Leadership and legislation

May 14, 2016
A legislative sub-committee meets Saturday afternoon at General Conference.

We are in gridlock. I see it in our government and it frustrates me to no end. Partisan politics, lobbyists, and getting re-elected trumps working across the aisles to solve some of the most critical problems of our day. Maybe it has always been that way, but it seems so much worse these days.

I am desperately looking for courageous leadership, and I define that in a way that might surprise you. To break out of gridlock, we need leaders who are willing to risk re-election by being willing to compromise and collaborate in order to make progress on the pressing issues. It feels like we have way too much high-minded rhetoric and too little pragmatic action. More self-preservation than striving after a common purpose. And who is paying the price? The people. The frustration is building.

I have also been known to disparagingly compare the structure of The United Methodist Church to the U.S. government. It is patterned on that model…we have a legislative branch, which I am experiencing at General Conference this week. And it feels eerily similar to congress. We are in gridlock. But we have an added complication that makes it even more challenging: Many of the delegates, up to 40 percent, come from other countries. They bring different world views and unfamiliarity with legislative processes and Robert’s Rules, not to mention the issues of language and interpretation. I love the beauty and idea of being a worldwide church, and because of that, I just don’t know if our legislative model can work for us anymore.  

When you bring people from all over the world who do not have shared experiences and understanding, and who have virtually no time to build relationships, how can they be expected to exhibit the courageous leadership of collaboration and compromise that is the premise of a democratic, legislative process? Our loyalty will be to those “back home,” wherever home is, instead of being willing to risk those relationships and commitments for the sake of doing something new.

We have pressing issues as the church, and those issues are very different in the U.S. and in places like Africa, Russia, or Vietnam. Editing and modifying a Book of Discipline is not going to get us closer to resolving them. We saw that at General Conference 2012, and we are getting a repeat in 2016. When something is not working, trying harder at the same thing is not the answer. So what is my brilliant suggestion for breaking the gridlock we find ourselves in?

I know it might be a crazy idea, but I think it starts with the Council of Bishops. This is a smaller group of people who come from all over the world, who meet together, worship together, and work together. I would charge them to not simply manage, to not only give spiritual and temporal oversight, but to lead and lead collectively. I would even go so far as to say they need to go to some place and meet together for as long as it takes—and I really mean as long as it takes, even if it is weeks or months—to build the relationship and trust required to seek a vision from God, to come to a shared understanding and agreement of the pragmatic action we need to take as church to move forward. And then they need to go and lead with one voice and a common purpose in their individual annual conferences and through the boards of the general agencies they chair.

If not them, then who? They have the power of agenda and influence in every part of our church. If they can show us how to collaborate and compromise—and I know I am idealistic here, but I think we are hungry for a way forward—and if they can develop a way forward, agree on it, and work together to help us claim and live into it, then I believe we will follow. We are ready.

We are in a sea tide of change, and I am convinced that what we need in this time is more leadership and less legislation.

Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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