{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

General Conference 400 Miles Away: Some Initial Thoughts and Questions

[Disclaimer: Methodist nerd alert! Read with caution…]

I’m 400 miles away from Tampa, FL and I’m already getting tired. Trying to manage my day-to-day tasks at my local church and keep up with the proceedings of General Conference is a daunting task. It’s been an eventful first couple of days. A few things have struck me as interesting and I’m curious to see what changes (if any) are coming.

The Tokenizing of Young Clergy

Between those advocating for the voices of young clergy to be heard and those who want to ensure that young people find a place in our churches, I’m growing a bit weary of this tokenizing of younger adults. I’m 29 years old and after 2 days of watching General Conference from afar I feel like I’m either a part of a token group for leaders to cite in proposals or I’m ignored in favor of “raising up” a magical group of younger leaders not yet called into ministry.

It’s tough to be a young clergy member. There’s so much to learn and so much you don’t know. Experience and time often serve as the greatest teachers in ministry. And at the same time, there’s a glowing gap of my contemporaries in the local church.

So you’re stuck between two often competing ideas:

  • You’re pressured to be the salvation for a declining denomination.

It’s not enough anymore that Jesus’ death and resurrection is our salvation, we now need younger leaders to save our church. That’s a lot to take on when you’re just getting your feet wet in ministry. And there’s a potential to either defer responsibility upon those who are younger or even discriminate against those who are older, yet still serving faithfully and effectively in ministry.

  • Everyone else knows “what’s best” for young adults without asking you

It can be easy for people to judge an entire demographic based on a limited experience with a few representatives of said demo. I hear all the time, “young people all think x,” or “young adults all want y.” My fear in the reform offered at General Conference is that we run the risk of projecting certain ideals on an entire demographic of people. That would be fine but I’m not convinced enough younger adults have been brought into the decision-making process for that to be done with integrity. What we forget when we do that to any demographic is that more often than not we end us projecting our own personal values on others because of our bias. Listening and learning are key components to faithful change and reform.

Tone and Tenor of Debate

This is a tough one because I’m chief among the sinners here. In a previous article I wrote about the power social media will have in this year’s General Conference gathering. The problem with granting access and voice is that it can become messy. Honest and thoughtful critique can often turn snarky and unproductive when you’re just working with 140 characters at a time. Honesty is important and many will discredit honesty by calling it “snarky.” But nonetheless, critiques and questions should always be measured against the love of Christ.

On the other hand, I’m also concerned by the tenor of the discussion over reform on the other side. Have we really bought into a theology of death for our church if we don’t act? When did our mission becoming defined solely by our actions? When did our identity as church become solely dependent on how effective we are? Here I thought we were called to be the Church of Jesus Christ — a calling defined by life and not death.

I want to wholeheartedly support the concerns of those who want to change the structure of our church. We do need to change and adapt for the 21st Century. But I personally wanted to see a presentation on change based on hope and not death. Why didn’t the presentation ask more questions like “Can you imagine our church looking like this?” or “What if we decided to be the Church in this exciting way?” Instead we heard the same song and dance about declining numbers. I don’t think the numbers and decline should be ignored — they shouldn’t. But my question is should that be the story that ultimately changes us?

These are just a couple of my initial reactions as a distant spectator of the wonderful gathering of The United Methodist Church known as General Conference — a gathering I’m praying for and a church I dearly love.