Friends in Christ in the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, I greet you in the grace, peace and unity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In less than two weeks, the called Special Session of the General Conference will convene in St. Louis. This global conference is the culmination of a process put in motion by the 2016 General Conference, asking the Council of Bishops to assist the denomination to find a “way forward” through and beyond our protracted debate and impasse on matters related to homosexual persons in the church.
As we stand on the edge of this historic Special General Conference, I invite all United Methodists in the Dakotas and Minnesota Conferences to make spiritual preparation. The First Letter of Peter sets the tone, purpose, and directive for our preparations:
Therefore, prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. —I Peter 1:13 (NRSV)
I humbly offer you several considerations for your preparations. Let us set all our hope on the grace of Jesus Christ!
For weeks and months, I have been praying for the delegates to engage the work of the Special General Conference with hearts of peace—respectful of all persons and viewpoints, and open to listening deeply to the movement of the Holy Spirit in and through one another and the various legislative proposals or “plans.” I thank you for joining me in earnest and unceasing prayer, and urge you to continue praying. Pray that fresh winds of God’s Spirit will break through and bless The United Methodist Church with yet another season of “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
I have shared on numerous occasions that the day after the Special General Conference, I am prepared to wake up and “go back to work.” Whatever decisions the General Conference makes, the ministry to which we together are called, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, will continue. The day after General Conference there will still be hungry people to feed, those mired in poverty or addiction needing help, broken lives and relationships needing healing, lost lives needing saving, injustices needing to be righted, and lonely, hurting, or imprisoned individuals needing to be visited. Any changes the General Conference may make in our polity will not change our mission. In fact, General Conference decisions may call us to a new urgency to be about Jesus’ missional imperatives of loving God and neighbor, reaching new people, and healing a broken world.
I recently heard a thoughtful devotion by Rev. Kermit Culver at a Dakotas Conference Appointive Cabinet meeting. He was reflecting on the tension between Apollos and Paul as revealed to us in I Corinthians. You may recall Paul’s admonishment to the church at Corinth:
I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. —I Corinthians 1:10 (NLT)
But, the point Rev. Culver made that caught my attention is contained in a verse I had not previously had ears to hear. In the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he wrote:
Dear brothers and sisters, I have used Apollos and myself to illustrate what I’ve been saying. If you pay attention to what I have quoted from the Scriptures, you won’t be proud of one of your leaders at the expense of another. —I Corinthians 4:6 (NLT)
Perhaps the most profound spiritual preparation we can make for these days prior to General Conference, and certainly for the post-General Conference season, is to practice the discipline of not throwing one another under the bus. Let us resolve, even now, to honor all United Methodists, respecting our varied contexts and sincere diversity of opinion.
One of the many ways I have been preparing for the Special General Conference is to re-read and study Part II of our 2016 Book of Discipline (pages 45-91). This portion of our Discipline is titled “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task” and contains sections on (1) Our Doctrinal Heritage, (2) Our Doctrinal History, (3) Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules, and (4) Our Theological Task. The introduction to the section on Our Theological Task says, in part:
While the Church considers its doctrinal affirmations a central feature of its identity and restricts official changes to a constitutional process, the Church encourages serious reflection across the theological spectrum. 2016 Book of Discipline, —page 80
One of the blessings and strengths of our global denomination is the wide diversity in serious theological reflection, biblical scholarship, and biblical interpretation grounded in our common unwavering affirmation that Jesus is Lord. This wide and serious theological reflection will be on full display at the Special General Conference.
As United Methodists, we have always embraced “serious reflection across the theological spectrum” because John Wesley had what Dr. Paul Chilcote calls a “conjunctive theology.” John Wesley saw and embraced the connection between often divergent theological viewpoints and values. For example:
• we are saved by grace and accountable for our good works;
• we love our respective “tribes” and we befriend the stranger and foreigner;
• we are prophetic and, simultaneously, pastoral in our work and witness;
• we promote personal holiness and social holiness; and
• we are connectional in polity and protect individual conscience.
From the beginning of the Methodist movement, we have held in tension the distinction between doctrinal standards (our Articles of Religion) and theological reflection. The preamble to our Social Principles states: “We affirm our unity in Jesus Christ while acknowledging differences in applying our faith in different cultural contexts as we live out the gospel.” Let us prepare to engage in a healthy, constructive, respectful theological reflection and discernment.
The world, not just the United Methodist membership, will be watching the Special General Conference. How we treat one another and how we manage our differences and diversity may prove to be the most significant outcomes of the conference.
How do we prepare to witness to a country and a world with ever deepening political, economic, ideological, and sociological divisions? Perhaps we need to develop and practice the spiritual discipline of working together for the common good. The noted theologian, author, and professor Walter Brueggemann has said there is no authentic Christianity apart from a commitment to the common good. The debate in St. Louis is larger than The United Methodist Church; it is also about our witness to a world that has forgotten how to live faithful, holy lives in a diverse community where views of holiness vary significantly.
Finally, I encourage us to prepare for the Special General Conference and the days following the Conference by reflecting on our shared leadership role, attitude, and tone. None of us can escape the reality that we are in leadership for “such a time as this.”
The prophet Zephaniah has a word for me as I prepare for the Special General Conference. In his victory song of joy for Jerusalem, the prophet proclaims:
The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing. —Zephaniah 3:17 (CEB)
I long for such a love. I want to display to all I encounter a love that creates calm. I desire to lead in a manner that creates calm with my love in a broken, divided world. Our congregations will look to all of us to model non-reactionary, non-anxious, calming-love leadership in this season of our life together.
Whatever the decisions of General Conference that might change our structures or connectional polity, I am committed to being everyone’s bishop and to working with you to make grace-filled responses. I invite you to share with me the leadership role and privilege of creating calm with our love.
May God’s Spirit hover over us in these days and bless us with peace and a future with hope.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area of The United Methodist Church.