The Northern Illinois Annual Conference met in Schaumburg last week.

I had submitted a resolution for consideration suggesting guidelines for a fair, collaborative, and transparent process allowing local churches to separate from the Annual Conference if they should decide to do so.

And, as it turned out, it was a Slam Dunk!

Yes, that’s right: A SLAM DUNK!

The proposal was slammed in legislative committee – dead, buried, and out of the way. And I was dunked (no, not in terms of baptism – more in terms of being doused with ridicule, shame, and “how dare you?!”).

Here’s the play-by-play:

The resolution was to be considered in Legislative Section #4 on Wednesday evening.

On Tuesday (the day before the legislative section meeting) a text message was sent out to rally a “core group of progressives/centrists” for an impromptu hallway strategy session so they would have a planned and unified approach to “defend the interests of the conference” against any local church attempts to separate. (Quotes are from the text message).

Though I was not included as a recipient of the text message, it was passed along to me. I was intrigued, of course: What was it in my resolution that threatened the “annual conference”? Aren’t we all part of the “annual conference”? What’s with the “defending” the annual conference?

So, I showed up at the impromptu meeting outside the room where Legislative Section 4 would meet. I mentioned to those gathered there that it looked like a “meeting”. They deflected; no, they were just folks hanging out together. I asked if the sender of the text message was present since I had never met her and wanted to ask what was so objectionable in the resolution. They told me she was down the hall somewhere. I wandered around and indeed found the sender of the text. I asked her what was so threatening that needed a coordinated defending of the annual conference. She said she really had no idea but was told “by someone” that they needed to rally against it.

Legislative Section #4 was called to order. The Moderator, who had been part of the “planned and unified approach” meeting, informed me that though I was the author and resource person for the resolution, I would not be permitted to present or inform the participants. I would only be allowed to respond to specific questions from group members.

The group proceeded through several other pieces of legislation (approving the closing of two churches and the election of new delegates to the thrice-postponed General Conference).

Then my resolution was brought up for consideration.

The Moderator asked if there were any speeches for or against it.

Three hands shot up.

They were called upon to give their speeches. Here are my recollected summaries:

Speech # 1 by the chairperson of the Conference Board of Trustees: I am shocked to see this disaffiliation proposal. The Board of Trustees already has a disaffiliation process that is fair, transparent, and collaborative. This resolution is unnecessary. I later said to that person it is welcome news to me and probably to all that a process for disaffiliation is in place already. She said if anybody wanted to know about it, they could call her and she would provide it.

Speech # 2 by one of our clergy: When I went through a divorce several years ago, in the midst of my hurt and anger, someone was kind enough to remind me that at one time I did love my husband. Congregations that are considering separating surely need to be reminded that despite the current anger or hurt they have loved one another. This resolution is insensitive to the emotional context of local churches. No church should be forced to take a vote to separate.

Speech #3: I am offended that this is even being considered. Paragraph 2548.2 comes from 1948, the Jim Crow era of racism when we were attempting to set things right from our racist past. For an annual conference that has anti-racism as its first priority, we cannot consider this resolution.

Then the Moderator asked if there were any speeches supporting the resolution; that is, considering the three batters who had just come to the plate, is there anybody here who wants to speak in favor of this unnecessary, insensitive, and racist proposal?

Crickets.

I was, to be fair, asked a few detailed questions, but mostly, it seemed, to ferret out my nefarious motives for bringing it up in the first place. And when I spoke, I was called “out of order” because I seemed to be advocating for the legislation rather than simply answering the question asked.

The vote was called for and the resolution suggesting guidelines for a separation process, requiring the bishop’s consent, a local church process of prayerful discernment, the congregation’s church conference approval, a review of any separation agreement by the annual conference attorney, and, finally, an affirmation by the annual conference session itself, was unanimously…defeated.

Slam dunk!

Now, to be honest, that was the outcome I expected.

You don’t always know where the sucker punch is coming from, but you know that it will come for sure. For whatever reason (and there are several reasons that come to mind), the folks in The High Tower (conference administrative offices at 77 W. Washington, Chicago) perceive some of the local churches who make up the annual conference to be annoyances or, maybe, enemies or, perhaps, hateful, narrow-minded, bigoted, racist, traditionalist Despicables. (Okay, that might be too many adjectives).

Rather than seeking to bless one another on differing future paths of ministry, the folks in The High Tower seem either simply fearful or are fundamentally antagonistic to allowing local churches to talk about the issues and discern their own commitments related to the future of United Methodism.

Why did I bother with the fool’s errand of proposing that we all be encouraged to openly and respectfully discern, discuss, and make decisions about the future?

Primarily it was and is because I have become aware from pastors in our annual conference that there is a fair amount of intimidation and threat if they facilitate conversations in the local church about the impending divorce of United Methodism. Don’t believe it? Ask yourself: how open and well-informed is that conversation in YOUR local United Methodist congregation? Most pastors, you see, must be careful. There are lots of conversations ABOUT having difficult conversations, but THE difficult conversation never actually seems to be engaged. How come? Your pastor knows that the folks in The High Tower are watching. So, what about small groups, a Sunday School class, or the church council taking up the issues? Well, as one District Superintendent put it (albeit in a “joking” way), “You know, the Annual Conference can change the locks, sell your building, and use the proceeds to support conference programming.”

We can do much better than this.

At this point the inclusive, “big tent” rhetoric often used by bishops, district superintendents, annual conference staff, and United Methodist institutionalists seems to be, well, just that: rhetoric. As the saying goes, “When all is said and done, a whole lot more is said than done.”

Why can’t we talk openly about this? One of the signs of organizational dysfunction is the inability to talk about difficult things. Suppression does not control people. Truth to tell, the conversations are indeed going on already, but they are underground…which means they are highly susceptible to misinformation, disinformation, rumor, and unfounded assumptions. Why not bring the conversations into the light?

Perhaps our annual conference leaders can signal a willingness to support local churches in a thoughtful, prayerful, well-informed process of discerning their future. And maybe local church pastors and other leaders will be given encouragement and accurate information by District Superintendents to help along the way.

By the way, the day after Annual Conference concluded in Schaumburg, I emailed the chairperson of the conference Board of Trustees asking for a copy of what she described as the fair, transparent, and collaborative disaffiliation process already in place. I am still waiting to receive it, but perhaps it will provide accurate information and maybe a welcome starting point for local churches seeking to discern their future.

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REV. DR. SCOTT N. FIELD

REV. DR. SCOTT N. FIELD

Interim President
Wesleyan Covenant Association
1 Corinthians 15:58

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