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What Do We Do with General Conference Politics?

Posted May 16, 2016

Jay Voorhees offers his perspective on navigating the politics around General Conference. The United Methodist General Conference is being held May 10-May 20 in Portland, OR. 

By Jay Voorhees

Not long ago I moved my aging father to Nashville and these days spend most every evening visiting with him and cooking dinner. He started showing signs of dementia several years ago, and now is limited in his ability to communicate, has difficulty with many different life tasks, and is currently struggling as he is "losing his mind."

One of the skills he's lost is the ability to control his TV remote control, and since he more often than not is sitting in his apartment the TV stays on his favorite (and now only) channel -- CNN. During the past 6 months I think I've watched more CNN than I have in the past 6 years, and as you might imagine 8 times out of 10 they are ruminating again on the latest drama in the current presidential election -- over, and over, and over.

Now I am generally a political junkie. I read lots of newspapers and regularly read blogs devoted to politics.

I even engage with the system – both professionally and personally – believing that a democracy needs the participation of the governed in order to be responsive to the needs of the community. 

However, in the face of the CNN barrage, I find myself weary of the whole conversation. There's too much focus on the horse race and not on the needs of our nation. There is too much speculation on the personalities of those involved and not much about the issues that face us. Governance has been turned into a reality show like Survivor, and it's far less compelling when it involves folks in suits in convention centers than the bright and beautiful on a desert island.

You could probably say the same thing about the United Methodist General Conference.

The fact is that the UM General Conference is a political gathering at its core. Every four years the United Methodist Church rolls up to some convention center in a different city and creates the equivalent of the U.S. congress – a representative democracy of sorts with all the limitations and trappings of a secular government. Of course, there are differences – the U.S. Senate usually doesn't begin each day with 40 minutes of worship and preaching – but during the course of two weeks the delegates to General Conference will consider thousands of pieces of proposed legislation as they work to rewrite our book of laws known as the Book of Discipline. They begin in small legislative committees and sub-committees the first week, weeding through the whims and desires of any United Methodist who can originate an idea for change. Then, during the second week, the delegates meet in full session for debate and votes, going for hours on end until they are bleary eyed with exhaustion.

And like all political gatherings, we have our own special interest groups (lobbyists?) pushing their agenda. Some like to actively protest the injustices they see and experience while others work surreptitiously, working in the equivalent of smoke filled cloakrooms to count votes and argue for their position. Sometimes these conversations can get emotional. I remember walking behind the curtain to the "backstage" of the conference in Pittsburgh to find two prominent church pastors and leaders in a heated exchange that wasn't very reflective of the love of Christ.

There's a lot at stake – both in terms of theology but also in terms of power struggles in the church – and that can sometimes lead folks to justify casting aside humility and compassion in the pursuit of what they believe to be right.

All of this is to say that the General Conference is a human political enterprise, and in the face of that reality it's easy to get tired of it all and disengage. I know. I'm a United Methodist pastor and run a website devoted to providing United Methodist news and even I find myself wanting to turn the channel and find the Methodist equivalent of Treehouse Masters where everyone works together to build some really cool things.

And yet, even in the face of our disagreements and all the political wrangling, there are moments when God breaks through. At that conference in Pittsburgh I was honored to sit in a committee meeting when the Spirit showed up and they decided that staying together as one body of Christ was more important than splitting up. Late into the night that group wrote a statement of unity which was later adopted by the General Conference saying that God was bigger than our politics and that in spite of our differences we would continue to invest in one another.

Ultimately we continue to engage because we believe that God is at work -- even when we can't always see the results. It really becomes an exercise in a winsome and idealistic faith that understands that God has the power to redeem ALL things.

The task of all involved – both those in Portland engaged firsthand in the issues, and those of us watching from afar – is to keep our eyes open so that we will recognize the presence of Christ when he's in our midst.

If we fail to do so, then General Conference becomes just another exercise if political futility, and we will miss out on the opportunity we've been given to discern the will of God. 

Jay Voorhees is the Sr. Pastor of the City Road Chapel United Methodist Church (located in Nashville, TN), and is a founding partner of CircuitWriter Media LLC, a media holding company which operates The United Methodist Reporter and The MethoBlog. A former television producer/director and event manager, Jay offers commentary on issues of faith and life in the UMC at Only Wonder Understands. Jay has been an advocate on issues of justice and public policy in his hometown of Nashville, TN, and has written about these on his blog: Just Nashville.