Final reflections on Portland

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.


Final reflections on General Conference

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.

Photo Credit:  East Ohio Communications







Post script

I gave myself five days before writing this post as an intentional time of reflection.  As I sat in the Portland Airport (the picture above is me waiting for my plane) I was exhausted, demoralized and skeptical.  After a rigorous schedule of naps, I am no longer exhausted.  I remain, to some extent, demoralized and skeptical but at the same time have added hopeful and encouraged.

Those things don’t all seem to go together, do they?  Yeah, well that’s pretty much General Conference in a nutshell.

I am still demoralized that a schism for our church seems so very near.  I flew to Portland believing it was a possibility, but not very likely, kind of like the Cleveland Indians winning the World Series.  During the week I realized how near to that we are, and that maybe it’s not an entirely bad thing.  But I am hopeful and encouraged that it hasn’t happened yet.    As of now, we still have a global set of legs sitting under the same table.

I am encouraged after reflecting on the awesome mission work that our church accomplishes.  I’m very proud of local efforts like the Nehemiah Mission in Cleveland and the Urban Mission in Steubenville.  I learned more about the 30-year history of Africa University and its role in developing not only leaders for the African church but also leaders in business, mission and government in that part of the world.  I am encouraged that Imagine No Malaria connects with 300 clinics in Africa and has cut annual malaria deaths in half.

I am encouraged that we showed faith in our leaders, defeating legislation that would have given bishops term limits and forced them to run for re-election every 8 years.  We guaranteed pastors access to giving records not so they could be financial voyeurs but in recognition of the spiritual diagnosis that giving also provides.

The outstanding preaching inspired me.  I think we have let preaching slide in our culture.  There was a time, I’m sure, when the sermon was the most important part of spiritual guidance we received.  But now with online resources, great books from the likes of Adam Hamilton and James Harnish, the sermon is secondary.  And it sure better end early enough that we get to lunch before the Presbyterians. I heard sermons written to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  It’s been a long time since I heard a preacher take on the forces of evil.  Bishop Swanson from Mississippi gave my favorite sermon of the week, and you can watch it here.

Finally I’m encouraged by what is being called the Methodist Middle.  A relatively small number of delegates were involved in all of the protests and heated debates.  For many of us, these social issues don’t define the church.  We are defined by what I have written about here, and folks whose houses are repaired by Nehemiah or a mother whose child is cured at an African clinic doesn’t really care about what was debated last week.

They care that we continue to be the hands and feet of God.  And to that I press 1 to vote “yes.”

Save a church for me to serve

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.

Lessons from the bike lane

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.

Photo credit:  Jonathan Maus, BikePortland

An opportunity squandered

Kay Panovec and Rev. Gary Henderson pray during a plenary session.  Photo Credit:  Rick Wolcott, East Ohio Annual Conference.


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:

  1.  Form a special commission to conduct a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Discipline regarding human sexuality
  2. To call a special, two or three day, General Conference before the 2020 General Conference, specifically focused on the question of human sexuality
  3. We recommend that the General Conference defer all votes on human sexuality legislation scheduled for today.

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:

  1.  By deferring any legislation based on human sexuality clears the decks for us to discuss other important business for the rest of the week.
  2. The level of trust in this room makes it clear that no significant movement, in either direction is likely to happen on any of the 50 plus pieces of legislation we are to consider.
  3. The proposal carries the opportunity for a full, comprehensive rethink of the Discipline in this area, rather than amending one paragraph at a time.

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.


A call to conversation

Photo Credit: Sue Zakovec, East Ohio Annual Conference

In yesterday’s post I lamented the protests I had seen the day before.  They were, I wrote, unnecessary because General Conference bends over backward to make sure everyone has a chance to have their voice heard.

In a world of social media I had enough “likes” and affirmative comments to know I wasn’t completely off base.

But I heard another voice, one from a place further left than I saying that this statement was a joke and that the LGBTQ voice was not adequately heard.

Now comments that are made directly on my blog are submitted for my review, a chance for me to filter them before they are shared with the rest of the world.  My policy is to green light these comments, as long as they are respectful and on point.  But my blog seems to be shared and reposted on other blogs, Facebook pages and social media sites that I am far too old to even understand.  This post came through the Facebook page of another.

I considered my options.  I could TURN ON MY CAPS LOCK and shout him down in response, telling him how I’m right and how he’s wrong.  I could have ignored him.  Either of those options would have been appropriate for a General Conference setting.

Instead I sent him a message indicating that if he’s here in Portland I’d love to sit down with him and get his perspective.  I’ve not heard back, so I assume he is back home, following the Conference online.

I came to Portland believing I had a pretty good handle on United Methodism.  I do, after all, own my very own Book of Discipline.  I pay attention to larger church issues, read far more of my homework than many.  My work through the National Association of United Methodist Foundations lets me talk with good Methodists from across the country regularly.  And I generally just enjoy talking about the church.

The two weeks I spent in Liberia a couple of years ago has given me perspective on the global church and if nothing else helped me understand delegates sitting in a conference unable to understand the language and feeling completely lost.

But I don’t know much about the LGBTQ community (a month ago I didn’t know there was a “Q” in there, and I’m still not sure what it stands for) and I sure don’t know much about them in a UM context.

Which brings us to Rule 44.  Last week we spent days bickering about the rules of the General Conference and Rule 44 was a big part of it.  Most of our discussion is guided by Roberts Rules of Order, strict parliamentary procedure with three speeches for and three against, each dutifully timed with the seconds counting down on the video screen.  There are amendments and substitution, motions to table and motions to refer.

But Rule 44 sought a different approach.  We would, it proposed, sit down and talk.  In theory the folks in rainbow stoles and the folks from North Georgia would sit around a table and share their perspectives.  At the end they may not agree, but they might understand.

The rule was rejected by the group, and I was among those voting no.  I didn’t think they had worked out the kinks, with big questions about how it would work and how it would be facilitated.  I also didn’t think the group was ready for it.  Hearing sides speak with vitriol about whether or not to sit down and have calm conversations seemed like it was unlikely to be productive.

But in hindsight I think a flawed conversation would have been better than no conversation.

I have no idea what kind of structure we will have in the United Methodist Church by Saturday morning, but whatever we have we need fewer speeches in favor or against and far more conversations.

I protest the protests!

Photo by: Rick Wolcott, East Ohio Annual Conference

General Conference has become known for many things:  incredible worship, a diverse audience, the chance to rub elbows with United Methodist thinkers and authors with names like Schnase, Hamilton and Slaughter.

And in recent years, protests have been added to this list of things to be expected. I knew I was in for protests, but had no idea they would look like this.

During the communion portion of the opening worship a handful of LGBTQ protesters brought out a rainbow banner and offered their own communion in the name of inclusivity.  And Monday afternoon after lunch, a group of protesters in the name of Black Lives Matter interrupted the business session with a 30 minute protest.

Both of these violated agreed-upon rules for the conference, developed to help us get as much work done as possible and keeping the decorum of the meeting.

In case you’re wondering, General Conference bends over backwards to make sure that all voices across the denomination can be heard.  Anyone sitting in a United Methodist pew can submit a petition to change the Book of Discipline, the rules of the Church.  On the way into the convention center I run a daily gauntlet of those handing out leaflets, stoles and any number of other items in support of their cause.

Any petition that had been voted down in committee can be brought to the floor of conference with just 20 signatures.  We are spending more than $2 million on translation services to keep all delegates involved in the conversation.

So I must say that I am very much opposed to these types of protests.  Communion is perhaps the greatest symbolic connection we have to the suffering of Christ at the end of his life.  Taking this sacrament as an opportunity to advance a political position is, I  believe, both inappropriate and shameful.  If they are offering their own communion, does this mean they are no longer in communion with the rest of the church?

Given the amount of work we have before us there was a proposal Monday morning to postpone various reports until after the legislation piece had been completed.  Then just a few hours later a group chose to take 30 precious minutes to circumvent the entire conference structure to hear their barely audible chants.

Ironically, just before the Monday afternoon protest began it was announced by Conference leaders that this conference costs $1,386 per minute to operate.  So the protest cost us $41,640 and left the body sharply divided.  That division was made wider, I believe, when after the protest was finished the leader came back into the hall and tried to outshout Bishop Mike Coyner as he was praying.

And don’t think for a moment that this protest was a spontaneous outpouring of frustration that a few delegates had built up during the morning session.  The protest was led by Rev. Pam Lightsey, Associate Dean of the Boston University School of Theology.  She is not a delegate to General Conference, but apparently traveled here with the sole goal of disrupting  our proceedings. In fact yesterday during the protest she promised to “disrupt this General Conference again and again…”

Now I will readily admit that while I have certainly felt frustration in my life, I have not been on the receiving end of the injustices that African-Americans and members of the LGBTQ community are feeling.  I’ve never felt that the establishment was stacked against me.

I have written of my commitment to diversity here in Portland and that hasn’t wavered.  But this General Conference is costing $10 million, most of which has its origin in offering plates in local churches.  We must be good stewards of the financial and time investment that this conference represents.

Allowing us to be hijacked by protesters interferes with our ability to do so.



Reflections on Worship

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.

The text was from Genesis, the story of Babel.  You will recall that all the people spoke one language, lived in one place and got along beautifully.  But God scattered them across the globe and confused their languages.  I thought of the cacophony of our committee meetings with speakers and translators all around a table.
The sermon, delivered in just enough of an Australian accent to be really interesting, talked about how although they did not speak the same language, they all spoke the word of God in their own way, each of them different from the other.  It was a message, at least to my hearing, of people who are not the same, but are still in love with God.  It was a message I very much-needed to hear.  There’s a good chance it’s the one she actually preached.
In my frustration and disbelief at yesterday’s events, I forgot that this is what was happening.  I heard no hate, not yelling and screaming, nothing resembling a rally of an orange-skinned presidential candidate.  What we had were United Methodists who care deeply about their denomination based largely on their theology.  Like the people of Babel.  We disagree not on our love for the church, but on how that love should be manifested in that church itself.
As i walked back in the rain I thought about the Presbyterian Church.  I had no idea if the church I had attended was a member of the Presbyterian USA or Presbyterian Church in America.  It didn’t matter.  What mattered was the welcome I had received, the mission work this group does at the Julia West House and the six confirmands that were welcomed into the church on Pentecost.  This was ministry happening at the local church level.
Let us not forget the difference between ministry and polity.  I had forgotten this, and it took an hour with a wonderful Presbyterian congregation to remind me.

The Trust Clause, part II

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.

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