Confusion, Distractions, and Hope: Thoughts from Annual Conference

August 10, 2017

A Brief Overview

 Some places stay in your body long after you have physically departed. Grand Rapids is one such place. As I wandered into the convention center, feelings of dread and discomfort descended as my body remembered what my brain was slow to recognize. It all returned: the nomination from the floor of a man for moderator despite two carefully vetted women on the ballot; the appearance of buses loaded with delegates from congregations that hadn’t participated in conference in decades but were there to vote down anything lgbtq positive; the bizarre man stalking the Womaen’s Caucus booth wearing shirts with “Satan” embroidered on the pocket; the ignorant and hateful things said about lgbtq people; and finally, the awful death threat that specifically targeted a lesbian woman. Despite the passage of six years, my body remembered.

 

Early on, BMC had approached Conference leadership requesting some sort of ritualized acknowledgement of what had previously transpired at Grand Rapids. Citing a need to “look forward,” and expressing concern about new conference attendees whose experience might be soured by such an undertaking, our request was dismissed. Painful, but in the end, perhaps this was to our benefit. Sarah Kinsel (Peace Church, OR), Kimberly Koczan Flory (Beacon Heights, IN) and Joanna Willoughby (Common Spirit, MI) stepped in to create a beautiful ritual of healing and hope that drew an ever-growing circle of people into its warmth. It proved a helpful way to reclaim the space, dissipate the sense of dis-ease and mistrust, and embrace a healing solidarity with those gathered.

 

The annual Supportive Communities Network (SCN) Briefing and Gathering is gaining momentum as a favorite conference event. Held the first day of Conference, the training provides an opportunity for supportive folks to be informed about Conference business, and to prepare spiritually and emotionally for the days ahead. This year, Kara Evans (La Verne, CA) and Sara Davis (La Verne, CA) shared reports and observations from Standing Committee meetings. Carol Lindquist (Beacon Heights, IN) offered a framework for understanding and analyzing decisions and leadership styles. And Zandra Wagoner (University of La Verne, CA) led the group in a spirited community care training that centered upon courage. It was a powerful display of community engagement and strength. My thanks to Brian Flory, chair of the SCN Steering Committee, for his work in facilitating and planning the afternoon.

 

A true highlight of the Conference week is the BMC worship. We had standing room only as people gathered for this very uplifting event. Chris Zepp (Bridgewater, VA) shared a humorous and tenderly profound reflection upon his experience of losing his ordination for supporting marriage equality in a sermon provocatively titled, Pasta, Pirates and People Sheep. Offering a grounded and gentle presence, Rebekah Houff (Manchester University, IN) led the worship that concluded with a very meaningful and joyful service of communion as we all sang For Everyone Born, A Place at the Table by Shirley Erena Murray. The musical talents of David Hupp (Manchester, IN), Paul Fry Miller (Manchester, IN) and Lamar Gibson (Greensboro, NC) held it all wonderfully together.

 

Of great encouragement to me was a notable shift in the tone and content of conversations at the BMC booth. We had a steady stream of traffic, and people were very interested in our resources. Most significantly, many shared positive stories about their experiences with lgbtq family members and friends. There was a naturalness and ease that was markedly different from the angst ridden and ill-informed conversations of the past. Although there were a few predictably creepy encounters, clearly we are moving into a new era.

 

A Lengthy Analyses

The word that seemed to best express the overall tenor of the delegate and Standing Committee sessions was confusion. There was uncertainty about what was being voted on, what the consequences were, whether amendments were allowed, what percentage vote was required, etc. Even allowing for the usual and annoying testing of female moderators, I was surprised at the number of calls for a “point of order” and excessive needs for clarification about the business at hand.

 

In my mind, the confusion is indicative of structures and systems that are stressed because they are being challenged beyond their capacity to effectively and efficiently manage, and/or because they are being manipulated in ways that subvert or destabilize more transparent patterns of process and procedures. In other words, the confusion is a result of covert and overt responses to the pressures of cultural and political change.

 

The obsessive quest to oust On Earth Peace, ostensibly because of its onerous “inclusion statement” is one glaring example of the pressures of change.  The great sin of On Earth Peace was not its inclusion statement per se, but rather that they had the audacity to include lgbtq people in it. After failing to convince On Earth Peace to withdraw or revise their statement, Standing Committee elected to renounce the statement altogether. This ended up as a denominational embarrassment because it could be read (correctly, I think), as also a rejection of women and people of color, a position that made institutional moderates squirm. To have to clarify that we as a church do like women and black and brown people, but just not queer people, is difficult for those same moderates to have to own. It made for a lot of strange comments.

 

Adding to the stress of business was the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality and the growing number of pastors officiating at same sex weddings. At the 2016 Annual Conference what was thought would be an easy vote - the punishment of pastors performing such weddings and a loud denouncement of same sex marriage - ran into problems over the value of individual conscience and pastoral integrity. It failed to get the necessary ⅔ vote to pass.  In a questionable back room deal, it was decided to hand the mess over to the Leadership Team for clarification and recommendations about “accountability.”

 

In the same 2016 Conference, the “problem” of On Earth Peace was punted to a committee (Review and Evaluation) that did not want the assignment because it was deemed beyond the scope of its responsibilities. This did not prevent them, however, from ultimately making a recommendation (predictable given the composition of the committee) that On Earth Peace lose its designation as a church agency. This is despite the fact that there exists neither precedence nor polity for this kind of action.  Indeed, a query from On Earth Peace recommending the development of such polity was brushed aside in order to proceed with the vote. Confusing, right?

 

The Leadership Team Report offered its own challenges. In it, District Executives contributed to the tumult by pretending that their “standard practice” policies dealing with pastoral conduct were consistent, well tested, and broadly employed, despite the reality that they were developed just months ago to specifically deal with pastors officiating at same sex weddings. Coupled with this was the conflation of “expelling” a congregation with “disorganizing” a congregation - one is a punitive act of institutional coercion and the other a mutual decision resulting from a loss of vitality. This added not only a whiff of deception to the Leadership Report, but also legitimated a path to ridding the denomination of “troublesome” congregations and pastors.

 

In order to navigate such difficult terrain, speech often becomes coded, awkward and inconsistent. Thus, instead of directly naming lgbtq people and the desire by many for our exclusion, leadership would reference “the sexuality issue” or vague “Annual Conference statements” or “the inclusion issue” in their communications. This indirect, coded speech added to the general confusion. Were we voting on lgbtq people,  upon the mission of On Earth Peace, accountability, getting rid of congregations, ordinations, or something else??

 

The Something Else:  A Place to Start

In his book, The End of White Christian American (Simon and Schuster, 2016), author Robert Jones concisely and convincingly details the malaise that ails us as the Church of the Brethren. He notes that we have entered an era where white Protestant Christians, be they mainline or evangelical, no longer hold absolute sway in this country. As a result of immigration patterns, religious disaffiliation and basic birth rates, demographics are shifting. These profound changes in the racial, cultural and religious composition of our nation challenge prevailing assumptions about history, values, morality, and priorities that have provided white Protestants with a sense of security, comfort and purpose for hundreds of years.

 

Jones suggests that white Christian America is dying, and those of us who share that identity are  consumed by grief and anxiety at the loss.  Indeed, much of the tension and confusion that we are witnessing within the white Protestant church and within our nation, is an acting out of various grief stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance in various, sometimes vicious ways. Gently, Jones calls for us to not slip into a parochial and angry nostalgia or recast ourselves as a newly beleaguered minority in an attempt to maintain power. White Christians continue to have important things to offer, but even more important things to gain if we can accept and even embrace this emerging reality. It is an important message for the Church of the Brethren.

 

How does this distress play out among us? Clearly, the obsession with lgbtq bodies is one key arena, and our reluctance to talk about race another.  It is past time to stop using queer and non-white bodies as the misplaced site of our collective fears, anxieties, and grief. It is also past time to stop fostering environments that seek to pit queer and non-white groups against one another as a political strategy, thus blurring a sense of solidarity and mutual care among marginalized groups.  The reckless use of queries and reports and “standard procedures” in an attempt to regulate and demean lgbtq lives has grown tiresome and just plain mean. Transferring the focus of this anger to On Earth Peace, or recklessly tossing out pastors, congregations and even agencies will not fix things.

 

The Leadership Team called the church to a “compelling vision” that they think will enable us to leave behind the tensions and divisions reflected in our current struggles. This is wishful thinking. Not only is a genuine unity unlikely, but it ignores the very real possibility that the tension that we feel is the result of the Spirit already at work among us. Working from the margins, the welcoming movement has been engaged with birthing a new understanding of what it means to be church for some time now. It is being born out of decades of hard work and a willingness to face uncomfortable tension, tenacious struggle, intrepid imagination, and risk-taking hope for the sacred work of love and liberation. Our decisions and actions have not been casually or carelessly enacted. Rather, they have reflected thoughtful discernment and honest wrestling with what it means to be a people of God who practice justice, love kindness, and desire to continue the bold and disrupting work of Jesus.  As a result, we are already living into a compelling vision of church that feels healthy, strong, compassionate and full. Our task is continue to creatively and lovingly support and care for one another, inviting others to join us as we continue to risk and act for the sake of our gospel vision.

 

Rather than undertake an expensive and distracting visioning process, I suggest that it might be more fruitful to initiate a church-wide study of Jones’ book and see where it takes us. What if we risked real conversations about racial history, family, power, sexuality, and vulnerability? What if we paused for awhile in our assault upon lgbtq people and instead took a hard look at the changing nature of our church and communities? What if we seriously contemplated the radicalness of Jesus? These would be dangerous conversations for sure. I’m not convinced that we have the spiritual health to really do it as the whole church, but I hope, for the sake of the living gospel and for our wellbeing as a community of faith, that we at least try.

 

Next month:  Thoughts from Orlando.

 

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