Many tears. A few smiles. Strong resolve on both sides.
Those are the images burned into my memory from the special session of General Conference last week in St. Louis. To be honest, it was a draining experience — one from which I am still attempting to recover.
I won’t belabor any points that you’ve heard time and again since the close of the special session. The Traditional Plan passed — to the joy of some and the dismay of others. A disaffiliation plan passed so churches can streamline their exit based purely on their stance on human sexuality.
Whether any of it holds up is now in the hands of the Judicial Council when our denomination’s supreme court meets in April.
I think I understand why the votes went the way that they did, and I have my own ideas of what needs to happen on both sides of the human sexuality debate for our denomination to move past this impasse. But I’m smart enough to know that there are people with far more wisdom than me working on behalf of progressives, traditionalists and the many centrists on this important subject.
Like many other people, I will have to be patient and wait.
I find some solace in the symbolism that I found in St. Louis and the way that an iconic image is, in many ways, a metaphor for The United Methodist Church and the journey we are on collectively as believers in Christ.
You simply can’t miss the Gateway Arch. It’s unique shape and height help it stick out amid the skyline of the city. I doubt there is a better symbol for a journey to an unknown location than a monument built to commemorate the exploration of the wilderness of the western half of what is now the United States. President Thomas Jefferson, a flawed human being, sent explorers west in 1804, into an unknown land on uncertain terrain with limited supplies. Their journey is commemorated in a book by former pastor and current Fuller Theological Seminary assistant professor Tod Bolsinger, “Canoeing the Mountains.” The book shares the story of the Lewis and Clark discovery mission, how they ventured into uncharted territory and how they had to adapt when they encountered mountainous terrain. Bolsinger then ties that journey to the adventure we face as the church of Christ in the 21st century.
He makes four key points about leading churches into the wilderness:
Start with conviction — Regardless of circumstances, identify what we are most passionate about. I think The United Methodist Church must continue sharing the story of love and grace available to all people through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Stay calm — Leaders must monitor their own emotional reactions when anxiety rises. Emotions were definitely high in St. Louis and, if possible, have escalated in the days since the close of the special session. My experience in the business world was that high anxiety often led to poor decisions with long-lasting, negative ramifications. Staying calm amid tension and turmoil can help United Methodists avoid making decisions that hurt or further hurt others.
Stay connected — Recognize the talents of team members and how they work together to fulfill the mission. Most people would agree we are stronger and make a bigger impact on society together than apart. Why is that? Traditionalists reach some segments of society, and progressives reach other segments of society. Just as the eye and foot have different purposes for the body, so also do our various ways of approaching society have different purposes for the body of Christ, the church.
Stay the course — In short, accomplish the mission. Failure is not an option. I think we need to recognize how we have let earthly divisions divert our attention from the mission of ushering in the Kingdom of God. I pray for a time when we spend no more time on divisions over who loves whom and instead can put all of our focus and resources we have on making disciples. My guess is we would make a tremendous impact for Jesus in the world.
Make no mistake. The ongoing discussions since General Conference are important, not because we are talking about an issue but because we are talking about real people. And make no mistake that we are on a journey that requires us to start with conviction, stay calm, stay convicted and stay the course. That journey may not have started at the Arch in St. Louis, but we certainly have crossed underneath it as we have traveled.
Hosea 2:15 tells the story of God’s love for Israel despite its brokenness. God promises, “I will return her vineyards to her and transform the Valley of Trouble into a gateway of hope.” (New Living Translation)
I think we now can claim that Gateway Arch as part of our United Methodist journey — perhaps our own “gateway of hope” as we travel from our own valley of trouble. Instead of heading west, we are traveling toward a new reality where the church doesn’t look tomorrow like it looks today — or how it looked last year, for that matter. Our reality is that we are flawed human beings. We may disagree on the subject of human sexuality, but we should agree that every one of us is broken. All of us need the love and salvation that comes through a relationship with Christ.
The special session of General Conference will be seen as hurtful by a great many United Methodists. We will only know if the decisions made there help or hurt the denomination in the days, months and years ahead.
Until then, what can we do? Be the church. Follow Jesus’ commandments to love God, love others and make disciples. We should do those three things the best way we know how.
Those three things should hold constant, regardless of any decisions made by delegates in a four-day meeting.
Todd Seifert is communications director for the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church. He can be reached via phone at 785-414-4224, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Great Plains Annual Conference or the United Methodist Church. Follow him on Twitter, @ToddSeifert.