“These kinds of ‘organisms’ often express themselves with beautiful ‘values’. The problem is not in their beliefs; it is in how they function with those beliefs.” Rabbi Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve
For the UMC to move into Portland with nothing unchanged would be a textbook example of insanity. But that is a choice, not destiny. The question is, do United Methodists care enough about the work of General Conference to establish policies and procedures that encourage its integrity? David Watson has offered a modest proposal toward that end:
“I suggest that we close the GC meeting space to all but delegates, bishops, and other essential personnel. Anyone who wishes to watch the proceedings can do so via live streaming. We should ban all caucus groups from having a presence inside our gathering space: no protests, no signs, no distribution of materials, no flash mobs, no stopping our work together. We should focus on the business at hand with as little distraction as possible.”
Simple enough, yes? Joel Watts has also added to this conversation, spelling out how this might be achieved. An important distinction that hasn’t been consistently made in this discussion is just what one means by “closed.” Following Watson’s language, I refer specifically to the physical floor space during voting sessions. That is, I would encourage the floor of General Conference be closed to only voting members, essential personnel, and bishops during debate, discussion, and voting. All proceedings that are usually public would remain so, but via closed-circuit television and live streaming. The intent – and this is crucial – is not secrecy in any form, but the integrity of the proceedings themselves.
Many folks – delegates, potential delegates, and not-a-snowballs-chance-in-hell-of-being-delegates like myself – are already dreading 2016. I recently heard a North Carolina delegate describe Tampa as “a carnage of ugliness.” How can we expect true holy conferencing, not to mention wise, fruitful decisions, to be made in such an environs? Closing the floor would not necessarily lead to a utopia, but it would be a step in the right direction.
Why is this? Because closing the floor would prevent some of idealogical grandstanding by unelected and uninvited parties. No protests. No propaganda. No seizing the table. No caucuses, at least inside the bar. Just doing the work the church has called this body to do during the only time it can be done: the quadrennial gathering in which the whole UMC can make its most significant decisions. This is exactly the same measure my Conference takes when electing delegates to General Conference; all may watch the proceedings, but only voting members are allowed on the floor. If it’s necessary for Annual Conference, why would it be unwise for General Conference?
As the quote at the top from Friedman suggests, this isn’t about keeping out any particular point of view. The issue isn’t belief but behavior. Let the caucuses do their work – they do serve an important role – but do not let their private missions interfere with accomplishing General Conference’s task.
No healthy organization would allow interest groups and other uninvited parties free reign to jeopardize a senior board meeting or other significant gathering. Does Congress let the Tea Party take over the floor? Would GE let Occupy Wall Street into their board of directors meeting to distribute fliers and make speeches? More to the point, pastors, how would you react if a Sunday School class or Bible study group demanded space and air time during an Administrative Council or SPRC meeting?
For all its wisdom and obviousness, I am not hopeful that our leadership will be interested in this proposal. I fear they are too concerned over pushback in what will already be a heated gathering. Indeed, invasive persons often rely on the decency of others to get their way. As Friedman observes,“in institution after institution the invasive forces get their way because of a lack of ‘stamina’ that is hard to muster up in the ‘peace-loving.’” (149)
We know what to expect at Portland. Insanity is hoping for different results while repeating the same things. Integrity is not about judgmentalism or exclusion, but about health. Every healthy organism, down the the cell itself, has functional (i.e. permeable to some but not all outside agents, but still present) boundaries. Part of why recent General Conferences have lacked basic functionality is because the leadership has not promoted the integrity of the body.
In 2016, the choice is before us: insanity or integrity? My hope, unfounded as it may be, is that we can see the storm clouds approaching and choose a different path, and thus reasonably anticipate some new possibilities, in Portland.
What do you think? Are there drawbacks to this approach I’m not thinking of? Are there other benefits?
Source: Edwin Friedman, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury 2007), 146-149. For a great summary of Friedman’s theory of differentiated leadership, check out this video.