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Commentary: It’s time for a new set of priorities

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Tom Berlin*

April 11, 2008

The Rev. Tom Berlin

The four areas of focus being presented to the upcoming 2008 General Conference may very well serve as the springboard for a new beginning for The United Methodist Church. Starting and renewing churches, developing future leaders, addressing global poverty and world health are challenges that are worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our life’s work as his church.

As a second-time delegate to General Conference, I have been struck by the interest these focus areas have engendered in those who often are weary and even cynical of quadrennial themes and top-down mandates in The United Methodist Church. The curtain may be rising on a new act in our story as a Christian movement—unless forces of the past conspire to jam it shut.

The enthusiasm around these four ministry areas is twofold. First, they make sense. It is hard to dispute that a denomination losing thousands of members each year should be significantly invested in planting new churches, revitalizing existing ones and training leaders. Evangelism and concern for the poor are basic to Wesleyan DNA.

The second reason for this enthusiasm is that these initiatives have the potential to put the "united" back in United Methodism. Given the fact that we are an 11.5 million-member worldwide denomination, it should be no surprise that we disagree on many things. General Conference has a long history of being the forum at which various constituencies express their differing opinions.

In recent years, however, there has been a growing weariness with the level of disagreement and the tone of the debates that rage around a variety of social issues. The four areas of ministry focus create an opportunity for a renewed sense of community amongst our diverse membership. It is possible that liberals and conservatives might actually find common ground in proposals that would spread the Gospel, empower leaders and touch the lives of the poor and sick. A fresh wind of hope raises the possibility that the 2008 General Conference may end with a ministry focus that delegates agree is the will of God for our church.

Unless we don’t.

A new way of business

There is another distinct possibility for this General Conference: business as usual. Business as usual is the great enemy of the future of our church. Many United Methodists characterize General Conference as a protracted argument about homosexuality, abortion and other hot topics. If we are to be successful at finding common ground for the church, we must resist the temptation to use the bulk of our time and energy on issues that have consistently divided us in past General Conferences.

"The curtain may be rising on a new act in our story as a Christian movement—unless forces of the past conspire to jam it shut."

Some suggest that we not discuss divisive issues while others believe these topics must be raised at every opportunity if change is to ever occur. Perhaps a middle way is possible. These topics are relevant for the church because they touch real lives. They also allow us to work through our theology and ethics. However, these difficult and often emotionally charged conversations cannot continue to be the central conversation or provide the primary images of our worldwide meeting.

I would suggest that we deal with these issues in a time-bound fashion at the end of our time together. For example, all discussion of homosexuality, abortion and divestment would be held until Thursday, May 1—the day before we are scheduled to dismiss. At the beginning of General Conference on April 23, each of these topics would be assigned a specific amount of time for dialogue in the plenary session. I also would propose that once these time limits are created, any protests that interrupt the work of the meeting be counted toward the time available for the topic of protest.

Setting time limits has the following benefits:

First, it reminds us that we have a finite amount of time and energy available.

Longer discussion does not mean better discussion.

Second, it shows good stewardship. My rough calculations indicate that our meeting costs $62,804 per hour for the stated agenda. We must not over-allocate these funds to conversation in demonstrated areas of disunity. We must have time and energy to properly attend to issues that will build consensus within the church and minister to the world so that lives are actually transformed in the name of Jesus Christ.

Critical juncture

"If we are to be successful at finding common ground for the church, we must resist the temptation to use the bulk of our time and energy on issues that have consistently divided us in past General Conferences."

Much is at stake in the outcome of General Conference. The image that so many of us carried away from the 2004 assembly in Pittsburgh was that of a broken communion chalice that was carefully reconstructed but obviously rendered useless. If such images continue to depict the outcome of these meetings, I fear that many of our most promising clergy and lay leaders will view General Conference as an exercise in futility. They are likely to choose to cocoon themselves in the vitality of the local church rather than give themselves to the conflict of our larger connection.

A common definition of insanity is doing what you have always done and expecting to get a different result. To the delegates of the 2008 General Conference, I say, "Let’s stop the insanity!"

My prayer is that we can emerge from this General Conference with goals that display our common love of Christ and the ministry to which we all are called.

*Berlin is pastor of Floris United Methodist Church, Herndon, Va. This year will be his second time to serve as a delegate to General Conference.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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General Conference 2008

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