Insanity or Integrity? On Closing the Floor at #GC2016

Will we choose insanity or integrity?
Will we choose insanity or integrity?

“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.

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16 thoughts on “Insanity or Integrity? On Closing the Floor at #GC2016

  1. It is a little ironic that people who want to claim the “middle” then support an extreme “solution.” I believe Tampa was unique because Randall Miller was allowed to “lead” the GCGC to have everyone on the same level. So, the demonstrators required little effort to “take over” the floor. In Fort Worth, they were in a separate room but with bleachers overlooking the proceedings. Much like Congress and every other legislature. If GCGC makes sure that Portland goes back to a sensible layout that will go a long way toward solving the problem. But, like many of our problems, it really goes to leadership from the bishops. The Council of Bishops should not allow any bishop who is not willing to enforce the rules and have anyone who tries to take over the floor arrested for trespassing to preside. The more lenient approach has been an utter failure. Instead we get broken communion chalices, lectures from retired bishops and hit bottom with “Occupy General Conference.” But, we don’t need to “close” General Conference and have the only way to see it is to watch the livestream.

    1. I’m not sure how this is an “extreme” solution; it’s not closing the floor for every event, mind you. It’s no more and no less than what my Annual Conference – far from an extremist AC – does when voting for GC delegates.

  2. No one but delegates are allowed on the floor of Congress, should be the same at General Conference. Try to demonstrate of disrupt Congress and see what happens, just saying. Demonstrating should be left outside!

    I wonder how John Wesley would have handled the problem back in his day!?! It is time to regain respect and order for the process.

  3. In General Conference, United Methodist delegates and leaders conduct the business of The United Methodist Church. It is not the time or the place for non-delegates to come to protest and air their views and concerns; there are plenty of other opportunities for them to do this. United Methodists pay their apportionments so that delegates and leaders will conduct the business of the church, that is what they rightfully expect, and we need to do all we can to make sure that is just what happens.

    The abuse of the sacrament of Holy Communion at GC 2012, to me, was not unlike the abuse Paul condemned in the Corinthians, who took the Table of The Lord by force and made it their own. Misusing the sacrament as a way to make a political statement and shut down the work of the people in GC was wrong, and Biblical church discipline should have been exercised and order immediately restored (Mt 18:15-18).

    Our leaders, and particularly our bishops, are accountable to God and to us to ensure as best they can that such sacramental abuse, such disruptive and divisive protests, do not happen again. GC happens at great costs in limited finances,time and human energy. It is unfair to allow any caucus or special interest groups to disrupt what we are supposed to be doing and what our apportionments are paying to get done in GC.

    My prayer is that GC 2016 will be closed to disruptions and interference so that the elected delegates and leaders can conduct the business of the church, and the sacrament of Holy Communion can be served, in a way that glorifies God.

  4. The floor was closed at Tampa, wasn’t it? Random people weren’t allowed to walk on during session – that’s why the pages checked credentials. People did protest anyway, in violation of the rules. They just politely marched past the pages.

    I’m not sure what new thing you’re proposing that solves for this. Would you remind people that the floor is closed? Develop more physical obstacles to prevent people from ‘breaking the bar’? Develop or increase the penalty for people who do so? Hire off-duty law enforcement bouncers?

    Also, it’s worth noting that many of the elected delegates within the bar are themselves members of caucuses. Do you also propose they not be allowed to gather with each other during session, or just not with members of their caucus who aren’t credentialed?

    I agree that protests, direct action and civil disobedience disrupt the agenda and violate established rules. But that’s why it’s called civil disobedience, right? Saying “it is now even less OK to engage in civil disobedience” is probably the least effective way to limit people who believe civil disobedience is a legitimate course of action.

    1. I think the proposal is not just that non-delegates be excluded from the floor of General Conference, but that they be excluded from the room altogether. Rather than watch from the bleachers, as we usually do, we would have to watch on closed-circuit TV or on our computers. That would impose the physical barrier that you are talking about to prevent disruption of the session. At Tampa, there was an intimidation factor from the caucus members standing in a line around the fringe of the bar. They were not legally violating the bar of the conference, but they were exerting untoward influence (even fear) toward the delegates. This proposal has merit.

  5. The original article asks of the “closed floor” proposal for GC 2016, “Are there drawbacks to this approach I’m not thinking of? Are there other benefits?” I’d like to speak to that as someone from a special “caucus” who has attended GC as a choir member and “visitor” in 2000 and 2004, but who has never served as a delegate.

    Many people when they first meet me do not realize I represent two special caucuses in the UMC–that of the disabled and culturally Deaf membership and clergy of our church. Ours are invisible and little heard voices in the church. We make up 1-2% of the church overall. 98-98% of us are unchurched or dechurched. Ours is a huge mission field with a big harvest going on and few workers working in it.There are not many places in the church our presences, voices and concerns are brought to the forefront.

    If we had not been allowed on the floor at GC several times, I doubt our church’s ministries to the disabled and Deaf would be as far along as they are today. Suppose Holly Elliot and the Deaf folks had never been allowed to share our vision of Matthew 25:31-46 with the GC delegates when they were discussing whether to set up a National Committee in our church for Deaf ministries? Would all those delegates, many of whom come from countries where disabled and Deaf are much more oppressed than in the USA, have supported and voted for us to have our committee if we had not spoken up, if the floor had been closed to us? Suppose I had not been allowed as an advocate and “voice” in 2004 to “speak” during discussion and debate as a “voice” from the Deaf community in our church to the legislation asking the GC to fund our ministries to the amount of $300,000 for the quad. Would they have understood as well and voted to support our ministries further? Possibly…possibly not.

    I fully agree that General Conferences in recent years have gotten way out of hand. When I heard about the communion cup being shattered and the protests on the floor, I wept. I wept because our church is split in spirit over these issues and because people felt a need to take over the table and make political statements in these outrageous ways to be seen, heard and understood. I wept because as a long time UMC member and part of a multi-generational church/pastor’s family, I believe in the order of GC and the business they do and it was disrupted in this heartbreaking way. I also wept because we should not have to “go there” just to be seen and heard and for people to be able to understand and have compassion for the different cultures that make up our beloved Church. I wept and yet I also knew as part of an oppressed minority how the LGBTQ protesters and supporters felt and why they acted as they did. Many of these folks are my Christian Deaf/Disabled brothers and sisters. I could see both sides.

    I do see the cost, in money, time and energy that these sorts of things cause. But I also see the “cost” to the Church if we disallow these voices to speak and be heard in a setting where the most people can see and hear the opinions and beliefs of diverse parts of our membership. Some call it interference and others call it justice! it is BOTH. There should be a true middle way, to cut out the baloney and still hear and see the little voices, the minority voices. Deaf and disabled people rarely are elected as delegates. If we didn’t come in other ways and speak up however we can, we would be once again, in yet another way, be silenced. Many of my Christian, UM LGBTQ brothers and sisters feel the same way.

    I personally like how some ACs have been handling the discussion and debate at a separate time than annual conference the last couple of years. When we go to AC we vote and worship and see and hear those we need to in a mostly respectful manner. The discussion and debate, the caucuses and voices have already been done and heard and seen previously. Only the business of final summarized perspectives and voting need to be completed. It is very orderly and respectful compared to the last several GCs. At GC with so many international and far flung delegates, this isn’t as practical an approach. What is a solution? Perhaps utilizing electronic media of the 21st C some of the debate and discussion could be done beforehand? I think live streaming only and closing the floor entirely is extreme a solution. I think the discussion and debate needs to allow for various voices to speak to the things in the church that involve them directly. I see no reason on the other hand that they need to be on the floor for voting times unless they are themselves a delegate. Perhaps a middle way would be to allow for “debate and discussion” and then to ask these folks to leave for voting? And perhaps also we as AC members and delegates need to consider and elect more minorities and invisible, little voices to GC. Maybe if they ARE elected and DO have to vote and have the responsibility of doing the larger church’s business more often they will feel less need to protest and understand the importance of getting business done efficiently better. Maybe that will transform their understanding of integrity and working together at the table together for the common good. By providing other official places for people to be seen and heard and involving and empowering with responsibility and leadership those who feel disenfranchised and oppressed the Church can go a long way to moving beyond where it is stuck now.

    This is my “2 cents worth”. Its not perfect, I know. But its a voice and reason for GC to include the “public” to continue to be involved in some ways that I think is often not seen and heard clearly.

    Elke Sharma

  6. Civil disobedience requires one to peacefully submit to consequences, which would mean GC would actually have to have consequences for those who choose to be disruptive. I think a truly “closed bar” with live access to the proceedings would beat the “carnage of ugliness” from 2012 while avoiding both arrests and failure to use all of the time as effectively as possible. This is a “bad idea;” it’s just better than any other alternative I’ve seen proposed. I wish it wasn’t necessary.

  7. I think what you mean to say is that the ARENA should be closed to non-delegates or non-essential personnel during voting sessions. The “floor” has been closed in the past, but spectators and visitors have been allowed on the perimeter, and the perimeter was breached by those who do not respect the work of GC.

  8. Hmm… I’m generally on the moderate to progressive end of things. I was at Tampa 2012 advocating for LGBTQ inclusion and equality and pursuing a continuing quest for unity across our regional and ideological differences. But I didn’t participate in any of the civil disobedience actions. I’ll be in Portland 2016 as 1st alternate lay delegate from my conference. Not sure whether this proposal would put me inside or outside the room. But my objection to this room-clearing proposal isn’t that.

    My first objection is principled: The problem we have in the UMC is too much coercion to enforce homophobic/heterosexist restrictions on called ministry (i.e., excluding practicing homosexuals from ordained ministry and punishing elders who minister to gay Christians’ legitimate right to marriage). We won’t solve our differences by doubling down on such coercion. (Yes, I realize folks see disruptive protests as coercive too. But consider the power imbalance). The better alternative is to adopt a non-coercive stance for all — no punishment for officiating gay marriage and no punishment for not officiating one.

    My second objection is practical: I see your wish for things to be orderly (and I share that), but I see no concrete and feasible proposal to accomplish it. How much force will be required to achieve it? Won’t this escalate a fraught situation when we need to be de-escalating? Conflict “outside” will still negatively affect those “inside”. The negative publicity will be worse.

    Instead of advocating meeting-management proposals that disproportionately impact those already marginalized, let’s return to the highest-and-best use of the Via Media Methodist venue to find common ground and a better way forward in unity. We can build towards a better future standing on firmer and wider common ground.

  9. 2012 was bad. With the development of social media, 2016 will be a public relations disaster if changes aren’t made. The push for division will be stronger, and many of the uncommitted will begin leaning that way.

    This is a good idea. Does anyone else have a proposal?

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