The Rev. Jasmine Smothers (center) with the Rev. Jorge Acevedo (left), Alice Williams, the Rev. Tom Lambrecht and Mazvita Machinga talk together during the first meeting of the Commission on a Way Forward in Atlanta, Jan. 23-26.
March 1, 2017
Atlanta: The second meeting of the Commission on a Way Forward got underway in Atlanta February 27, as commission members spent time in reflection, discussion and work team meetings.
Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball led the Commission in discussions of accountability and their covenant, the complexity of the work ahead, and building relationships of trust by going deeper in conversation and understanding. These three values—accountability, complexity, trust—are considered essential to taking the steps toward decision-making.
On Tuesday, the Rev. Jorge Acevedo led a Bible study on Galatians 1, a letter that stirred the fires of the Protestant Reformation and was important to both John and Charles Wesley. “Paul gets to the heart of the matter. He’s concerned; very concerned for the church,” said Acevedo.
Learning from history
Does a divided era of the church's past provide some clues for how to move forward towards the future? Commission members heard from Bishop Woodie White as he reflected on the period that spanned the 1940s, 50s and most of the 60s when African-American churches were segregated and placed into the Central Jurisdiction. That lasted until the formation of The United Methodist Church in 1968.
"Fifty years ago, the church was -- as everyone knows -- structurally segregated. Annual conferences were segregated, most of our colleges were segregated, our institutions were segregated, and the church said that that had to come to an end," said Bishop White.
Bishop White likened the church to a family. "I believe we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and because I believe that, I won't let you write me out of the family and I won't write you out of the family. That gives me hope, that we are children of God," said Bishop White.
"Because I believe that everybody in this room is a brother or sister, it impacts how I treat everybody in this room. I believe everybody in this room is of infinite worth. I believe everybody in this room is entitled to be loved and accepted. I believe everybody in this room is more than their opinion or their ideas or their philosophy or their theology. I think everyone's essence transcends all of that, so I have to find a way to always evidence how important I think you are even when I think you're 1000 percent wrong or even when I know you are working against my best interest."
Bishop Ken Carter said that the moderators invited Bishop White to reflect on his experience as a leader having lived through the divisions of the church and the Central Jurisdiction and how that might help the church in the future.
"I think Bishop White is a leader and a sage, wise voice across our denomination," said Bishop Carter. "He both lived in a time of segregation and exclusion and also in a time of reunion -- as imperfect as that was. I feel like he has a unique perspective and a historical perspective; and if we didn't listen to that kind of voice, we'd have a gap in our knowledge of where we are at a time when the church is also struggling for unity.”
White says it’s a mistake to think that we will ever have a church where we're never struggling with issues. "Somebody's always struggling and I think it's unfortunate when we believe that because it causes people to become discouraged."
Centralized vs. decentralized organizations
Gil Rendle led commissioners in a learning session on centralized and decentralized organizations that provided basic organizational information as a foundation for later conversations on denominational structure.
"A way forward cannot be an extension of the same path that got the church to this point," said Rendle. "Albert Einstein said, 'We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.'"
Organizational theory notes that all organizations go through a swing in behaving in centralized and decentralized ways. Each type of structure has both advantages and disadvantages, but when the disadvantages become too pronounced, centralized organizations move toward decentralization and decentralized organizations begin to move back toward centralization.
“The United Methodist Church in some contexts experiences itself as a highly centralized organization that often wishes it could be more decentralized,” said Rendle.
Rendle said that organizations become deeply embedded in a particular way of thinking because it works; but if practiced to excess, such thinking can easily become a weakness. As leaders who are schooled in the structure and polity of the denomination, Rendle says the Commission may have to set aside some of their current assumptions.
Rendle talked about organizational theory and polarity management, that is, managing two equally important truths that cannot be held together at the same time. For example, an organization should be well ordered and efficient, aligned in purpose and resources; and it should also be quick and agile, responsive to immediate needs and inventive enough to meet those needs. But how can it be both? How do we get out of our own constraints?
“I think there is an assumption by others that the work you are doing is to fix the centralized system we already have or how to improve it. But that's a question that comes within the framework of assumptions about the goodness of being centralized. If you stay within that box, you will not be able to address the questions about how to move forward.”
The Commission on a Way Forward continues their meeting through March 2. Additional information on the meeting will be forthcoming.
March 2, 2017
Atlanta, Ga.: Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia this week, the Commission on a Way Forward continued to make progress towards completing the groundwork for their task, building relationships, engaging in learning, information gathering, working and worshiping together.
On Wednesday, the Rev. Donna Pritchard led a morning Bible study of Galatians 2. Later, Commission members joined the staff of the General Board of Global Ministries in the stained-glass sanctuary of Grace United Methodist Church for an Ash Wednesday service.
The day concluded with Bishop David Yemba reminding the Commission that people across the Connection are praying for the Commission. He shared a meditation about Ephesians 1:15-23, noting that Paul is sharing through prayer the things believers have in common, not only what is dividing them. “Above all is that you have the Lord Jesus Christ in common and then you have in common faith in him and you have common hope in him and you have God's promises in him,” said Bishop Yemba.
In January, the Commission formed learning teams to take on various aspects of their work and the teams have been diligently pursuing their assignments. The work of some teams will take longer than others, but the following generally summarizes work to date.
• Initial research has involved interviewing bishops, pastors and laypersons from other denominations and gathering data and resources to report to the Commission. Denominations are unique in terms of polity and experience, and none is a perfect match with The United Methodist Church.
• One team shared information with the group about the power of language and culture, sexual orientation and gender identity. Conversations have taken place with reconciling congregations and research gathered on experiences and perspectives from Africa.
• There is ongoing research seeking clarification about the rules, petitions, logistics, and the roles of the Council of Bishops and the Commission on the General Conference.
• One team led a learning session describing the current landscape and the different strategies at work of the Confessing Movement and other renewal groups, Reconciling Ministries and progressive strategies, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, and groups in the Central Conferences with general discussion and questions.
• There was a report on a plan for gathering information within the Central Conferences related to the diversity of attitudes regarding LGBTQ issues and the different social, cultural and religious contexts. There was a strong recommendation to explore the subject of unity with the Central Conferences.
A tale of two centuries
Dr. Russ Richey of Candler School of Theology says the unity and disunity of the church has been, in a sense, his life’s work. He shared insights about how Methodism has historically dealt with disagreement and the different ways the church dealt with conflict over two centuries.
The 19th century saw separation and organizational division among American Methodists every decade. The century following brought unity, even amidst divisions that were more internal than structural. “By and large we stayed united, but there were serious divisions and controversies.”
Richey said there was “separation between” in the former and “separation within” in the latter.
The earliest disputes were over a variety of causes, sometimes over big issues such as slavery. “We were a very popular movement. In some ways for the 19th century, we were the most popular and dynamic movement, so the big issues the country wrestled with were ones we as Methodists took on.”
The result was division, and those divisions had costs, he says. “We didn’t speak with a common voice, but churches competed with one another and reached out and evangelized.”
“Beginning in the very late 19th century and continuing in the 20th, there was a sense that these denominational divisions tore apart the cloak of Christ, that we were dividing Christ’s gift to us,” he said. “There was really a Biblical mandate and Christ’s injunction to bring us together and so a lot of energy was put into unitive efforts,” said Dr. Richey in an interview.
Following the presentation was a discussion about takeaways that might be important to the Commission’s process and what other historic perspectives or information might be needed, including learning more about our history globally.
Gathering additional input
The Commission also continued discussion both in small groups and as a body regarding the input they need from other groups and individuals, including:
• Conversations with caucus groups
• Conversations with strategic denominational leadership groups at meetings that are already a part of their schedule and at which the commission might ask for time
• Conversations with seminary students
• Engaging bishops and annual conferences in supporting the work of the commission
• Engaging annual conferences to develop their own strategies by which they can offer feedback and information to the Commission so that local church members, participants and clergy have a voice
The group worked together on beginning to compile a comprehensive list.
The Commission began its last day with a Bible study on Galatians 3 led by the Rev. Helen Cunanan of the Philippines. There was also a discussion of a timeline for their work ahead. The Commission's next meeting will be April 6-8 in Washington, DC.
More information on the Commission is available on their website at UMC.org/wayforward.
About the Commission on a Way Forward
The 32-member Commission on a Way Forward was appointed by the Council of Bishops to assist the bishops in their charge from the 2016 General Conference to lead the church forward amid the present impasse related to human sexuality and resulting questions about the unity of the church.