I tried to watch one afternoon of General Conference online, but I have to be honest – it reminded too much of CSPAN. After about 30 minutes, I had enough. The way we engage in dialogue as a whole in the United Methodist Church is not uplifting. The old adage from Otto von Bismark holds true with General Conference, “laws are like sausages . . . it is better not to see them being made.”
It is disappointing to see a forum where the biggest issues of our church are decided in an arena where debate is limited to three speeches for and three speeches against. No offense, but some of those six speeches are made by people who have no business ever taking the microphone in the first place. One thousand people dealing with the biggest issues in our church for a few minutes every four years – not exactly an effective way to dialogue with one another. And don’t confuse a four hour debate on homosexuality as substantive dialogue. Those hours are filled with amendments, amendments to the amendments, and other parliamentary procedures. No dialogue about the issue. No dialogue on issues of retirement age, candidacy processes, homosexuality, the number of bishops, sacramental authority to deacons, continuing (again) the study of the ordering of ministry. Granted, there are small committees that discuss these issues, but the larger body only addresses major issues a few days every fours years. Is this an appropriate amount dialogue to guide the direction of our church?
Rev. Robert Beckum, General Conference delegate from South Georgia, echoed this thought in a video interview that can be found at the South Georgia Conference website (www.sgaumc.com). Robert feels the nature of the process is flawed. The business is done in three minute sound bites. This is not a good formula for thinking through issues before the church. It may be the way we’ve always done it, but that doesn’t make it the best way to do it. I agree.
We need to create more opportunities for dialogue. Mistrust is fostered when we fail to listen to each other. I have always been an advocate for yearly, pre-Annual Conference discussions in every district. If the floor of an Annual/General Conference is not the place for dialogue, then let us create a space where substantive dialogue can occur. Here is an example: This June, South Georgia will bring a motion to change how we calculate local church apportionments, taking the membership factor out – 100% based on finances. Delegates will have many questions, but no time to address them all. There will be three speeches for and three speeches against. Then we vote to determine apportionments – 14% to 18% of every local church budget.
We must provide forums for dialogue about the issues. Pre-conference meetings, town hall discussions, district and conference days of dialogue, and other meetings on issues are all needed. We need to talk, but more importantly, we need to listen to each other. We should in engage in more holy conversations.