And just two short years after packing up and moving out of bondage, there they stood on the brink of God’s best. Yes, there were vicious armies and untamed wilds on the other side of that border but they had the smoke and fire of God blazing their trail.

Then it happened. Human nature kicked in.

They became more cautious than optimistic. There at the edge of God’s plan, they sent a dozen spies into that question mark of a promise to check things out. Ten returning spies slinked back with a warning: “Don’t do it! It is great real estate, but the people are giants. We will all die if we go over there.” The majority report was full of fear and trepidation.

The other two spies — young men named Joshua and Caleb – looked on that land and saw a future with hope. For them, the land was more possibility than problems. “I think we should do this,” they challenged. “This is God’s land and God’s fight. Let Him defend us!”

The people did what people mostly do. They allowed the voice of fear to drown out the voice of potential and it cost them dearly.

That day, God turned them back from the border of promise. He sent them out into the wilderness again where he promptly vowed that not one of their generation would see the land flowing with milk and honey. Fear would not be woven into the DNA of his chosen people, not if he had anything to do with it.

So the people got in the wilderness what they were most afraid of getting in the promised land. They were destroyed by their own choice. For thirty-eight years they wandered like dead men walking before another generation found itself toe to toe with God’s purposes.

I wonder if most of that first generation even knew how close they were to greatness? I wonder if, way down the road, some of them sat around campfires and wondered aloud, “What do you suppose would have become of us if we’d listened to Joshua and Caleb? How do you suppose it would have turned out?” Did they even stop to think about it as they poked their fires or packed up their tents yet again or held their cups beneath water flowing from rocks?

Did they think that deeply? Did they assume, like most people, that what they had twenty or thirty years out from that decision was all there was? Did they ever stop to imagine more than mediocrity punctuated by death? Or did they simply go about their lives, making grocery lists, making beds, making a living, making do?

I wonder, but I can’t judge. After all, I am an Israelite myself. I peak over into spiritual promises and my little internal band of spies reports back, “That’ll never work for you,” and far too often I listen to those voices of fear or laziness or institutional caution and I miss out.

Who knows how long I’ve wandered, unaware of the promises I’ve turned down, while God in his mercy determines to kill off all in me that wreaks of fear?

Who knows what promises I’m toeing now as I poke my fires, count my money, check my phone and absent-mindedly get back to what I know?

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Betty Crocker and the United Methodist Church

Last June while attending the North Georgia Annual Conference, I wrote the following as I wrestled with a deep personal concern about the dangers of denominational unity at any cost:

Betty Crocker is not real.

She was conjured up by someone at the Washburn Crosby Milling Company who wanted to personalize the responses to baking questions of housewives who wrote in. Betty’s now-famous signature was the result of a signature contest at the company. To produce her face, they called every female employee into the room and had someone draw a composite of all their features.

That face — the one that looks like everyone’s mom — became the face of the world’s first boxed cake mix, so complete that all you had to do was add water. It was supposed to make a perfect cake every time.

Does it get any more convenient than that?

It bombed. Folks who tried it felt like they were contributing nothing to the process. It was too easy; in fact, it was offensive to any serious cook.  Betty’s creators tried again. This time, they asked the customer to add an egg in addition to water.

That worked. The new, improved cake mix (which didn’t actually need the egg) was a huge success.

I wrote the above as I heard colleagues in the hallways at last year’s conference say things like, “Can’t we all just get along? Can’t we agree to disagree? Can’t we just be a family, with all its dysfunctions and crazy uncles?”

This is a very United Methodist question. For decades, our denomination has stretched to make room for a widening array of opinions and theological perspectives. We’ve somehow made room for conservatives and liberals, universalists and literalists, traditionalists and charismatics. Every time we’ve flexed to include another perspective it is as if we’ve added another face to the picture. We have allowed ourselves to become the Gospel According to Betty Crocker — a composite of everyone’s theological profile.

Pleasing, non-offensive. Just add water.

That hasn’t worked for us, any more than it worked for Betty. At the end of the day, all the blending — as well-intentioned as it has been — has made us something so generic, pleasant and convenient that we are unpalatable to the rest of the world. Our numbers bear this out.

Today as General Conference nears its close, I am only confirmed in my opinion: Our structure is not designed to withstand our diversity. By trying to make it fit, we’re doing no one any favors. By adding yet another study commission to the pile, we’re only prolonging the pain. Meanwhile, we’re filing the edge off our personality. It is a downright shame, because Wesleyanism was so edgy when it was Wesley preaching it. We were distinctive enough to get kicked out of places.  Today, I’m not sure we could get kicked out of anything.

Like I said, a shame.

I am praying that those doing the work of the church in Portland will hear the wisdom of angels: Be strong and courageous. Don’t be afraid. I’m praying for voices in that room audacious enough to suggest creative alternatives to simply placating every opinion and stripe. I’m praying for bishops with courage to step up and lead honest conversations now, rather than delaying the inevitable. I’m also praying for folks with courage to confess our differences and spiritual maturity to consider the very real possibility that unity at this point holds no integrity.

I am praying for Spirit-led minds at General Conference who want to do more than “just add water” — keeping us conveniently bound to the most generic face possible.

That face is not a fair representation of anyone’s gospel. It simply isn’t real.

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Don’t settle.

Mark Batterson tells the story of Honi the Circle-Maker.* Honi isn’t a Bible character, but from other writings that include his story (Jerome, for instance), it seems that Honi likely lived within fifty or so years of Jesus.

Honi was an Israelite known for his ability to pray for rain. He visited cities dealing with drought, drew a circle in the sand there, then stood inside that circle and prayed for rain.

Once, the Israelites called on Honi when they hadn’t seen rain in a year. Honi did his usual. He walked to the edge of town, drew a circle in the sand, stood inside it and said, “Lord, I know you have power to bring rain and I know your will is provision. And so, I swear before this great nation that I am not going to move from this circle until you have shown mercy on your children.”

That ends up being a dangerous prayer. Honi was almost killed for that uttering it. People in his day didn’t think a person should talk to God that way.

They might have killed him except that about the time Honi finished his prayer it started to sprinkle. If I’d been this prophet I might have picked up my circle at that point and walked right out of town. After all, I’d proven my approach. Why would I give more to people who would have killed me but for that sprinkle?

But Honi knew God, and because he knew God and God’s power, he wasn’t about to settle for a sprinkling of God’s provision. Tolerable was not the goal.

Hear that: Tolerable is not the goal. Transformation is.

Honi stayed inside his circle, leaned into the power of God and kept praying. “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain that fills cisterns, pits and caverns.” With that second prayer, it began to rain like crazy. Torrential rain. Egg-sized raindrops. Damaging rain.

And again, Honi prayed. “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of your favor, blessing, and grace.” And with that prayer, the rain became the kind of sweet, soaking rain that settled in and filled cisterns and souls.

In Batterson’s book about this very prayer, he notes that there are some things God will not do unless we ask. Maxie Dunnam has often said the same. “What if there are some things God cannot do or will not do until or unless we pray?”

This actually better suits what we know of God. He is omnipotent, which means he has limitless power. A God of love would surely want to share it. A God of limitless power and love is not only capable of more than we can imagine; he also desires to share that power with us in good and life-producing ways.

What if our biggest limit is not God’s inability to answer but our inability to imagine more?

In the middle of our wrestling, maybe God is asking us to wrestle with the very question of his power. “Is there a limit to my power?” Why would he want us to shoot for anything less than his fullness? And what if our praying is how he compels us to lean in and hang on until his power is revealed?

Batterson says that how we answer that one question determines how we will live and how we will pray.

Is there a limit to my power? The coming of Christ and his defeat of sin and death answer that question boldly. There is no limit to God’s power. Which means that we are free to draw our circles around our biggest issues and stand confidently knowing that whatever the circumstance, our God is able.

Batterson says, “With God, its never an issue of, ‘Can he?’ It is only an issue of, ‘Will he?’ We may not always know if he will, but we know he can.”


*Mark Batterson’s book, The Circle-Maker, is an inspiring short read.

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Are we connected? (Three non-negotiables for the United Methodist Church)

Sometimes conflict creates clarity.

This current season of debate within the United Methodist Church has caused us to talk a lot about what really connects us. What exactly is our connecting point? The Book of Discipline? The Articles of Religion? Social principles?

Or just the logo?

In the midst of conflicting ideas, we can clarify what matters most and recommit to the beliefs that keep our communities of faith firmly tethered to an orthodox Christian worldview.

Ours is a confessional tradition. There are essentials upon which our theological house is built. These essentials should help us navigate the debates before us and I am confident they can bring clarity to our conversations in the days ahead.

I consider these three foundational truths to be non-negotiables for a Wesleyan worldview:¹

The exclusive nature of Jesus Christ. We believe, as Christ himself taught, that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). Methodists are not universalists. We recognize that claiming the exclusive nature of Jesus’ messiahship creates a set of questions around salvation for those who live in other places and embrace other faiths. We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we are confident in our call to preach the Gospel as truth whenever and wherever we’re given the opportunity.

Our covenant within the United Methodist Church is founded on its Articles of Religion, which profess an orthodox understanding of this gospel. They are grounded in Christ as the exclusive savior of the world. If we’re going to remain connected, we must insist on a relationship built on integrity and true accountability around those Articles of Religion.

The authority of the Bible. The Bible contains all things necessary for salvation. We trust it as it is written in the Old and New Testaments and believe it to be the Living Word of God. This value includes but is certainly not limited to an orthodox theology surrounding life, marriage and human sexuality. The Bible is the one book with power to hold a relevant conversation in any culture or time.

The global nature of the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ is sufficient for all people in all cultures. It doesn’t change. We trust that this gospel is the same gospel for all people everywhere in the world. Put another way, if he is not Christ for the whole world, can he be Christ for any of it?

Methodists are incarnational and global in our approach to evangelism. We seek partnership with those within the Wesleyan tradition around the globe, not just as people on the receiving end of mission activities but as fully invested members of this expression of faith. To entertain the notion of dividing the United Methodist church theologically by creating a central conference for North America or the U.S. is a blow to this core value. We must reject any revision of our structure that further separates our connection geographically. The world is our parish.

These essentials are the glue that hold our connection together. A rejection of any of these three core values is a rejection of our most basic DNA and without theological DNA to connect us, this isn’t a family any more. It is just another loosely governed non-profit.

May God be in every conversation at General Conference and make it holy by His presence.


¹ I am grateful to to Dr. Timothy Tennent who inspired the development of these essentials through an address delivered at Asbury Seminary in 2015. I am also grateful to Tom Lambrecht for his insights on three key issues facing General Conference 2016.

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A Layperson’s Guide to General Conference 2016

Today, our quadrennial United Methodist General Conference convenes in Portland, Oregon. You may not be able to muster a thimbleful of concern about this, but I can assure you that Methodist leaders will be glued to the proceedings these next two weeks.

For those of you who don’t really get how it all works, here is a brief UMC primer to help you understand how our structure fits together — from your local United Methodist church to this month’s gathering in Portland.

The local church is the heart and soul of Methodism and the basic unit of our structure. We are not a “congregational” tradition, however; we are connected to each other.

Every United Methodist church is part of a district. Districts gather three or four times a year and are presided over by District Superintendents. District Superintendents are part advocate, part arbitrator, part administrator and part appointer. They connect churches and pastors to the larger Annual Conference.

Every district is part of an Annual Conference, a term representing both a geographical area and an annual gathering. An Annual Conference gathering is made up of equal parts laity and clergy and is presided over by a Bishop.

Every Annual Conference belongs to a jurisdiction. Jurisdictional conferences meet every four years. The most important thing jurisdictions do is elect bishops. There are also what is known as Central Conferences, which comprise areas beyond the United States, including Africa, Europe and the Philippines (don’t ask me about South America; it’s complicated).

The Central and Jurisdictional Conferences, along with a host of boards and agencies, together make up the General Conference. Every four years, delegates from every conference area (864 this year) come together to discuss the structure, doctrine and missional focus of the UMC. The General Conference is presided over by a Council of Bishops but decisions are made by the body itself, not by the bishops.

Ours is a global connection. “Connection” ends up being an important term in our structure. Being connectional means that none of us who lead in the UMC can up and make decisions in a vacuum. We belong to a global family held together by a covenantal structure. Like families, denominations (and churches, and businesses, and pretty much anything else that involves people) have huge disagreements and personality conflicts. And like families, no one really understands yours except the ones who are in it. The connection is deep and personal.

What makes a family is that connection. It is that intangible you can’t quite define but when it is there, you know it. The United Methodist Church was designed to be like that. When we talk about the places where we disagree and what is on the table at this year’s General Conference, that question of connection is beneath all the other questions.

Are we connected? If we are not, then everyone is free to have their own opinion and go their own way. If we are, then whether we end up agreeing or not, we are required to live respectfully with one another inside a set of expectations. That question of connection and accountability is at the heart of the current crisis within the UMC.

Because this is a critical piece of our structure, it bears repeating: A connectional church has an agreed-upon set of expectations.

Of course those expectations can change if enough people think they should. At General Conference, there are issues up for debate that could fundamentally change the ethos of our denomination. The most volatile issue to be discussed (and has been for forty years) is human sexuality and its connection to marriage and ordination. As David Watson, a professor at a UMC seminary puts it, we have reached an impasse on matters related to “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” people.

The Book of Discipline currently reads this way: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all.” The position goes on to affirm our strong commitment to a loving, grace-filled approach to all relationships. This position is in line with orthodox, historical Christian teaching. In most areas of the world it is the acceptable norm, though in Europe and the United States, the culture around homosexuality has changed dramatically.

At this year’s General Conference, there will be dozens of proposals on the table that promote some version of a change to that position. There will be protests and demonstrations by those who want to see the Discipline changed. It will not be a comfortable place to be, no matter what your position.

If the position as it is currently stated in the Discipline changes, it will most certainly be newsworthy. If you’re a Methodist, don’t be be taken off guard. What you’re seeing is what happens when families — really big families — disagree.

Chances are, when the gavel falls again at the end of this General Conference, the wording of the Book of Discipline will not have changed. But not so with the UMC. Why? Because our core value is connection and the connection is unraveling. That is already a fact and no matter what decisions are made at General Conference the connection as we know it will continue to deteriorate. The United Methodist Church will likely change in fundamental ways, sooner rather than later.

Are we connected … or not? In other words, are we accountable to one another or not?

How we answer that question determines how we answer all the other questions in Portland in the days ahead.

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I just want to be saved (or, What missions is)

When I met her, she was laying in the middle of the road, flat on her back. It was a Tuesday afternoon in January. I was driving back toward our church on a two-lane road and there she was, laying in the oncoming lane.

She’d been on her bicycle and collided with a car. There was no ambulance there yet so I pulled over, got out and ran over to this woman who was laying in the road. I had no idea what kind of shape she was in but I knelt over her and said, “My name is Carolyn. I’m a pastor. Is there anything I can do for you?” Her eyes got wide, and she grabbed both my hands and pulled them to her chest and said, “I just want to be saved!”

This kind of thing never happens in real life, but there it was … just like that. “I just want to be saved!”

Then she said, “I knew you’d come.” And I thought, “Well, maybe she’s not completely with it,” because I didn’t know her from Adam. But she said it again. “I just knew you’d come.”

And with that, I realized I was being given an invitation — a window into eternity — so I took it. I hunched right over that woman with her holding both my hands and I prayed, “Lord, hear the cry of this woman’s heart. She just wants to be saved.” And I prayed for her healing and I prayed for her salvation and I prayed that God would meet her right there and do the work in her life that needed to be done. And I prayed over this woman until the ambulance showed up and then I stepped back so they could take care of her. Just as they were putting her on a stretcher into the ambulance, I got in her line of sight and said, “I’m praying for you.” And again, she grabbed my hand. I could see the hunger in her eyes.

I went home that night and looked up the accident online. I found her name and where they took her, so the next morning I went to see her. She was in a local hospital. She’d broken her hip. When I walked into her room, she called me by name. That was hopeful. Maybe she had been with it when we prayed. During that visit, she told me, “I always thought it would happen for me that way.”

I knew what she meant. She knew she’d be one of those people who would take the long way home. Who would need the patience and perseverance of the Body of Christ to get there. Who probably wouldn’t get there by walking through the doors of a church on Sunday morning.

I don’t believe she’s unusual in that way. I think the world is full of people like her — people who have had their feet knocked out from under them, who are flat on their backs, who have lost their job or their marriage or their sanity and they are hungry or lonely and trying to make sense of their circumstances. They may live across the street or they may live on the other side of the globe; either way, what they want more than anything is to be saved.

And in the midst of their pain, they are more likely to show up in the middle of the road or in a crisis pregnancy center or a mercy ministry or social service than they are to walk into a church on Sunday morning. And they’ll walk into one of those places and tell you what their problem is, but really … that problem is just a symptom. What they really want is to know how to get saved. They want an “out” from this way of doing life.

Which ends up being the one question the Church is most qualified to answer. But to speak that answer into their lives, what people like the woman in that road need most is someone willing to tabernacle the Spirit of God and take it out of the church building to where they are.

And that’s what missions is. It is learning to tabernacle the Spirit of God for the sake of a world full of people who just want to be saved.

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