Nate, Curtis and I had a warm time at the Atlantic Conference annual meeting last Saturday. It is nice to see old friends, hear stories about what God is doing and consider what God is doing next with the Brethren in Christ. Nate and I “live chatted” it for people who were not there. This report is mostly drawn from that chat. I will be in trouble with someone who thinks that talking about what happened automatically makes me judgmental and untrusting, so I will have to deal with that. I know it is not true.
I was a little jarred to begin with. They started out the conference by throwing candy. Even more jarring was hearing that they thought we did not want to be there — especially to do the supposedly dreaded “business.” I looked around the room and wondered who had told them they were so bored they could scream. I, for one, drove two hours to get to the meeting; so I was taking it seriously. It was explained that we would need to do some business, which is different from vision; we would need to deal with nuts and bolts, as opposed to passion. I think I understand the categories, but I don’t know why anyone would think the two activities don’t go together.
Our bishop is energetic, warm, open and talked about Jesus the whole time. But the best line of the morning had to be from Hank Johnson. When he took a vote by having people raise their right hands, he said the process disturbed him because it was “too Trumpy.”
When Alan Robinson got up to sponsor his report from the General Conference he offered an analogy he repeated later which a few of us think needs some more consideration. He said the local congregations are where the ministry and vision happen. Leadership Council is about the nuts and bolts and changing the oil so the car can run. That may have a good intention behind it, since I think he means that they want to serve the growth of congregations. However, as several of us said, presenting a sea change in polity and going around the country teaching on homosexuality sounds a lot more like driving the bus than merely changing the oil. Everything a leader does is theological and educative, and everything that a leader does is leading. That’s basic
I think one of the reasons for this intentional humility on the part of our general church leader is that the denomination has become a set of independent congregations without too much need to be together. The fact may be, like Alan said in a study conference not long ago, that we are evangelicals now and we should admit it. Our leaders are saddled with the unenviable task of bridging all the gaps in connectedness we have engendered over the years. We’ve been desperate to fill pulpits, so we fill them with anyone who says yes, whether they are doctrinally straight with us or not. Our leaders have tinkered with structure instead of creating community and mutual agreement. From what I could see, the opinion of the leaders is that the denominational structure is for managing. Our structure has few teeth for disciplining. The best you can do is try to mortar together the “mosaic. ” Besides, they think the rank and file don’t want to do business.
So we dispensed with the business and got on to storytelling and worship. “How are you being faithful with what God has put in your hands?” was the question. Many people gave inspiring answers. Lynda Gephardt reported two healings! It was pleasant. Then we went into evangelical worship. Some of it was the Calvinist/Pentecostal teaching that comes from Bethel productions. At one point, the music leader said something like, “I have a church that sings louder than you and you are the leaders.” Coercion at its “finest.”
After a ham loaf lunch in Encounter Church of Palmyra’s spectacular new building, those of us who had the interest stayed to dialogue about the proposed General Conference bylaws changes. To his credit, Alan Robinson led this time with patience, openness, and careful listening. I think Adam Forry wrote notes for what was shared. Alan seems to love process, so he offered lengthy, detailed, specific answers to somewhat broad theological and relational questions — but then we were talking about elements of the bylaws.
Previous regional conferences had apparently had some of our same qualms. They also thought it sounded like we were creating organization at the expense of organism. I doubt that is anyone’s intent, but the fact that lawyers had been consulted was played as a trump card several times. I think lawyers often make reasons for truffula trees to be harvested, since that is the present “best practice.” Invoking them roused suspicion.
One of Alan’s points was that “things have changed so we are rewriting bylaws.” That did not account for the fact that the leadership might have perpetrated the things that “have changed,” or that the leaders have not disciplined the system so people entering it could be changed. We get back to the analogy that leaders just work with the nuts and bolts, but the people drive the car. Those I talked to did not think that was responsible leading.
One point that Alan disagreed with me about the bylaws being secondarily legal but primarily an expression of the church. Under the generally accepted definition of bylaws that might seem moot — most people probably think the bylaws are mandated by the government and are about legal issues. But the actual definition of a bylaw is “a rule made by a company or society to control the actions of its members.” They are the “laws” of an organization, not the country. As far as I know, our bylaws do not even need to be filed with the government. They should proscribe illegal things and make sure we don’t get into legal trouble, but they are mainly for governing us. As such they should have the character of our ethos written into them. They are for governing according to our heart and purpose, which is given by God. The articles of incorporation need to fit the standards required, but those requirements are rather slim. So it sounds like the lawyers had a definite point of view that may not coincide with what the people governed by the bylaws find appropriate.
I think the main purpose of the General Church Board is to get our wonky bylaws in order and reflect what is really happening — makes sense. And I honestly think Alan, Adam and our bishop were listening, so who knows what they might discern and how they might respond? The interesting thing is that the leaders seem to have already implemented the new regime before they have completed the process of changing it according to the former governing procedures. They seem to already treat the General Conference Board as if it were the General Conference, already have a “National Director,” and have already consolidated power in the Leadership Council. Unless they begin publishing their findings as Alan goes from conference to conference, he will be the only one privy to them. So by July, when these things are to be approved, I think we might already be a brand new organization run by a new set of principles, evangelical in nature, sanctioned by lawyers, and concentrated in the hands of a self-perpetuating circle of leaders. I’m not sure if that will make much difference to the independent congregations that make us up. But it will certainly make us different.