As a first-year student at Candler School of Theology, I’ve been blessed with so many amazing learning opportunities, including the chance to take a polity class on the 2016 General Conference.
During this past semester, my class of 22 students met four times to discuss legislation, caucus groups, conference rules and the art of being a good conversation partner in plenary sessions. While the polity class was informative, it could not have prepared my classmates and me for the depth and breadth of General Conference as a whole.
From day one, all of us have been overwhelmed by the diversity, expansiveness and organizational skill it takes to put on a global gathering such as this. Every morning since May 9, we have met at 7 a.m. with different representatives of different organizations (e.g., the Judicial Council, Council of Bishops, the General Secretary of the General Conference, Reconciling Ministries Network, Good News, etc.). After the meeting, my classmates and I attend worship, listen to plenary sessions and track legislation.
At the end of General Conference, we will each write a 25-page paper on our legislation of interest and our experience at General Conference as a whole.
Although it’s only mid-conference, so far I’m feeling excited. Listening to Orders of the Day shows both visitors and delegates just how much impact our global church has around the world. We truly take the Great Commissioning to heart by making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world through promoting church growth and development, seeking justice, freedom, peace and the alleviation of human suffering. We’ve drastically reduced malaria incidence and prevalence around the world. We’ve provided aid from Flint, Michigan, to Kathmandu, Nepal. We are even providing structure to growing churches around the world.
Of course, not everything is so rosy. I’m disappointed that people use parliamentary procedure to avoid difficult conversations. I’m disappointed that people feel so entrenched in their political views that they forget the humanity of “the other” (however “the other” is defined). I’m disappointed that caucus groups prey upon the scarcity of the world to manipulate legislation and power.
But this is not unique to the United Methodist Church, nor is it unique to the United States. In our fear-filled culture, it is easy to fall prey to scarcity. According to Dr. Samuel wells in his book “God’s Companions,” scarcity also goes by another name: poverty.
I hate to break it to everyone, but poverty is the reality of many a local church. And I’m not talking about material poverty; I’m talking about “poverty of community” and “poverty of imagination.”
Poverty of community is what happens when we lose love for those experiencing marginalization in our society, who are in need of the most love and care. We stop recognizing pain in the lives of others in need, and we are slowly robbed of love for those who are most near and dear to us.
Poverty of imagination is when we’ve accepted the fact that nothing in our world will change, that things will always be bad, that nothing we do can make it better. We forget what it’s like to work toward bringing heaven to earth, and subconsciously, we slip into making our world a living Hell, where sin and all its evil takes over. If we don’t have community or imagination, no amount of resources in the world can help our churches. They will die, and nobody will miss them.
In the midst of sinful scarcity, however, I remain hope-filled. According to Wells, the opposite of scarcity is abundance. In many ways, I’ve seen abundance overcome situations of scarcity. Abundance is made possible when we share with one another, whether it’s resources (like the boy who helped Jesus feed the 5,000) or ideas (like Peter’s vision of “clean” and “unclean” believers).
For me, General Conference has been a place of abundance. It has provided space for me to reconnect with my dearest friends in several general boards. It’s reminded me how important campus ministry is in shaping the church of today (not the church of the future). It’s allowed me to advocate for missionaries who need clarification on pension plans. It’s shown me that access to clean water is a human right. It’s inculcated in me a desire to decrease my carbon footprint. It’s instilled within me a sense of pride about women’s impact on global mission and ministry. It’s solidified my call to stand as an ally with marginalized voices.
It has also given me a charge of conflict transformation: not just to call out conflict when I see it, drawing closer to the source of my contention and frustration. In other words, it’s called me to “tend and befriend” that which causes me anguish. Lots of things cause me anguish. Racism causes me anguish. Sexism causes me anguish. Heterosexism causes me anguish. Gun violence causes me anguish. The death penalty causes me anguish. United Methodist polity causes me anguish.
But these issues cannot be ignored. They must be engaged. Bonds of oppression do not mitigate when we look the other way. They can only be overcome when we meet them face-to-face. Who better to meet them than the people of God, who have been charged with this work since the very beginning according to the Scriptures?
The work of General Conference is exceedingly important. But despite what happens in Portland, the church will go on. This morning Bishop Ough, president of the UMC Council of Bishops, kindly reminded my seminary class that the day after General Conference finishes, people will get up in the morning. They will set up food pantries. They will test water samples. They will deliver babies. They will mix concrete for building projects. They will teach theology classes. They will pray with the brokenhearted. They will pitch tents for refugees. In short, they will embody the church, like they strive to do each and every day. And the church will go on doing the work of God—whatever that may be in any given context.
No matter what happens at General Conference, I believe God is bigger than us. God can transform our conflicts into unity (not uniformity) for compassion that knows no boundaries.
The question is whether we will be open to that transformation or not.
Taylor is a candidate for ministry in the Columbia District.