On my way to WPAUMC’s Annual Conference in Grove City on Thursday morning, June 6th, I was driving down I-79, and as is always the case as I approach the Meadville exit, I began to lose the signal to WQLN/NPR. Already delayed and not interested in trying to listen over the static, I hit the “scan” button to find a frequency worth tuning into. As the radio searched, it landed on some random signal just as a story was beginning to unfold. I had no idea what station I had landed on, but the voice that I heard caught my attention.
A rich, deep voice began to tell the story of a community in the southeastern United States that was in the midst of a drought – the worst drought they’d seen in years. He recounted the fear and anxiety that the community was feeling. You see, it was planting season and the lack of rain had made the soil difficult to till, the seeds difficult to sow, and an abundant crop unlikely. As the hot, rainless days stretched into weeks, and the weeks threatened to turn into months, the community’s worry became frenzied. The pastor of a local church called a prayer meeting focused solely on asking the Lord to provide rain.
As I continued my drive, the narrator explained that the pastor had gathered outside of the church with two of his trusted leaders before the meeting was set to begin. As the three chatted, they saw one of the oldest women in their congregation walking toward them. Her name, according to the smooth voice of the radio waves, was Mother Mary. On this hot, humid evening, Mother Mary had arrived to the prayer meeting dressed in galoshes, a full-length raincoat, and a rain hat. While I don’t remember the exact wording of the narrator, here’s what happened in the rest of the story:
As Mother Mary walked up to the pastor and others, they expressed their happiness to see her, but asked what she was doing in galoshes, a full-length raincoat, and a rain hat on a 95-degree afternoon with not a single cloud in the sky. She looked incredulously at the pastor and responded, saying: “Why would I come here to pray that the Lord will bring rain if I don’t believe that the Lord will actually provide it?”
With that, the pastor led the group inside and as more folks arrived, the prayer became focused and fervent. As the prayers continued, the community began to hear drops of rain on the church roof. The drops became larger and fell faster, and the gathered neighbors rejoiced. After a time of celebration, people began to ready themselves to head home. It was then that they realized that only Mother Mary was ready for what had come after the drought.
As the narrator brought his story to a close, I knew that its central point had resonated with me…but with several miles still to drive, I once again hit “scan”, found a classic rock station, and proceeded to have a one-woman karaoke/dance party in the car until I arrived on campus for Annual Conference.
Thursday proved to be an exceptionally long day. As we left the first plenary session to proceed into legislative sessions, I was not prepared for how quickly the day would spiral off course. I missed dinner, helped with the worship and ordination ceremony, and then, as a result of our first session being unable to come to consensus, headed back into legislative session at 9:30 p.m. Our second attempt at this important conversation proved long but productive. As frustrating as it could be at times, our entire (or close to it) group had returned because of their commitment to our work, and every person in that room walked out with a better understanding of the budgeting process of our Conference.
On the way to my car, I fell in step with a person whose leadership, grace, and commitment to Christ I have respected since we first met. Our conversation about the state of the Conference would stick with me throughout the rest of our weekend. My hour-long commute brought me home shortly after 1:00 a.m. I still had not eaten dinner and finally fell asleep sometime after 2:00 a.m. I was back up at 7:00 a.m. on Friday, out of Edinboro by 8:00, and back at Conference by 9:00.
Friday and Saturday would prove to be trying. (More on that shortly…) Sunday was another early morning filled with two worship services, the celebration of our church’s graduates, a debrief with the other representatives from my church who attended Annual Conference, and then some time spent with my husband – whom I had barely seen since Tuesday. Today (Monday) is the first day that I have had the opportunity to independently process the events of the last five days. At the end of a productive work day with some Annual Conference thoughts interspersed here and there, I turned to Spotify for some background noise as I unloaded the dishwasher.
One of my favorite playlists on Spotify is Hymns for Hipsters. Hymns are one of the ways that I have learned the most about my church and what we believe – they are rich in harmony, steeped in theology, and stir my music-loving heart every time I hear them. While I’m not what you’d call a “hipster”, I love that this particular playlist is a collection of some of my very favorite hymns, but reinterpreted for acoustic, a cappella, and other various arrangement types. (Another great playlist for that is Hymns Old and New.) While I don’t love all of the interpretations, hearing such familiar words set to different tunes or tempos often reveals the meaning behind them to me in new ways. The last time I had used Spotify it was with this playlist open. So when I opened the app up, I simply hit play. As I sang along to the words of the song that had queued up, the story about Mother Mary and my feelings about Annual Conference all fell into place.
Take a few moments to listen… (or skip below to keep reading)
As the events of Annual Conference unfolded, there were tremendous high points. We worshiped together, celebrated new ordinands, and walked together through the work of 150 years of United Methodist Women and 200 years of Methodist Mission. We solidified our relationship with the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church in Fiji. We were surrounded by youth who were energetic and passionate about their service within our church and outside of its walls. We learned a great deal about the progress being made in tackling our Five Areas of Focus. We celebrated our ministry. We honored our connection.
But there were also sinking disappointments.
As the election process began for those who will represent Western Pennsylvania at General Conference 2020, Bishop Moore-KoiKoi took time to remind the polity that according to Conference Rule 188.8.131.52 and the Book of Discipline, paragraphs 34, 35, and 36, that our Annual Conference would “take care to select delegates who reflect our inclusive nature in regard to theological diversity, race, age, gender, and disability.” These are rules that were selected, voted upon, and rules which we agreed to uphold. The way in which our polity adhered to these rules was the source of my greatest disappointment.
At one point in the process, a point of order was called by an individual asking whether or not we were upholding our conference rule. As a matter of clarification, a pastor – A PASTOR! – addressed the Chair asking whether the rule suggested that we should select a diverse group or dictated that we must do so. This pastor was asking how much wiggle room we, as a polity, had to do an end run around our own self-imposed set of rules. This was the point – and it occurred early on in the day – that I knew we were headed to a place I didn’t want to go. The day progressed and by the end of it, the question about our conference rule had resurfaced multiple times. Our Bishop indicated that she would take the question under advisement, speak with our Chancellor, and respond in the morning.
As we assembled Saturday morning, the tension in the plenary room was palpable. Bishop Moore-KoiKoi responded to the prior evening’s question by pointing out that the process of voting was free and open, that no action had been taken inside the plenary room to disrupt or alter the vote, and that although the existence, or lack thereof, of theological diversity could not be answered at that time, persons of different genders, ages, and races had been selected, effectively upholding the letter of the conference rule. I agree with her ruling. But…I also believe with every ounce of my soul that the Spirit of the conference rule was intentionally cast aside.
When an Annual Conference (AC) elects an entire slate of persons who represent the same theological viewpoint, what is says to me is that we, as a polity, no longer trust God to make God’s will known through the diversity of God’s creation.
What it says to me is that as a Conference, we are no longer willing to learn from, or search for truth in, what others can reveal to us through their personal relationships with God, their understanding of Scripture, their reason, or their experiences. We do not have to agree with others to learn from them.
If, as a Conference, we are going to hold ourselves accountable to the rules for diversity and inclusion that we have assigned ourselves…as individuals, we cannot rejoice in the election of a slate that only represents one theological viewpoint and condemn the election of a slate that only represents its opposite elsewhere in our connection.
If as individuals, we condemn the witch hunt tactics of the traditional plan as it pertains to human sexuality, we cannot turn around and request that those same tactics be used to prove that our delegates are all of one mind theologically.
If we are going to improve present realities, those of us who are not victims of oppression, subjugation, or exclusion can no longer approach matters of justice from a mindset of fear, a longing for stability, or a desire for power.
If we are going to continue to call meetings (annual conferences), everyone who shows up needs to do so in the spirit of Mother Mary…
We must pray for God’s discernment and believe that we will receive it – even if we personally wish that it would arrive in a different vessel or at a faster pace.
We must seek God’s guidance and be willing to be led – even if it is difficult to follow, and even if we don’t understand where we are going.
We must trust that God is at work revealing God’s will through those we agree with and those we don’t; through those we look like and those we don’t; through those who are from places and cultures like our own and those who aren’t.
We must be willing to sow, to reap, and to support the fruits of our labor.
We must be willing to shed the tears that make possible the songs of joy.
We must be open to being restored and renewed.
We must see Christ in one another.
Through all of the ups and downs of Annual Conference, I am quite certain that the Holy Spirit is moving. The question is whether or not we are willing to follow its lead.
I have hope.