By Rev. David Bard
When I was a teenager, a guy named Scott Ross had this wonderful radio program in which he used contemporary music to talk about Christian faith. I listened to The Scott Ross Show on a transistor radio on Sunday nights. A part of my spiritual life is woven around my love for music, much of it secular music which nevertheless speaks about faith, hope, and love.
I have thought about that this week here in Portland for the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church. A song that has come to mind in thinking about these first few days is the Beatles’ “Hello, goodbye”—“you say goodbye, but I say hello.” General Conference has been that kind of mix of ups and downs, of delights and frustrations, of grandeur and grunge. I am going to bed on Portland time but waking up on Minnesota time.
This is the fifth time I have had the privilege of being a delegate to General Conference, and I am deeply grateful to the Minnesota Conference for electing me. In all my experience, though, we have never spent as much time working on and debating the rules of procedure as at this General Conference. Some of that debate has been simply stuck in the grunge—points of order that were not really points of order, problems with a new electronic iPad system we are using to get called upon to speak from the floor. The biggest proposed change to the rules, “Rule 44,” was a proposal to use another method of conversation and discernment for considering challenging issues. If approved, it would have used small groups with trained facilitators—Judy Zabel and I had both received training—to have deeper conversations about issues from which some legislation might be formulated.
When we finally voted on the rule on Thursday morning, after it had been introduced on Tuesday, it was defeated. I think we missed an opportunity, even if the rule was an imperfect tool. The debate also highlighted how complicated it is becoming to make the range of decisions we are forced by our current denominational structure to make in a multi-lingual group relying on technology that we are not all used to using. We need to find ways for more local decision-making and allow General Conference to be more about relationships, worship, learning, and the celebration of ministry.
Those are the things that sustain me, the grandeur amidst the grunge, places where I feel the Spirit most strongly. Over 16 years, five General Conferences, and time on denominational committees, I have had the joy of making many friends from all over the country and all over the world. The smiles, hugs, and good wishes of friends give me a lot of energy, as do the deepening relationships that happen within our own delegation. Worship and prayer sustain my energy. Worship at General Conference is absolutely amazing. We hear choirs and musicians from all over the world, and Methodists know how to sing. Preaching is of the highest quality, and Bishop Palmer’s episcopal address was outstanding. We were given prayer beads and woven individual labyrinths, and I love this tactile dimension to my praying.
Each night, I have taken some time for exercise, and I listen to music while doing so. A couple of nights ago, I heard Dobie Gray’s “Drift away” and Kansas’ “Carry on my wayward son” and couldn’t help but smile as the Spirit spoke to my soul. Last night, Billy Preston’s “Will it go round in circles” made me think of the Rule 44 debate!
I don’t want to give the impression that all the legislative work is devoid of joy or of the Spirit. I enjoy and appreciate much of that work, too. I have been on the floor of General Conference twice this session—once to raise a point of order, which was sustained, and once to nominate Judy Zabel for the Commission on General Conference. I have raised a point of order in my legislative committee (the motion to table is not debatable) in addition to participating in discussion on issues of faith and order. Some good things happen in all this, even though we also get bogged down. Even more disheartening can be some of our decisions that fail to recognize the different needs and ministry contexts in which many of us work. Different issues face Africa, the Philippines, Europe, and the United States, and we may need more freedom to make decisions about how we will minister appropriately in our contexts.
We have yet to see how we will decide many important matters. That’s coming up next week after the work of legislative committees gets brought to the plenary sessions for the entire General Conference.
Until then, I keep carrying on, sustained by the Spirit through friends, worship, prayer, good work, and a little rock ‘n’ roll.
Rev. David Bard is a clergy delegate to General Conference. He serves First United Methodist Church in Duluth.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church