Monday, May 16, 2016

I Thank God General Conference is Not the Church

     I thank God that General Conference is not the church.  Yes, General Conference makes high level decisions about official policy.  General Conference controls a lot of money, although the pie is shrinking.  General Conference gets a lot of press coverage and makes people wring their hands, shudder, shout, rejoice, weep, or pump a fist or two.  But General Conference is not the church.
First, imagine if all the delegates, bishops, staff and observers were in fact a local congregation.  Good worship – but if you were a visitor you would quickly detect a few problems that would make you shy away from joining.  Factions, tension, little whispering campaigns, constant dickering over how to proceed, gridlock on actually doing anything, no clear leadership…  Everything that bedevils the dysfunctional congregation we have in frighteningly acute degrees.  Such a congregation would repel visitors, members would drift or bolt away, mission and learning would fracture, and the church would shrink and then fold.

     Also, the people who wind up as delegates, even though they are asked to be representatives of their conferences or even of the broader church, are not in fact representative.  I told my bishop once that the delegates to annual conference, generally speaking, are not actually representative of their churches.  When my congregation elects their delegates, they don’t choose the most centrist, “average” members.  We pick the people who are willing to take days off to sit through fairly dull business, people who are ultra-Methodist, lovers of conference doings.  The people who are at the very heart of my church aren’t interested or can’t go.

     Who gets elected to General Conference?  We elect activist people, big names, people with razor sharp agendas, folks who fit various diversity slots, individuals who’ve not given much offense – and people who are willing and able to lose two weeks of their lives, can endure the intensity of the proceedings, and not be so disgusted as to exit the church when the conference has ended.  These are not normal United Methodists.

     At one level, the weirdness, or perhaps we should say the loveliness of those at General Conference should disturb us, and it sobers us up a little about the decisions made.  But for me, this idea that General Conference is not the church is a relief, and cause for hope.  I love being back at church the Sunday after General Conference.  I hug a little more than usual, and feel so very grateful to be part of a church family that is utterly unlike General Conference.  There really is so much life, and joy in our Church.

     This distinction between General Conference and the Church also enables me, with all due respect for our connectedness and our accountability to the Book of Discipline and other denominational decisions, to give comfort to people wounded by votes taken.  A few always want to exit our church because of a vote; a few exit because we even bother voting on something so obvious.  I can assure them General Conference is not our church.

     A woman emailed me the other day to say I pray that one day my church will love my son.  I could confidently respond, I love you and him, our church family loves you, both and there are actually millions of United Methodists who love you.

     I can also try to undermine any smugness among the victors.  Once in a while, some big vote changes or clings to things – and there are those who, like fans at a championship game, declare We won!  But in the Body of Christ we don’t have winners and losers; we don’t even have any we and them.  We are we, we love, we are the Body.

     We might be wise to dream of a day when we come to General Conference and remember the hearts of those at home, and more importantly, the dispositions required back home to make church work.  Back home we have the advantage of time and familiarity.  So at General Conference, where you might know a few dozen people, but most are strangers, you have to fast track the relationships, and remember what is true about all of us:  we really are one family in Christ Jesus, and we bring with us the ability to listen and care and even compromise a little to keep the family together and more importantly in sync with the holy head of our family, Jesus our Lord.


  1. I appreciate the distinction you're making between GC and the Church, and yet, as another mother who has prayed the UMC could love her gay son as much as her straight son, at some point it seems too disrespectful of him to remain a member of this particular body. My UM days may be numbered.—Jeannie Crawford-Lee

    1. I left the Methodist church because my sister couldn't feel comfortable there. Now I am a member of an Open and Affirming United Church of Christ and I'm much happier.

  2. We believe in God and share in God's church through a local congregation, which is where love happens. If someone from another continent across a massive cultural divide doesn't love me, I grieve, but only a little.

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  4. Thanks for this Dr. Howell. I become so discouraged by the "church", especially at General Conference time. But it is in the local church we can find love and acceptance, or we find a local church that we find comfortable and affirming.

    There seems to be so many at General Conference that are absolutely certain they have God all figured out.

  5. Thank God that GC isn't the Church, but it does resemble the church. Am grateful to be part of a congregation in Blowing Rock where this woman's son would be welcome. In fact, we are getting members from the UCC because they feel more accepted here and not as political. We await the rest of GC with baited breath. Spent the afternoon listening. I though Annual Conference was boring! You have my sympathy to sit during these sessions. So much confusion.

  6. Love is not complicated,however human beings are. If we are walking with Jesus Christ in heaven here on earth, the question of sexuality is absent and love abundant. I am not called to judge my bothers and sisters in Christ for I do not know what God has placed on their hearts. God knows the solution, so as a church are we ready to embrace His words and begin the healing? 1 Peter 4:1-2 Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.

  7. God isn't surprised by our politics in the church, Jesus dealt with it in person. Yet I am sure He is saddened by it, or possibly even angry. Jesus had some hard words for some of the religious leaders. That is another reason why our local congregations need to show love and do the best we can under each administration.