Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Big News out of SCJ

Last week I had the privilege of serving as a delegate for the Great Plains Conference at the South Central Jurisdictional Conference. You may have already heard some of what happened, particularly bishop elections and asking Judicial Council for a declaratory decision on newly elected bishop Karen Oliveto. I want to share a different perspective on these and other matters that I think gives us some hope for the future of the denomination.

Bishop Elections

There were eight endorsed candidates for bishop (and a late ninth entry). We were to elect three. It took a record 35 ballots to complete our elections. In conversation with some other delegates. The way the politics work (and please remember that politics is truly a neutral term), since a bishop must receive 60% of the votes to be elected a very strong minority can block an election without being able to elect their candidate. After Bishop Ruben Saenz was elected on the third ballot this is exactly what happened. David Wilson and Lynn Dyke were both strong candidates that eventually gave way to Jimmy Nunn. Then after being way behind for most of the process, Bob Farr surpassed David Wilson for the final spot. Rev. Wilson in particular had very committed support. I believe he is a strong leader, but coming from a Native American background leadership looks different. It is more collaborative and less top-down - precisely the kind of leadership we need in tense times. Unquestionably we need more diversity than we have in the ranks of our South Central bishops. Personally, Because they were both also perceived as theologically left of center there was strong progressive and centrist support for David and Lynn. And the progressives just. didn't. give. up.

In past conferences, each Annual Conference (like the Great Plains) would vote mostly together. That didn't happen here. People throughout the conferences were voting their conscience even if that didn't line up with their own best interest. That's a good thing! And it's OK that it took us a long time to get to our final results.

The Centrist win
The bad news of the elections, and it is bad news, is that we were not able to increase our diversity as much as we could have. Here's the good news.  If you line up all eight candidates from left to right (theologically speaking), the three bishops elected were largely perceived as numbers 3-5. In other words, the two most liberal and three most conservative candidates were not elected. The centrists won. In the second most conservative jurisdiction in the United States, the centrists won!


Typically, election of bishops is the only significant action that happens at Jurisdictional Conference. But this year there were three other potentially significant issues. In the order that they came up,

1) Resolution related to the action of General Conference. A week or so prior to the conference we became aware that a delegate from the Texas Conference had submitted a petition that called on United Methodists to uphold the Book of Discipline while the Council of Bishops and their soon to be named Commission work on a plan for the denomination to move forward. If you don't know all the background this seems like a completely reasonable proposition. But upholding the Book of Discipline has become code language for what those on the left see as prosecuting (persecuting?) LGBT pastors. Particularly given the well known conservative bent of the Texas Conference, this resolution seemed divisive rather than uniting. So a couple of us proposed an alternative resolution that used the language of the Council of Bishops - uphold the Book of Discipline while also working to reduce trials and minimize harm. In a moment of intercession by the Spirit, the author of the Texas petition and the cosigner of our alternative petition met outside of the Committee on Petitions and Resolutions and reached a compromise - the Texas petition moved forward but with language incorporated from our petition. Was it perfect? No. But it was done together, across the theological divide. On Friday the Jursidictional Conference passed the petition almost unanimously. That's a centrist win!

2) A second proposal came from a task force called Mission 21. Long story short, anticipating that we will need to reduce the number of bishops by one in four years, the group was assigned the task of proposing the best path forward. They gave us two options. The preferred option would redivided counties in Texas to create four instead of five conferences. The alternative would pair conferences to reduce the number of bishops without changing the boundaries of annual conferences. Every Texas conference is affected by the preferred option, but all the conferences stay mostly intact...except for the Texas Conference. In the new alignment about 15% of the Texas Conference moves into the other three conferences. It is clear the task force did not have political motives. I voted for the proposal without political motives. It is the right thing to do. But one conference, the Texas Conference, was clearly opposed and also happens to be the largest conference and arguably most conservative conference in the jurisdiction. The Texas Conference didn't get what they wanted and one could make a strong case that a theoretical 2024 Jurisdictional Conference would be more centrist as as result.

3) Finally, at the last minute we had the request for a declaratory decision by the Judicial Council regarding the election of Karen Oliveto, who is an openly gay pastor, as a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction. You will all have an opinion on this. But I just want you to hear what the decision we made actually means: In the second most conservative jurisdiction in the United States only 56% of the delegates were willing to ask the Judicial Council to rule on Bishop Oliveto's election. I am convinced that when it comes to LGBT rights a motion similar to the "third way" proposal of the Connectional Table would stand a good chance of passing in our jurisdiction. I would have preferred it if the motion had been defeated, but the most important outcome is that it demonstrates again that while we are divided the extremes are, well, extreme.

What I want you to hear is that the South Central Jurisdiction should give hope to the Methodist Middle. You are a large group. Perhaps even a majority group in the United States. Don't give up on the UMC holding together, or at least mostly holding together. If the centrists are willing to stand up and be heard our united future is still bright!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Conversation Matters

In moments of tension and high conflict every opportunity for helpful discourse is crucial. It is most unfortunate that Bishop Scott Jones has missed one of these rare opportunities in the case of Rev. Cynthia Meyer.
                On the last day of the Great Plains Annual Conference, Rev. Russell Brown proposed a well-crafted motion asking Bishop Jones and both the Counsel for the Church and the Counsel for Rev. Meyer to follow a provision currently in the Book of Discipline (¶2706.c3) that would move Rev. Meyer’s case away from the courtroom and back into conversation between Rev. Meyer, Bishop Jones, and potentially a third party mediator. This provision helps the Church closely follow the guidelines for handling discipline that Jesus gives us in Matthew 18. The only catch is that The Committee on Investigation can only implement ¶2706.c3 at the request of both the Counsel for the Respondent (Rev. Meyer) and the Counsel for the Church.
                Please hear me clearly: Rev. Brown’s motion was not to find Rev. Meyer innocent. Indeed, ¶2706.c3 explicitly says “Such referral will not constitute a dismissal…”. In making the motion, Rev. Brown articulated clearly that he was not siding with Rev. Meyer or Bishop Jones.
Unlike some other conferences in our connection, the Great Plains is a body that is not of one mind on matters of human sexuality. One year ago we adopted a motion asking for a third way by roughly a 60-40 margin. We are civil, we are respectful, but we are divided. And yet this year Rev. Brown's motion passed by an overwhelming margin, estimated at 75-25. The will of the body was abundantly clear. This was not a progressive vs. traditionalist vote. This was a vote that was mindful of how destructive church trials can be. The pain of Jimmy Creech’s 1999 trial in the former Nebraska Conference came up repeatedly during the debate.
                Thus many of us were encouraged by Bishop Jones’ statement in the days following Annual Conference that he would engage again in conversation working towards just resolution. Acting in good faith, Rev. Meyer has engaged in those conversations. Yet Bishop Jones has still missed an opportunity. Bishop Jones and Council for the Church declined the clear request of three-fourths of the Annual Conference by refusing to hit the pause button on Rev. Meyer’s trial. It is important to say this again – the request of the Annual Conference was not to dismiss the charges. This was a movement of the middle in the spirit of the statement from The Council of Bishops at General Conference that we avoid trials while upholding the Book of Discipline. There was one and only one option available to do precisely that. It was recommended by an overwhelming majority, and it was turned down. I’m confident Rev. Meyer will still work earnestly at just resolution. But working towards just resolution with a trial looming seems much more like negotiating a plea bargain than engaging in Christian conferencing.

Bishop Jones has consistently claimed that his hands are tied by the Book of Discipline, but even within our Book of Discipline we have provisions for common sense and conversation to win the day. It is unfortunate that one week before Bishop Jones' tenure in the Great Plains comes to an end, a time during which so much good was done including the very creation of this new conference, his time will be remembered primarily for a trial that didn’t need to happen.