Some thoughts about Portland that I never got around to writing about…
Portland reminds me of Austin, Texas or Denver, Colorado. It’s a city that feels young, lots of millennials out on their bikes or walking, dining at some of the non-snootiest places I’ve seen and generally being happy.
VooDoo Doughnuts really are that good and unfortunately located between my hotel and the Convention Center.
There are lots of homeless people in Portland and everyone is nice. The city doesn’t flush the homeless out of parks or out from under bridges. And I was never accosted by aggressive pan handling. Everyone gets along. Hmmm….
And in my politically incorrectness I mused to myself that I couldn’t tell the homeless form the hipsters. Maybe that’s why folks get along, when the line blurs between the Thems and the Usses it reminds us that our similarities exceed our differences.
There’s no traffic in Portland. Stopping at a red light I would let the few cars go by then safely crossed against the light. This is a city that takes public transportation and bike-commuting very seriously, a lesson Cleveland should learn.
I don’t think there is enough to do in Portland to make it a vacation destination, but I enjoyed my time there and wouldn’t mind returning. Though I’d certainly find a more peaceful way to spend my waking hours.
Some thoughts on General Conference that I never got around to writing about…
The diversity was amazing. We had delegates from six continents (Antarctica was not represented) and we had seven official languages. Live proceedings were translated into these five languages and we all had headphones like in the U.N. At one point Bishop Streiff decided to preside in French, even though he spoke English, just for fun I suppose. But all of this diversity is expensive, word is we spent about $2 million in translation services.
I was frustrated with the delegate from the North Katanga Conference in the Congo because he kept coming to the microphone with questions. But then I remembered sitting in on the Liberia Annual Conference a couple of years ago and figured that if I had had a way to get my questions answered I would be pushing that button without ceasing. And I wasn’t even being asked to vote. Grace granted to my Congolese brother and it took me longer to get to that point than I would care to admit.
Good and bad, there are people who really understand this whole General Conference thing. As the resident Methodist Geek, I often get questions at church about polity, like explaining commissioned versus ordained. But General Conference was a whole different animal for me but clearly the home turf to others. Sometimes this was bad as those with an agenda could manipulate parliamentary procedure for their own good. But it also helped us move legislation through our committees and get to the floor what needed to get there.
The music during worship was amazing. I especially loved the closing number, when all of the groups from that morning were on stage together. I doubt the young African American choir from Brooklyn had ever been backed up with a banjo before, but in my own bizarre way it was a real highlight.
A former coworker said of our employer: “There is good weird and there is bad weird. As long as more of the weird is good than bad, it’s OK.” There was plenty of bad weird in Portland. But there was so much more good stuff. Looking back the week was trying but positive and I’m grateful for the opportunity.
Wednesday morning before we were to consider the Bishops’ proposal of a way forward we did something different. We prayed together. No, praying together wasn’t that unusual, in last ten days we prayed more than an unprepared college student taking an Organic Chemistry final.
We were asked to pray with folks we don’t usually talk to. The group from Susquehanna Conference in central Pennsylvania had been next to us for a week at that point. That’s them in the photo above, and some of us in the background. They’re way happier about holding hands than we are.
So we crowded around a table and we were to tell our stories, and no further instructions were given.
There were eight or nine of us around the table: men and women, clergy and lay, black and white, some older than others, Browns fans and, well, you get the idea. What was remarkable was the number around the table who had spawned pastors. One had a college freshman discerning a call, up to one whose son was in his second appointment as a pastor. About half of the group was focused on the future of the church for very intimate and perhaps even selfish reasons.
One of the two active pastors with a parent at our table had been following the proceedings online and just a few minutes earlier had sent his dad a text: “Save a church for me to serve.”
What a gut wrenching text to receive. And at the time it seemed spot on, the very existence of the church was on the line.
Last week I had written about the Trust Clause, the concept that the current members of a church don’t own the church, but hold it in trust, a gift from previous generations and a gift for future generations.
Being entrusted with a local church is a real responsibility, but being one of 860 people on the hook for an entire denomination is something else. The church that had been handed down by the Wesley Brothers, Francis Asbury, Bishop James Thomas and even Rev. Orland Ruby, who neither baptized me nor married me but took care of everything in the middle. They had all given us the keys to this thing, and it seemed like we were on some pretty slippery roads.
As I board the red eye flight home tonight, I will do so knowing that there is, indeed, a church left to be served. But that’s not a complete victory, it seems. We are still divided. The biggest issues we were asked to face were kicked down the road to the next General Conference, whether that happens in four years or less. And in those intervening years our churches will continue to make disciples. We will spread the word to children and adults who need to hear it. We’ll feed, clothe and advocate for those who need us, just as we were taught by John and Charles, Bishop Thomas and Rev. Ruby.
That college freshman will retire 50 years from now. That means she is counting on The United Methodist Church being more than twice as old then as it is now. I believe that as long as we keep doing the work of the church, the business of the church will take care of itself. Maybe the United Methodist will fail, but the Word of God won’t.
And the local church is far more about the Word of God than the Book of Discipline. And that’s the source of my optimism.
I am confident that there will, indeed, be a church for these young pastors to serve. The business of the church will look far different in 50 years, but the work of the church will endure forever.
Each morning and most evenings I walk the mile and a half or so from my hotel to the Portland Convention Center. I zig zag through downtown streets, go along the East Esplanade, an old industrial dock along the Willamette River. Then I take the Steel Bridge across river then up the ramps and stairs to the Convention Center. The photo above was taken between the river and convention center and roughly shows how busy it is in the morning.
The weather has been great and a 30 minute or so hike is great when I’m going to be camped out in a folding chair for the entire day.
Portland was Bicycling Magazine’s #1 biking city, which doesn’t surprise me at all. On my walk I probably see 50-100 bicyclists. Some are serious athletes in spandex and high performance bikes. Several mornings I’ve seen a mom and her elementary-aged daughter on a tandem. Others are probably tourists or newbies.
It’s pretty clear that my role as a pedestrian is to get out of their way. I’m careful to yield at intersections and pinch points. On a bike, momentum is everything. On foot I can start and stop easily. But on a bike, getting going from a dead stop is an awful lot of work.
It’s momentum, or more accurately the lack of momentum, that has me concerned about General Conference at this point. Last week we started out like a bicyclist going up hill in wet sand. It seemed to take forever but a detour into committee rooms got us moving and we came back with a sense of purpose and enthusiasm. We were finally getting stuff done and Tuesday the promise of a plan from the Council of Bishops for a way forward buoyed our optimism.
We started yesterday receiving the plan from the Bishops. Nothing seemed too radical, nothing, I thought, that would get the middle upset, although the extremes were sure to get rankled about something. We were, it seemed, going downhill with a tailwind.
But mistrust and frustrations flared, frustrations boiled over and it got ugly. I mean ugly ugly. Productivity for the rest of the day was minimal and the odds of getting anything passed with noses so far out of joint seems roughly the same as the Browns winning the Super Bowl this year.
Four years ago delegates left Tampa frustrated that so little had been accomplished. And now this morning as we again start pedaling uphill in wet sand I don’t know that we will be able to get any momentum going again.
My hopefulness exceeds my optimism at this point, and I desperately want to be wrong about it.
At the request of the General Conference, the Council of Bishops came back this morning with a proposal for a path forward. They proposed that:
Because the Bishops can’t actually propose legislation, Rev. Adam Hamilton made that proposal officially. It became known as the Hamilton proposal.
I very much liked this proposal for several reasons:
But in an extraordinary plenary issue.this proposal was voted down.
So this afternoon we begin a grueling grind of legislation in a room that feels more like a Trump rally than Christian conferencing.
As I went to bed Saturday night I knew I needed to worship Sunday morning. But I also knew that five days of more than 1,000 United Methodists was at least enough, so Google and I discussed my options. I found a promising Presbyterian Church half a mile from my hotel.
As I got to the corner where the church is located, I noticed that the doors were standing open. Open Doors, a good sign. On my way into the sanctuary I was greeted by not one but two associate pastors who welcomed me and asked a bit about myself. When I told them why I was in town they smiled and indicated that in a few weeks the Presbyterian General Assembly was likewise coming to Portland and would soon welcome delegates from across the denomination.
The sanctuary was a wonderful sample of architecture from days gone by, enough beautiful woodwork to keep a team of craftsman busy indefinitely, a huge pipe organ (insert your own organ donor joke here) and perhaps the warmest congregation I have ever visited. Several folks came over to introduce themselves as I sat alone. And when it was time to pass the peace they did so with enthusiasm and committed far more minutes to this practice than most congregations would. I was, indeed, welcomed with radical hospitality.
As I sat down I wondered what the key issues were going to be at their General Assembly. Would their meeting be more raucous or more gentle than ours?
During the announcement time yet another associate indicated that beginning next week there would be a series of classes about General Assembly, what it is, the history and a discussion of the key issues.
So even though this denomination-wide meeting would be held about two miles from their church, members may not even know what it is, let alone seek to define their faith by the decisions made there.
As my charming, winsome and humble friend Andy Call preached, General Conference is not ministry – ministry happens at the local church level. Most local United Methodists will not have their ministry changed much by what happens in Portland.
I had dinner last night with some other members of the East Ohio delegation after we all had a busy and at times frantic day in committees trying to get through our legislation. They had heard the news about the Trust Clause but they all wanted to know the answer to the same question: what was the logic behind the vote?
The discussion came from two camps and while I don’t agree with either, I understand both and was pleased to see that both came from missional perspectives.
The first was from of our brothers and sisters in the African delegation. Their discussion was that if the members of a church want to go away, they should be allowed to. In matters of faith we are better to be associated with those of strong faith and morals than to be yoked with those who do not. It is important to remember that in many African countries homosexuality is viewed quite dimly, often criminally. In fact in some countries where United Methodism is present, the practice is a capital offense. I don’t mean to cast this continent as homogeneous, but in our committee the opinions did not vary from this position.
The second argument was that we’re tired of fighting. We have discussed and debated and t varying extents fought over this issue every four years since 1972. It has wormed its way into every legislative committee, every aspect of this General Conference. I honestly had no idea how bad it was until I got here. Even long-term delegates were surprised at where we had come. Protesters were present even during communion at opening worship, offering communion in the name of their cause. Deeply passionate arguments about how rules for discussion were to be interpreted were based along these ideological lines.
The argument is that this topic has diverted our attention away from our mission. In previous posts I have lamented that our focus is so much on this one issue that the true work of the church is nowhere to be found.
I must say that this argument is growing on me. As comedian Chris Rock is fond of saying “I ain’t saying it’s right, but I understand.”
I still believe we are better of together than separate, a United Methodist Church rather than a divided one. I hope and I pray and frankly I expect that when this issue comes to the floor for the whole body to consider we will realize the seriousness of this issue and vote it down.
Folks who are concerned deeply about the possibility of nuclear war have what is known as the Doomsday Clock. It isn’t really a clock, but a visual representation of how close we are, at any time, to an atomic and later nuclear war. Midnight is doomsday, the closer to midnight, the more serious the threat. It was closest at 11:58 in 1953.
In the United Methodist Church we know that a schism is possible. We are not, as our name suggests, United. We have deep divisions over a number of issues, and homosexuality is at the top of that list.
Today our Schism Clock jumped, in my mind, from 11:45 to 11:57.
My Local Church Committee voted, with a margin of a single vote, to waive the Trust Clause if a church chooses to disaffiliate over the homosexual issue.
I should probably unpack that United Methodese.
The Trust Clause is based on the idea that a church and its assets, including the pews and the endowment, don’t really belong to today’s members of the church. Most of our buildings went up generations ago, with periodic improvements and additions. Few of our churches were built with funds exclusively from current members.
An endowment, for instance, was established to support the work of the United Methodist Church in that community forever. When I talk to a donor about an endowment gift, we use terms like perpetual support of the church’s mission, forever. So the Trust Clause is a way of keeping that promise, even if a local church chooses to leave the denomination, or disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church.
In some parts of the country it was the Trust Clause that kept churches from leaving the fold when they were told that they had to become integrated in the 60s or were assigned a female pastor in the 70s. Many view it as the thing that has kept a schism from happening in the last decade over this issue. It has been our enforcer, our tether on a renegade congregation. In effect, we tell them that if they want to leave the fold, that’s fine, but you will do it without the building and financial assets that have accumulated over the years.
Running away from home isn’t as easy when you find out you can’t take the car with you.
But today our vote paved the way for the whole General Conference to vote to allow disaffiliating churches to keep their assets if they left, to take the car when they leave.
My heart sank when the projection screen showed those results. We had just voted down a similar petition by about 2-1. A third of the votes was higher than I was comfortable with, but seemed like a safe margin. But when the results for this petition came up 32 in favor and just 31 opposed I realized that we’re closer to midnight on this thing than we ever have been.
A single vote on the floor of General Conference next week could make this waiver of the Trust Clause the law of the land, unable to be changed for another four years.
We broke for lunch immediately after that vote. As we sat there by the windows in the corridors of the convention center eating our turkey sandwiches, we wondered what would happen if the full body passed the vote.
I hope I don’t find out.
Friday afternoon in my Local Church Committee we came across three interesting petitions. The topic was how the annual conference should deal with the assets of a local church that had closed.
The petitions came from GCF&A, GBOD and UMRA. Oh, wait, I forget that you, my dear reader, have not been immersed in United Methodist jargon for the better part of the week. Make that General Council on Finance and Administration, General Board of Discipleship and United Methodist Rural Advocates. So these three groups each submitted petitions that were largely identical, each with a sentence or two of their own that tweaked an area of particular interest.
Each group had a representative there to speak to our committee and answer any questions. The committee had no serious reservations about any of the three. Normally we would choose one of the three to support, bring in the best parts of the others.
But instead we asked the three of them to work it out. Leaders of the three groups, along with an overachiever from the committee, sat down and co-authored an amendment to one of the petitions that incorporated the key points of all three. That moment is preserved in the photo above.
It passed unanimously.
But in my mind it raised an interesting question: Why hadn’t these three groups come together before today? This material was released months ago. Surely they had seen each other’s petitions. At least two of the three have very professional staff members with offices in Nashville.
Maybe they didn’t because it’s easier not to. Maybe they’re concerned about turf. Maybe we’re just not as connectional as we like to think we are.
But what happened today is a good thing, and all three will, I expect, be happy by the time General Conference winds up in a week or so, at least on this topic.
I hope the rest of the General Church pays attention.
My trip to Portland started Monday afternoon with a flight to Chicago, then on to the west coast. I wasn’t looking forward to the 4.5 hour flight and plane traffic, lousy weather and a slight mechanical issue in Chicago meant we were on the plane together for even longer.
As we boarded we were three strangers. But about half-way across Montana we had gotten to know each other, Sarah, Stephen, and myself. After during the usual pleasantries and small talk I explained why I was going to Portland (they were appropriately jealous) and I asked if I could do some market research. They agreed.
I knew they were our target market: married, both with families of young kids. They seemed clean cut and nice people. We had talked about how they are involved in the community and want to raise their kids to be good for the planet.
So I threw out the first question, and they both indicated that they did not go to church, but that they had done so as kids. Sarah had been raised in a nuclear family and attended a United Methodist Church as a child. Her parents are still members and she has a fondness for the denomination. Stephen was raised Baptist and his knowledge of the Bible and Christian traditions would have made his Sunday School teacher happy.
I talked with them about the gender issues we will be considering for the next ten days. Sarah and her husband are both artists: she a painter and he a sculptor. Their friendship circle has many gay friends in it, and if she were to consider going to church she would expect those friends to be as welcome as she and her nuclear family would be.
Stephen’s circle reminded me of Noah’s Ark, at least two of about anyone you could imagine, including homosexuals, folks who identify as transgender, racial and ethnic diversity. He said he refuses to categorize people based on any of this criteria. He says either they’re good people or they’re not. If they are, the rest doesn’t matter.
As we talked more I realized that my parents’ generation saw the world neatly categorized into boxes: Male or female, white or minorities, rich or poor, white collar or blue.
For Sarah and Stephen all of the boxes have become blurred. They would expect that their church, or really any institution, would welcome people without approving or disapproving of them based on those boxes.
We say that we want to be relevant to the Sarahs and Stephens in our community. I think to do that we will need to start erasing boxes and start welcoming.
I hope in the next ten days we can start our church in a direction that would make them and their friends see us as a place of relevance.