Saturday, June 1, 2019

Animal Conference

When Harper was little, she called the annual gathering of clergy and laity of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference “animal conference”. We did correct her, though gently and with humor,  because it was adorable and funny.

Just this week, Harper informed me that she knew it was called “Annual Conference” now. She could pronounce it correctly. If we jokingly tried to get her to say “animal conference” again, she’d roll her eyes and remind us of how old she is now and how she’s learning and growing every day.

This week we’ll be traveling to Peoria to participate in the 2019 Annual Conference. There’s much work to be done, much to be celebrated, many friendships to renew, and deep conversations to have. Our conference is large and covers a lot of ground, so sometimes Annual Conference is the only chance we get to see certain pastor friends and their families. We look forward to it every year, kids and adults alike, even though it can be an emotionally and physically demanding time.

I’ve been reflecting on church a lot this week, as I’m running for a lay spot in our conference’s delegation to the 2020 General Conference in Minnesota. This is a big responsibility, as the delegation will be voting quite literally on the future of the United Methodist Church. After the special 2019 General Conference in St. Louis was called to decide on the UMC’s policies on human sexuality, many have wondered if they can stay in a church that actively excludes beloved children of God. Some have left, unable to stay part of an exclusive and harmful system. Some are staying to try and repair, restitch, or revision the big tent that has long been the UMC—people who are challenged by full inclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers working alongside those that are not because our contexts may be different but we still love Jesus and work for the transformation of the world.

The Christian church in the US (and elsewhere) has been in decline for decades. Fewer and fewer people are opting to raise their families in church. There are many reasons for this: Sundays are no longer sacred, and many folks have to work or attend kids’ sporting events that day; churches may not offer the programs families are looking for; in rural areas, churches can be few and far between; churches can be insulated and unwelcoming to newcomers; people not raised in a church themselves are less likely to raise their own kids in church; church can be seen as hypocritical and antiquated in modern society, failing to feed the hungry and minister to the stranger while holding fast to white supremacy and patriarchy; or simply because people don’t see the point of church anymore.

The United Methodist Church is facing hard decisions. These decisions are not limited to what to do about human sexuality, but those are the ones getting the most attention. To me, it comes down to what our vision for the future will be: will we work toward a just and sustainable Church, where we prioritize care for the earth and each other? Or will we continue to maintain the status quo, which is doing harm to people everywhere?

Much like Harper learned to correctly say “Annual Conference” after patient guidance from those who love her, are we making space for the young members of the church to lead us in a different way? Young people raised in the church, like Todd and I, have been nurtured and challenged in our faith and are feeling a need to lead differently than in the past. Will we trust these emerging leaders? Or will we retreat to how things have always been done hoping our comfort will save us? What would Jesus do in the face of broken systems of oppression that are doing harm to his children?

Church has a terrible history. Church has a deep tradition. Church can have a beautiful future that recognizes these realities but tries to keep moving forward with love and justice as our guide. That’s what I’m praying for this week. I invite you to join me.