by Bob Phillips

As General Conference 2020 lumbers in our direction, like some exotic creature from a Dr. Seuss boogeyman breathing loudly under the bed, a note of deep and honest concern is creeping into the narrative. Most pastors and lay leadership do not believe they have the tools to constructively engage their churches on the nature and potential implications of May. This is true for those from left-center-right and the theological Area 51 pastors whose public views on contested issues are as tangible as the mythic aliens from Mars camped out in an Arizona Air Force hangar. For that reason, plus understandable fear of spiking conflict or exodus from the congregation, silence has become the current principal strategy with dealing with the impending and increasingly like collision scheduled for Minneapolis in May. If I place my hands over my eyes, the freight train careening toward my stalled car will just…cease to be.

Clergy/laity largely are unaware of or overwhelmed by the number and nature of various public plans that have been offered, and this is a criticism of none of those plans nor their authors. Add to that the fact that other plans not yet public but submitted prior to the legislative deadline also will make a January appearance (when translations are complete), and confusion increases. One church left of center on the issue has announced hundreds of families have departed that church since GC2019 because of the reaffirmation of a traditional view of marriage and tightened accountability for those ignoring the teaching. Another church right of center (and both these descriptors involve stereotype) has announced hundreds have departed that church since GC2019 because it appears GC2019 settled nothing, that denominational conflict will continue, and, well, normally functional and healthy folks don’t join a church looking for a never-ending barroom brawl.

Last week I worshipped at one of the fastest growing UM churches in the nation (not in Illinois) and nothing, absolutely nothing in worship or publicity or website suggests there is any pending disagreement. Leadership fairly could ask what would be the wisdom of pouring vinegar into the fountain of honey surrounding their current thriving presence. In such cases the default setting is to assume that sufficient trust in the well-liked pastor will carry the day and, with only a few acceptable possible losses, the congregation will do what the pastor tells them to do in response to whatever GC2020 decides. Though never publicly articulated, that appears to be a common strategy in numerous churches and among many clergy who are on good terms with their flocks, again from left-center-right…and Area 51.

“There are a hundred ways to put out a fire. Denying its existence is not one of them.” This bit of wisdom from mandatory fire-fighting training required of all officers and crew on any naval vessel tells the tale. The Coast Guard motto is Semper Paratus, ‘always prepared.’ I once heard former Navy Chief of Chaplains J.J. O’Connor (later cardinal archbishop of New York) emphasize in an address on the need for ethical training to an auditorium of Naval officers, that without serious engagement with ethical theory and practice prior to a crisis the tendency is to respond to crisis on the basis of emotion, “and emotional responses are nearly always bad.” The military requires constant and repetitive training so that muscle memory and built-in wisdom can prompt the best response to difficult or life-threatening situations, whether in mass casualty, fire at sea, accident or combat scenarios. Feelings don’t do it. Denial really doesn’t do it.

Clergy and lay leadership rightly expect and need wise, accurate, clear and fair suggestions to prepare themselves and their congregations for 2020 and the virtually certain end of status quo United Methodism. Groups such as the Wesleyan Covenant Association, UM/Next, Reconciling movement and other lobby groups undoubtedly are aware of the need and working at certain levels to cook tasty recipes for consumption by their adherents. That is not enough.

In that spirit, I offer the follow specific and practical steps for clergy and laity leadership to take to prep local churches and curious/concerned laity for what may come. This guidance transcends any particular group, tribe or predisposition, for the more everyone is prepared for GC2020 and the annual conferences that follow, the better for all.

  1. Pray. Call it cliché, predictable, even useless (given the responses to the day of prayer that set the stage for the other three days of GC2019). “Pray without ceasing” is still in the book.  And prayer for all, agree and disagree, is crucial.
  2. Get a clear basic read-out on all major proposed plans. The likelihood that any current plan will pass intact is small but amid the overlapping and competing plans is some likely contour of what GC2020 may decide. Or not.
  3. Identify and summarize the main points from each major interest group. Laity have a right to know of similarities and differences from the words and writings of those groups and not primarily as described only by uncritical cheerleaders or angry detractors. This also can be a helpful hedge against the confirmation bias that can completely crash a process…exhibit A being a photo of the Council of Bishops in the moment after GC2019 rejected their One Church Plan.  
  4. “It’s not personal. It’s business.” Marriage counseling warns against destructive fighting in marriage, including name-calling, psychologizing the motives of the other, using absolutes, skewed summaries of the views of the other, comparing one’s own ideal with the other person’s real. Whether in writings from lobbying groups, special speakers, or church sponsored conversations for information or discussion, it is the pastor’s duty and right to combat human nature’s efforts to demonize, smear, or unfairly portray another person’s views or integrity. This also means that criticizing a position or action (such as working a conference election process to exclude any who reflect a certain point of view on a single issue from a delegation), is not personal unless an individual is named and defamed.
  5. Set a time table. Every congregation has its own calendar rhythm. That said, failure to include events designed to ensure congregational wisdom will fumble into last minute and badly-organized events that will do more harm than help. 
  6. Tell them your limits. If the denomination redefines marriage and that is beyond your boundary of conscience, let it be said in a proper time and place. The same if the current BOD remains, or if this or that plan is adopted. It is fair to emphasize what you can live with but be willing to own your moral/biblical limits. “These are my convictions. If you don’t like them, I have others,” said Groucho Marx, not you.
  7. Tend the knitting. Bringing people to Christ and growing disciples remains the main thing. How is the church going about that Great Commission in 2020? Put it first.
  8. Pray. Without ceasing. This also is an activity that reminds us whose church it is.

Bob Phillips

Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference

Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews

Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution

Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)