Finding a way forward from General Conference
BY BRYANT OSKVIG
I agree that there is a great deal of hurt, frustration, and anger following General Conference 2012. Unfortunately, we are not all upset about the same things. Some are disappointed that reorganization failed and others by the various proposals and who was left out in their creation; some are angered by the content and character of the debate with regard to homosexuality and others by the time spent for the debate, and some are frustrated by over represented perspectives and others by under represented perspectives. Perhaps the disappointment is more palpable this time because so many of us watched the live stream of the proceedings, or perhaps because no one left particularly happy with the proceedings.
The question is what do we do about this.
Some have suggested that our covenant of the connection, which is a defining characteristic of our denomination, be broken and funds intentionally withheld from the General Church to create a crisis for change. We do not agree on the change being sought, only that we want change. There is little argument about the precarious state of our current fiscal situation, and withholding the apportionment that is designated for the General Church may speed up a significant financial crisis by a couple of years which would force some sort of institutional modification.
The interest in accelerating the financial situation and forcing structural change stems from a belief we can administrate our way out of the current realities. That is not possible. First, significant financial crises do not generally bring thoughtful and orderly reorganization; consider the chaos and broken promises when businesses have closed their doors. Second, the social landscape has completely shifted and our future will require more than a streamlined structure. Our current situation requires a whole different way of thinking about who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ, and how we are called to share the Gospel.
The public interest in withholding the General Conference apportionment speaks to how precarious and broken the connection really has become, which reverberates through the entire structure. If the Annual Conference can choose to withhold money from certain General Church funds in dissatisfaction, then the local congregation and its members could argue the same with the Annual Conference. What if each local church contribution was divided into a commitment to the local congregation and then a separate gift for the apportionment? How much funding would any apportioned ministry receive anymore?
And, isn’t withholding funds or not even budgeting for full payment of an apportionment just a statement of how broken the covenant and connection already is? Only 16 Annual Conferences paid 100 percent of their General Conference apportionment this past year. Of those that failed to pay 100 percent, how do they encourage local congregations to budget for full apportionment payment when they fail to do they same?
But let’s be clear, a bloated bureaucracy does deplete available resources from our annual conferences and local congregations, but the long-term issue is the general disengagement of the next generation with faith. In a recent study by the Barna Group, 59 percent of main line Protestant persons 18-30 years of age who once attended church regularly no longer do. So, close to 60 percent of our youth group to will graduate and not come back, and our youth groups are not particularly large to begin with. Do we believe that the Gospel has nothing for them, or have we failed in sharing the love of Christ with another generation?
So, a financial crisis is coming and a “retirement/death tsunami” is coming, and the 2012 General Conference did not seem to give us a clear path for addressing these issues. On top of this, as our financial house begins to collapse, the Central Conference delegations will most likely control over 50 percent of the votes at the next General Conference (unless the United Methodist Church collapses completely, it is hard to imagine a situation in which those in power vote themselves out of power.) If we want to see how this looks when someone unaffected is dictating the terms of a financial solution, we can imagine a situation similar to the crisis in Greece: pensions will be curtailed; assets will be liquidated, and what we have known from the General Church will cease to be.
So rather than figure out how to make this all possibly happen faster, let’s prayerfully figure out how we want to move into the future, preparing for the crisis but working for a different tomorrow.
I too have hope, and I see a different way forward. I agree that leadership is what is needed in this moment and that change will come from the grassroots level. This local leadership starts with our clergy. Just as the early church in scripture, we now need leaders with a conviction for the Gospel who are not only transformative leaders in this present circumstance, but are prepared to be transformed by the Spirit into the future that is now upon us.
We need to recruit and deploy faithful Christian disciples with exceptional talent. We do not have the luxury of accepting people who are just adequate; our churches deserve better and our future needs more. Let’s be willing to establish new circuits, leave pulpits empty, and pass over the sincere average pietistic person. Let’s only ordain persons willing to be in significant meaningful covenanted relationship with other clergy in the Annual Conference, capable of successfully serving wherever they are sent, and prepared to share the relevant Gospel message of hope to our world. It is not that the ordination process should be made harder or more complicated; we just should expect more from those going through it and ourselves. Let’s truly start holding each other accountable, and rather than envy someone else’s position, let’s support one another’s ministry in immediate concrete ways. I would love to be a part of an executive clergy session where time was available and spiritual maturity was such that rather than formulated speeches and reports, we spoke the truth to each other in love.
It is time to stop just filling pulpits with people; let’s give our church a faithful covenanted group of leaders. These leaders need to be more than just great managers; the world can make great leaders, but in the church great leaders need to listen not just to census data, financial forecasts, and recruiting ideas, they need to listen for and to God. Ordination and appointment should mean something about your spiritual depth, intellectual capability, and your leadership qualities. The loss of guaranteed appointment suggests that we have not maintained that covenant of sincere accountability with each other. We should expect excellence from our clergy, and the clergy should be willing to hold each other account for that excellence.
If we change the quality and character of our clergy, we will change the whole system. These leaders become yeast for the new bread. Should we not be able to avert this crisis, we will at least have the best faithful group of people to lead us through it.
The Rev. Bryant Oskvig is campus minister at Georgetown University.