On Feb. 23-26, 862 clergy and lay delegates representing United Methodists around the world will gather in St. Louis for a special General Conference. Its only task is to resolve disagreements over human sexuality and LGBTQ inclusion, a debate that has been swirling in our denomination for most of the last fifty years. I first shared a word about this upcoming conference two years ago in a Midweek Message titled “The Broad Center of the Church.”
Delegates will be considering three main plans, and links are provided below if you want to read more about them. One provides freedom and flexibility regarding same-sex weddings and gay ordination (One Church Plan). One maintains current prohibitions against same-sex weddings and gay ordination and increases punitive accountability (Traditional Plan). And one restructures the denomination into three main conferences based almost entirely on this issue (Connectional Conference Plan). If you have any questions about any of these plans or about the special General Conference, I or the other clergy would be happy to connect with you.
None of these plans are perfect; each has its supporters and critics. And no one knows what the exact outcome of what the General Conference will be, or what its exact impact will be on local churches. But I want you to know that I and your fellow clergy are approaching these days with prayerful hope, not fear.
Our Bishop Ken Carter has repeatedly reminded us that regardless of what happens in St. Louis, the work of our churches will continue. We will still gather the following Sunday to praise Jesus. The homeless will still be fed. The gospel will still be proclaimed, small groups will still meet to study and pray, visitors will still show up, people will still be baptized, and lives will be transformed. The mission of God will still continue through the church, and not even the gates of hell can stop it. (Matthew 16:17-19)
That reminder gives me great peace amid all the uncertainty.
Following the General Conference, Bishop Carter will offer a webcast at 11 a.m. Friday, March 1, to the Florida Conference to help all of us process through the developments, and over the following weeks and months, we will share with you the impact, if any, on Hyde Park. I do encourage you to be in prayer over upcoming days for the special General Conference. So, at the end of this statement, I have written a prayer that you might lift up to God that is based on the following theological convictions:
GOD FINDS A (THIRD) WAY
Over and again, we discover that the default mode for human thinking is binary and dualistic. Our debates therefore often lapse into either/or categories that frame the debate with false choices: Do we fully embrace LGBTQ inclusion or believe in the authority of scripture? Do we adapt our practices based on the context around us, or preserve the unity of the church? Do we honor the traditions of the church or not? Are we going to be a progressive denomination or a conservative one?
One of the reasons I am proud to be United Methodist is that we try not to settle for false, binary choices like these. God often finds a way to break through our conflicted thinking with imaginative alternatives. It is in God’s very divine nature to do so. Richard Rohr once said, “The doctrine of the Trinity was made to order to defeat the dualistic mind and invite us into nondual, holistic consciousness. It replaced the argumentative principle of two with the dynamic principle of three.”
So, this made me think about times when God used “dynamic principles of three” in the Bible to help us break out of argumentative debates like this. Here are just three scriptural examples that help me think about how to pray for General Conference:
- JUSTICE, KINDNESS, HUMILITY
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
Pursuing justice alone might lead to righteous actions, but without kindness and humility, those actions might be done out of unrighteous motivations. Pursuing kindness alone might preserve unity, but without justice, it cannot lead to systemic change. Pursuing humility alone might produce a heart of peace, but without channeling it into justice and kindness, we cannot “resist evil, injustice, and oppression,” as it says in our baptismal vows. We pray that the delegates find a balanced intersection of holy justice, kindness, and humility.
- POWER, LOVE, SOUND MIND
“God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7)
Dualistic thinking produces winners and losers and can therefore be a source of fear. But fear is not from God. Instead, we are called to balance our actions (Power), our passions (Love), and our motivations (Sound Mind) for God and the common good. Power without Love and a Sound Mind can be destructive. Love without Power and a Sound Mind is ineffective. And a Sound Mind without Love and Power is fruitless. We pray that the delegates find a balanced intersection of holy action, purpose, and generosity.
- FAITH, HOPE, AND LOVE
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Paul tells us that right belief (Faith), justice and equality (Hope), and unity of spirit (Love) all must coexist. Bishop Carter suggests that rather than use unhelpful labels like conservative, progressive, and centrist, we consider the gift that each perspective brings as critical to the whole: covenant, justice, and unity. In the end, Paul says that love is the most important, so we pray that as the delegates seek to find balance between tradition and justice, they might do so in a spirit of full, generous love.
So, here is the prayer you might offer over the days to come.
A PRAYER FOR THE SPECIAL GENERAL CONFERENCE
Holy Triune God, in whom there is no distinction or division,
We come to you in a time of great debate and discernment in our denomination, acknowledging our brokenness and longing for your Spirit. We have constructed systems of winners and losers, in which the advancement of causes come at the expense of others.
Free us from such constricted thinking, and open us up to the mystery of the Trinity, which models a way forward past our limitations. Help us find a way to seek justice and equality for gay and lesbian persons, to affirm our covenantal bonds with one another, and to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
We pray for the work of the special General Conference. Grant wisdom to our delegates in balancing behavior, belief, and belonging. May the work of justice to be done with kindness and motivated out of humility, reminding us that we all need one another for the work of the kingdom.
Empower them to be at peace with one another as they listen, speak, and discern. Bless the bishops as they preside over the proceedings. Soften those who are cynical, empower the fearful, and enable the General Conference to seek and claim the exciting future you desire of the United Methodist Church.
Bless our congregation, reminding us of the holy work to which you have called us, to Make Your Love Real by loving you and loving all people. Rekindle in us a deeper commitment to Christ and a firmer grounding in the scriptures, that we might be open to all persons and perspectives, no matter what happens in St. Louis.
We entrust our future into your hands, O great God, Three-in-One. We choose the way of justice, kindness, and humility. We choose not to fear. We choose power, love, and sound minds. And we choose right beliefs, loving practices, and holy unity throughout your church.
In the name of Jesus Christ,