Sunday, June 28, 2015

We Will Walk Hand in Hand: New England Annual Conference, Part 4

The morning of the last day of Annual Conference started with a worship service including the laity address. That service reinforced a lot of my feelings of unity and call from the night before. After that, we finished up the delegations (and alternates) for General and Jurisdictional Conferences. Most of Saturday, though, was problematic and frustrating, and the ending was far from satisfying.

Throughout all of Annual Conference, Marcia McFee was an incredible worship leader. I'm so thankful for all the work she did; even with conferencing at its most frustrating, the worship was always uplifting. She had to leave on Saturday, so Saturday morning worship was the last service she led. It started with the reminder that "We are an unfinished church," and we sang, "This is a Day of New Beginnings."

The Laity Address was given by Janet O'Neil, who talked about going about everything in our lives, all of our business, everything day-to-day, with "God as our banner." She asked us what we would risk and how much we would give up for the Gospel. Following the address, the Bishop anointed those being licensed as local pastors, and we commissioned one of the new local pastors as a missionary. We ended the service by singing "They Will Know We are Christians By Our Love," and as we sang "We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand," we all joined hands and faced the center.

Business started normally. We adopted the budget and approved the Equitable Compensation Resolution (most years on the consent calendar, but different enough this year to be separate). But then we got to the report of the Committee on Leadership. The Committee on Leadership actually no longer really existed based on the Strategic Plan that was adopted at AC 2014, and in its place was supposed to be a new Nominating Committee. The proposed Nominating Committee had as its only clergy the 9 District Superintendents. When a motion was made that there be at most 2 DSs on the committee, someone else brought up that the printed pre-conference rules stated that had to be true of all committees (among other things), so then we talked about those versus what had been established by the adopted Strategic Plan and what took precedence. It turns out there was an error in where a particular amendment to the Strategic Plan was printed in the Conference Journal from last year, and some of this didn't come to light until after the Committee on Leadership had already disbanded. The discussion was kind of a mess and was complicated by the fact that there wasn't a committee to which to really address this any more.

Eventually, what ended up happening was that the Committee on Leadership sort of reformed over lunch to come up with a new Committee on Leadership/Nominations for next year. They did a really good job, especially given how quickly they had to work, and that new slate was presented and approved in the afternoon. (We had separated off that committee from the rest of the report and approved the rest in the morning.)

In the afternoon, we approved the discontinuances of six churches. This sparked a discussion that made me really uncomfortable, especially coming from a church that has discussed closure as an option, though it doesn't look like we're headed that direction in the near future. This started with someone saying that it feels like we're giving in too easily, and along with the resolutions it would be good to see some sort of statement about what went wrong to lead to the failure of these churches. The use of the word failure got pushback (I believe rightly).

People pointed out that it's possible for a church to be engaged in good ministries while also dwindling in size and pledges to the point of eventual closure. Example: Some of my congregation's greatest ministry over the past few years has been to students at two of the nearby colleges. In general, college students can't financially support a church. In a Wesley Foundation (or any explicitly college ministry) context, we don't expect the ministry to support itself. If the church does end up closing, it would be for financial reasons, and that closure would not negate that good work of college ministry.

I thought Rene Wilbur, the conference lay leader, put it best, talking about how closing is sometimes the faithful thing to do, that it can make room for new and important ministries. But there was also language about sin and wrongdoing of the churches from the DS who gave the prayer over the churches being discontinued. Sometimes there is failure. Sometimes there is wrongdoing. Maybe even often! I would guess in most of these congregations, at some point, there was resistance to change. But the process leading to closure based on discussions with the DS and the procedure in the Discipline is not short or easy. It's not just giving up, and it's not a choice made without exploring a lot of options. So characterizing all closed churches as failed and having sinned (more than churches that didn't close) felt wrong to me.

There was a motion about rules brought by someone on the Rules Committee (though it was not from the committee). It took a while to get it nailed down, but eventually it was approved; hopefully this will prevent the rules-related issues that plagued this year's AC from happening again. It was pretty clear shortly after we started conferencing again in the afternoon that we weren't going to get through all of the business, so an additional session sometime before the deadline for resolutions to go to General Conference was proposed. This was tabled until 3:30 so that we could try to get through as much as possible.

We actually got a remarkable amount done (though, surprise surprise, not nearly everything). We're sending a few pieces of legislation to GC. One calls for the end to the War on Drugs/Prohibition, and it has gotten a surprising amount of attention from outside the church. (It was originally a resolution within the conference and then there was a friendly amendment to send it to GC.) The other resolutions were on divesting from companies producing goods or services in illegal settlements, working against the criminalization of communities of color, nonproliferation, and avoiding investments that support the production of petroleum, coal, or natural gas.

We had to be out of the conference room at 4:00, and a little after 3:30, there was a motion made to adjourn by the same person who had moved to table the motion to hold another session. This cause a lot of argument, and the motion to adjourn was eventually ruled out of order. The motion to hold another session was withdrawn, and then there was another motion to adjourn... which had to be counted by the tellers, it was so close, because a lot of people wanted to go elsewhere and finish the work before us.

We did adjourn, and then we blessed the delegates to GC and JC and the alternates. (NEAC gets 3 each to GC, 3 more each to JC, and then we elected 3 each as alternates.) The laity had finished electing the night before, and the clergy had finished up on Saturday morning. Our delegation leaders are Bonnie Marden (laity) and We Chang (clergy). I think we elected good delegations, even though it took a lot of votes and discussion around voting.

Blessing and sending forth our delegates should have been a good end to conference, but the confusion and frustration around the votes about adjourning made it a bit of a rushed afterthought, something we had to do. I don't think most people left on Saturday evening feeling like we had accomplished what we set out to do, and we certainly didn't have the feeling of walking hand in hand that we had that morning.

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