by Frank Holbrook
“If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there”. Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
As a first time delegate to General Conference, I’ve turned serious attention to the Book of Discipline (“BOD”) and the polity it creates. I’ve always been a Methodist, and since its formation, a United Methodist. I don’t recall when I first became aware of the BOD but I am confident it wasn’t discussed or debated in my confirmation class. Over the years I’ve come to have a better understanding of what it is and what it does. But I confess, understanding the BOD and the polity of the United Methodist Church is still a work in progress for me.
As the work of GC 2020 progresses it’s unquestionable that its work must be done within the existing framework of the BOD. Given that the BOD, excluding the Index, runs to over 800 pages there is a lot of context that guides the work of GC 2020.
As I read and consider materials concerning what will or should happen at the upcoming GC, it appears that at least four types of concerns are addressed. In no particular order these concerns are (a) process questions (b) doctrinal or theological questions (3) missional questions and (4) institutional questions. No concern necessarily falls exclusively into one of these four buckets and often multiple concerns are raised by a single issue. These competing concerns are one of the main reasons the task faced by the UMC’S leadership and the upcoming General Conference is so difficult. My first thoughts about GC 2020 have primarily focused on determining where the collective body wants to go and finding the road to take it there.
Can the puzzle of multiplication of new expressions be solved?
Lawyers, even retired ones, make a habit of thinking by analogy. Most preachers do too. When preaching a sermon, the preacher’s personal anecdote is really an analogy. It’s a way of the preacher saying “See, you can understand this biblical text better if you consider this event.” Jesus’ words and parables were often analogies.
So is there an analogy for the puzzle that faces GC 2020? I often work Soduko puzzles. They are the big square divided into 81 smaller squares with some of the numbers (1 through 9) filled in. Puzzles are rated from easy to expert depending on how many squares are filled in at the start of the puzzle – a square that begins 90% complete is rated easy while one that starts 10% complete is rated expert. At this point, GC 2020 is a Soduko puzzle rated expert.
One of the realities of Soduko is that as you work the puzzle and fill in squares it becomes easier. By the time you near completion, what started as an expert puzzle is now an easy puzzle. What does any of this have to do with GC 2020 and the BOD?
Where should the process for GC 2020 start?
Is it possible that, as an initial matter, GC 2020 can fill in the process pieces of the puzzle so that the answers to the doctrinal, missional and institutional pieces will be easier to discern? It’s likely that as more and more of the pieces fall into place the task that appeared impossible becomes workable.
One can contend that the process for facilitating new expressions should be the top priority for GC2020. Once those pieces of the puzzle are in place, offering a clear vision of each expression’s doctrine, mission and administrative framework can be developed by each new expression. By creating a process, infused with fairness and grace towards all, GC 2020 can facilitate multiplication of new expressions. As the process of multiplication proceeds and each expression’s doctrine, mission and polity is clarified, Annual Conferences and local churches considering a new affiliation will have a clearer picture of a potential new home.
What was the process lesson from GC 2019?
No one wants to repeat GC 2019 at GC 2020. But in defense of GC 2019 it’s hard to argue that the process that allowed the 2019 conference to determine priorities as an initial matter, was wrong. No matter where one stands on the doctrinal, missional and institutional divides, the reality is that GC 2019 actually reached a decision on a difficult and divisive issue. The fact that some were hurt or upset with the decision is an implicit recognition that they understood that an actual decision was made. The point of this statement is not to inflame passions or take sides is the ongoing doctrinal debate; rather the point it is to ask participants to ask themselves whether the process of GC 2019 worked. The passions and feelings resulting from GC2019 were not the result of the process used to to prioritize work, they were caused by the deeply felt convictions accompanying the difficult issues being considered.
So what should GC 2020 learn from 2019? If an issue as big as multiplication by creating new expressions is to be taken seriously, the General Conference should decide early on – in the first few days of the conference – whether it will prioritize the issue with minimal attention to other matters.
Logically, if the church is moving towards new expressions, GC 2020 should spend its limited time prioritizing its work to BOD changes that allow those new expressions to flourish. On the other hand, if GC 2020 determines its priority is to continue the debate that occurred in 2019 then it should perform its work as it has in the past; by moving to Committee work that will deal with the contentious provisions of the BOD as it it currently exists and will exist in the immediate future.
This is the reason I also believe the General Conference should be clear regarding the type of unity it is prioritizing in 2020. If the priority for unity is denominational unity then there is much work to be done – including revisiting the divisive issues of GC 2019. However, if the unity being worked towards is that of the church universal, then the GC should prioritize the method for creating new expressions. GC 2020 can and should decide as an early matter whether it wants to focus its energies on (a) determining the “winner” of the human sexuality debate or (b) facilitating new expressions.
Should the process for creating new expressions be the top priority for GC 2020? I believe so, but I’m not absolutely certain; my mind could be changed. There may be principled reasons for not prioritizing the issue. But raising theses types of questions is why people invite participation in a thought experiment. The collective wisdom of many, working through the inspired process of Holy Conferencing, undoubtedly will reach a better decision than my limited wisdom can provide.
During my years practicing law I heard a grammatically poor but wisdom rich saying: “if all you ever do is all you’ve always done then all you’ll ever get is all you ever got.” The grammar may make one cringe, but the wisdom is profound.
As the agenda for GC 2020 takes shape, I hope and pray that prioritizing the work of GC 2020 will be considered seriously by the Commission on the General Conference.
Frank Holbrook is a lay member of the Memphis Annual Conference and delegate to the 2020 General Conference of the UMC. Frank is a retired attorney and graduated from Florida State University and the University of Georgia School of Law. He serves as conference president of United Methodist Men and also serves on the Episcopacy Committee. When not working as a civil mediator, Frank is Board Counsel for the Northwest Tennessee Entrepreneurial Center and President of the Northwest Tennessee Angel Fund, LLC. Frank shares that these views are his “own and always subject to both challenge and change.” He blogs at http://planegrace.com