I’ve been doing lots of reflecting over this last week about the incredible ways I saw the Spirit at work at the 2015 West Ohio Annual Conference. It was an historic year in so many ways… The United Methodist Church continues to be a place of rich diversity. In our conference in particular, our churches, our backgrounds, our skin color, our gender and sexuality, and our theological leanings are all over the map. This means that gathering in holy conferencing is always going to be a bit messy. We will step on toes and hurt one another’s feelings. We will not agree. We will struggle to understand one another, and at times we will simply be unwilling to accept the differences we find across the table. Yet, we are still the connectional church. More than ever, across our differences this year, I felt the common yearning and longing to be about the work of Jesus Christ, the very thing that brings us together. Amidst the challenges before us, the Spirit was at work in remarkable ways:
- We elected an overall delegation for general and jurisdictional conferences that was deeply reflective of our rich diversity and giftedness. As a progressive, one of my deepest grievances four years ago was that the delegation simply did not represent the diversity of voices found in West Ohio. This year’s elections were an enormous shift from where we have been in the past. We elected more women, people of color, young adults, and deacons than ever before. We elected people across a broad theological spectrum.The head of our delegation is a young evangelical, just recently graduated from college. Members of the LGBT community are a part of the delegation. Business as usual has been disrupted, and it will be remarkable to see how the Spirit will work among such an extraordinary group of leaders.
- Our first clergy election to the delegation was Amy Aspey, a female deacon. As a woman, I can’t fully express what this meant to me and to so many others. To see Amy’s extraordinary leadership and work recognized in this way felt like a remarkable shift toward gender equality. To see a deacon lifted up in this capacity felt like a leap forward in recognizing the true partnership deacons and elders are called to embrace.
- The Centrists/Progressives United coalition was born, representing groups and caucuses across a wide theological span to work to widen the tent of inclusion in our denomination. As the United Methodist Centrist Movement was beginning to take shape, my friend and colleague Doug Damron reached out to me about the possibility of progressives coming on board. In the following months, a group of us, many of whom are new to the political landscape of the church, began working to build something new. It was an incredible learning experience for all of us involved, filled with twists and turns we hadn’t expected. Building solid relationships based on trust was the thing that made all of it work. Our Centrist friends took a huge risk to come out in support of inclusion and many of them have caught tremendous heat from people who have distrusted their efforts and intentions. I can’t say enough about Bryan Bucher, Doug Damron, and Todd Anderson… their friendship, integrity and leadership along the way gave me extraordinary hope for the future. My progressive colleagues took a leap of faith to trust that they weren’t going to be sold out in the end. I learned so very much from my colleagues, mentors, and friends David Meredith and Darryl Fairchild, and feel humbled to have had the chance to learn from them in this effort. They taught us all how to organize effectively and to achieve the goals to which we aspired without compromising our values. Without them, the coalition would have failed. Despite the intense number of phone calls and the remarkable organizational efforts and gifts brought to the table, the coalition was tenuous for most of our time and preparation leading up to Annual Conference. There were many days when we were tempted to walk away from the table and go it alone. The Spirit kept driving us back together. As more and more people became involved, it became clear that the work we were attempting was exactly what our denomination needed and that we simply could not find “a way forward” without embodying it in ourselves.
When the coalition gathered on Sunday night at Lakeside UMC, people still used language about “our group” and “your group.” By Tuesday night as we made critical decisions about going forward, the language had changed to “what are WE going to do?” I can’t express what a game changer this is for the way we will do work in the future. The momentum has begun and it will be important for everyone that we continue in the months and years to come. My hope and prayer is that our Evangelical brothers and sisters will also join us at the table as we seek a way forward. We’re just getting started.
- An LGBT person was recognized publicly with the Denman Award for Evangelism. I certainly have some personal bias here since I was the one that nominated Sile Singleton for this award. However, to hear Bishop Palmer affirm her gifts for evangelism and discipleship and to have his remarks clearly grounded in her identity as an LGBT person felt like an enormous breakthrough. More than anything, it begins to break down the stereotypical labels we use to define what an evangelical person looks like. Another reminder of how the Spirit tears down the walls we try to create and helps us to find another way of living together in community.
- “Extraordinary things are possible when the mission is primary and no one cares who gets the credit.” Sitting around a table last summer in Denver with Brad Olson, Cathy Johns, April Casperson, Amy Aspey, Doug Damron, Dave Weaver, Wade Giffin, Sherri Blackwell, Amy Haines, and Barry Burns, this quote was the topic of our conversation. Our group was about as varied as you get, but all of us could agree on one thing… we could accomplish incredible things when we made the mission primary. Amidst the bigger more important things that the Spirit did at Lakeside last week, God also renewed my own heart for the greater mission. I wasn’t elected to go to general or jurisdictional conference. Regardless of my personal aspirations, the Spirit moved in a different way and I will serve as an alternate. This moment was another opportunity to shed a few more layers of my ego and allow God to fill me with a new fervor for the beautiful work that is the church. It’s certainly not about me. God is up to something much much bigger and I am so thankful to be along for the ride.
Historic shifts are one thing. The question is how we will respond as a church to the new ways the wind of the Spirit is blowing. I’m more hopeful than ever about the future of the church and our ability to make space for all people to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. And I look forward to working across every aisle to make the mission primary.
- Pastor April