Courage to Join a New Leadership Dance: Reflections on the 2012 General Conference of the UMC

Cristian De La Rosa, Rio Grande Annual Conference                                                            wellsprings_spinningthesacred

In 1982, Chilean poet Julio Numhauser wrote a powerful song titled “Todo Cambia,” or, “Everything Changes.” Popularized by Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa as part of her efforts to support and speak for the voiceless in Latin America, “Todo Cambia” articulately expresses the dynamics of change. The lyrics speak of deep change and superficial change. Of changing climate, changing ideas—even changing church congregations. In a phrase, wrote Numhauser, “everything changes.” (Read the lyrics here.)

 

Inherent to life is a dynamic process of ongoing change that pressures against stagnation and death and so constantly transforms every element in creation. This change dynamic was omnipresent at the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida. Everything and everyone was thinking about change in an attempt to grasp the potential that our denomination has at this critical time to communicate meaningfully to a very diverse constituency. And yet, pressured by diverse contextual ministry experiences in very different places and spaces around the world, the delegates at the 2012 General Conference had a very difficult time answering the question, what is next, after we all agree that we need change?

Given our denomination’s agreement that we need to change and that we should do so largely because of the diverse contexts in which we minister, as a woman of color, scholar, and ordained elder in The UMC, with experience at every level of our denomination, I am surprised by others’ perception that we can be a global church in the context of the United States without the monitoring of the General Commission on Religion and Race and the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.1 Did we already address racism and sexism in our church? Somehow I believe that we are forgetting, and in some cases choosing to overlook, the fact that racism and sexism become very complex when we are pressured by changes in our world to encounter racism and sexism within the fragmented realities of globalization and the complexity of an economic system impacting every social system around the world.

How were those realities evident at General Conference? The use of technology and deployment of resources (financial, as well as people) at General Conference was impressive. And as a denomination we had access to the best meeting space Tampa has to offer. Yet the diverse social concerns of our immensely diverse world community were expressed mainly at the margins of the agenda (at meal times, break times, or on the way in and out of plenary time) rather than forming the center of that agenda. Lacking was a coordinated, prophetic, sociopolitical-economic analysis “à laWesleyana.” I wondered: What would John Wesley say about this present reality? What would Susanna Wesley advise him to do about these communities attempting to change a key Wesleyan institution in order to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? I became nostalgic for the dialogues and debates from which our social principles emerged, especially the difficult conversations in the Latin American contexts some 20 years ago where contextual economic analysis alongside Wesleyan tradition and theology accompanied the struggles of “el pueblo.” ¿Donde estaba la voz del pueblo? ¿Nos hemos olvidado del pueblo? 2 The prophetic, Wesleyan essence of Methodism, so clearly resonating with the gospel of Jesus the Christ and bringing together tradition, reason, Scripture, and experience (what I call socio-political-economic analysis àla Wesleyana) did not connect with el pueblo in the dialogue and strategic organizing at General Conference.

Cambia, todo cambia. Cambia, todo cambia. There has been much change in the life and ministry of our institutional church. And that change continues to be desperately needed for the church’s own transformation so that it can facilitate meaningful and relevant ministry for a Wesleyan community commissioned with facilitating the transformation of the world. The pressuring dynamics of change against institutional stagnation requires, I propose, leadership willing to risk in partnership with God and el pueblo.

I suggest that a promising biblical model for contextual processes is found in 2 Samuel 6:1–5, 12–19. In this text David dances his way into a new covenant and relationship with God and God’s people at a time of great transition for Israel as a people. In his dance of new life for the people of Israel, David made himself vulnerable by “wearing a linen ephod” and dancing “before the Lord with all his might,” celebrating with “shouts and the sound of trumpets” alongside all of Israel (2 Sam. 6:14–15 niv).

His dance as a new leader communicates at least three movements in the dynamic processes of new life for the people of Israel:

1.   In his vulnerability (dancing almost naked with el pueblo) David communicated solidarity with the expressions and conditions of the people of Israel on the streets. The celebration and installation of the ark of God in the city of Jerusalem took place not as an institutional act of the ruling or priestly class but as a celebration of el pueblo accompanied by its new leader. In his own dancing he communicated the importance of the physical bodies created to move as one body, people of God, in the rhythms of life within and as part of creation. David’s body, as an exposed, vulnerable body, was leading the movements of the dance as Israel was invited to become a new people in the presence of God and in solidarity with each other and its new leader. David offered sacrificial and fellowship offerings before the Lord (2 Sam. 6:17) and in doing so became a strong leader that emerged from el pueblo as one aware of the vulnerability and reality of the people, and as one promising to be in solidarity within a new, communal dance of life.

2.   After the dancing and offerings to God, David affirmed el pueblo with the assurance of a spiritual strength from God. He “blessed the people in the name of the Lord Almighty” (2 Sam. 6:18 niv). As a new leader in solidarity with el pueblo, he acknowledged that the strength for the dance of life came not from his power as a monarch but from the God who gives life as the greatest gift for humanity. The new life as people of Israel was claimed collectively as a blessing granted by God as a response to the people’s faithful solidarity to a new covenant, a new dance of life.

3.   In the final movement of the dance, David protected and nurtured. He communicated his responsibility as a new leader, recognizing the importance of protecting and nurturing the gift of life in the vulnerability of the physical bodies: “Then he gave a loaf of bread, a cake of dates and a cake of raisins to each person in the whole crowd of Israelites, both men and women” (2 Sam. 6:19 niv). The vulnerable, exposed body hosting God’s gift of life can only continue the dance when it is protected and nurtured spiritually and physically, in community and governance within a covenant with each other and in service to God.

The strategic leadership dance of life by David at a critical time for the people of Israel marked the dynamics of transformational rhythms of change necessary for the new life and context of the people of Israel. The movements of solidarity, affirmation of el pueblo, and protection and nurture of our vulnerability as human beings within creation facilitated the appropriation of new life and construction of a new sociopolitical and religious order for the people of Israel. I can imagine that it was a restructuring à la Wesleyana that grounded a stronger relationship between people and God, facilitated by governance emerging from the rhythms of el pueblo. David danced on the streets with el pueblo (almost literally naked) ready to invest himself and be dressed with the notes, rhythms, and issues of el pueblo.

I believe that racism and sexism continue to undermine our ministry and efficiency as a prophetic Wesleyan community. I hope and pray that our extraordinary access to technology and resources can facilitate the necessary dance of new life so that we can clearly see how to respond next as faithful people of God. The complexity of globalization does not have to obscure the dance of life or confuse it with an institutional dance of death that can involve and consume all of our resources and good intentions.

What is next? Perhaps what is next involves contextual dances of life with pueblos around the world, where each ministry setting in its own language and particular movements claims new life in the hope and expectations that next time we will be able to dialogue and find a collective dance for new institutional life. Can you be the kind of leader who affirms the people of God in your own context, who can be in solidarity with them, and who can facilitate protection and nurture of el pueblo? I wonder: what are our musical notes, rhythms, and agendas as a UM, Wesleyan community in the United States, attempting to be a global church? Who are the leaders that will facilitate the strategic leadership dances of new life for our institutional church? I pray that each of us can find the courage to join new contextual leadership dances that sustain life.


1. It is difficult to understand what is meant by a global church when The United Methodist Church is mainly based in the United States. Though we have representatives from countries around the world, in many places realities are very different, and the unfinished business of colonialism and imperialism permeate the relationships and impact ministry efforts as well as administrative structures and disciplinary questions. See Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2005), 24; and Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).2. These questions translate as: Where was the voice of the suffering people/struggling peoples? Have we forgotten those who suffer and struggle for justice? Somehow, use of technology, advice, and reports from consulting firms/studies; process; and time obscured our Wesleyan heritage grounded in a gospel of life where prophetic justice finds a way to bring about new life.

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