Bishop Robert Schnase’s episcopal address to the South Central Jurisdiction has been posted by the UM Reporter. You have to wade through some statistics at the top and it is not soaring oratory, but it is well worth the attention of the church.
When it came to speaking of General Conference, Schnase expressed strong disappointment.
Let me share a few observations on behalf of the Bishops that we’ve shared with each other since the close of General Conference:
First, I don’t think we were overly invested in any specific organizational plan for change, but we were deeply invested in the hope for change.
Second, there’s a growing perception that the process of the General Conference itself doesn’t work. We experienced paralysis as a conference, like a spider stuck in its own web. As an example, the General Conference spent four hours over two days to debate the Standing Rules before eventually approving them exactly as they had been presented by the committee!
Third, we’re concerned about the tightening of “the hairball.” Gordon McKenzie, author of Orbiting the Giant Hairball, uses the image of a hairball to describe the accruing of rules, requirements, mandates, and policies until they become so tightly bound that they paralyze creativity. We were disappointed to see an increase of such rules and requirements at every level. This fosters less flexibility, less contextual latitude, and reduced ability for leaders, conferences, committees, and local church churches to form their own responses.
Fourth, we are concerned about the deep divisions evident in the church, and the intensified focus on personal agendas.
Fifth, we have not begun to solve, or even understand, the complexities, implications, and opportunities of being a truly global church.
Sixth, we are concerned about the troubling and persistent tendency for the church to deny and ignore and avoid the critical challenges. Adam Hamilton presented the challenges as revealed through the Towers-Watson Report. He described the reality and urgency of our situation in the US church. People can honestly disagree about how to respond to these challenges, but we cannot continue to avoid and deny them. If we learn from the doctor that three cardiac arteries are nearly completely blocked, and if nothing is done, death is virtually assured, the challenge presents many options. We can consider surgical options, and discuss how extensive and the effects that might follow. We can consider medicine, and what sort and with what benefits and risks. We can consider changes in behavior, including exercise, diet, smoking, stress, and weight control. There are literally dozens of conversations and strategies to discuss and consider. But we cannot walk away and act as if we do not know the truth and deny that the risks are real.
When he turns to talk about the important thing the bishops take away from General Conference, he begins to sound a bit like the voices in the Western Jurisdiction and elsewhere who decry the denomination’s stance on sexuality. Schnase, of course, was talking about the Call to Action rather than sex, but the conclusion that the general church is not a source for answers or leadership was similar.
We’re convinced as a College of Bishops that the stuckness of General Conference makes what we do in this Jurisdiction and in our Annual Conferences all the more important. We need to continue to learn, to experiment, to innovate. Change in the United Methodist Church is going to happen one person at a time, one congregation at a time, one conference at a time. Change in the church is will happen horizontally as we learn from another, not vertically or from the top.
Compare Schnase’s address with the words of the Director of Communication for the Pacific-Northwest Annual Conference:
That said, the work of the jurisdictional conference could be of significant importance if its will is reflected by the actions of its college of bishops, annual conferences, appointive cabinets, boards of ordained ministry, clergy and lay people. While the General Conference does indeed speak for the denomination, these other groups are responsible for the action of the church. These groups have to decide how to live faithfully in a world where the ecclesial powers may be in conflict with a developing sense of God’s kin(g)dom that includes gay and lesbian people. These leaders will need to be the change agents — moving beyond hope to courageous action; willing to risk reputation for the mission field. They will also need to do so while remaining in dialogue with those within their annual conferences who have a different understanding of God’s vision for human sexuality.
Of course, the similarities should not be pressed too far. The bishop is talking about working within the doctrine and discipline of the church and the communication director is speaking of opposing both. But, even so, both share a conviction that General Conference is broken and therefore the jurisdictions, conferences, local churches, and individuals must take the lead in getting things done. In both cases, the sign of the dysfunction of the General Conference is that it did not do anything in the area of particular interest.
I’m not sure what to make of that other than to observe that it may confirm what the Book of Discipline itself says. Annual Conferences — not the General Conference — are the basic unit of the United Methodist Church, and local churches are the most important venue for making disciples of Jesus Christ.