The 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church was an emotional roller coaster. Just when it seemed the body had moved one way, it swung about in a different direction altogether. There were the expected differences of perspectives, understandings, and beliefs. And there were surprises—unexpected twists and turns, which sometimes brought us to laughter, tears, anger, or disillusionment. The surprises revealed a deeper conflict within The United Methodist Church body than we may desire to admit. But conflict is always an opportunity to go deeper, to grow into more maturity and to create new solutions. Being aware of the realities that make us unique and different is often a powerful tool for transformation. Conflict transformed can create new realities in which all involved can live together in harmony. Not conformity—harmony.
In his book, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2003), John Paul Lederach wrote, “Conflict transformation is more than a set of specific techniques; it is a way of looking as well as seeing” (p. 9). Lederach defines looking as drawing attention to or paying attention to something. He defines seeing as seeking understanding, which is the very process that creates meaning (pp. 8–9).
Regarding the many unknowns of what is next for The United Methodist Church, I believe that as leaders, it is a wonderful time for us to look until we see.
It is a good time to look at the decisions that were and were not made at the 2012 General Conference until we have grasped their meaning and therefore have a foundation from which to step into a future preferred by those who will be living into it. For example, rather than seeing the decision of the Judicial Council as the bad end to a nasty conflict, we could pay serious attention and look until a deeper understanding has come. What if it was God’s doing that things came to the conclusion that they did? What might that MEAN? Perhaps we have been given an opportunity to engage one another differently in order to come back in 2016 transformed by our experience together in 2012. In her book Church Conflict: From Contention to Collaboration (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), Norma Cook Everist has written, “It is possible to live together in the midst of conflict . . . it is possible to move through conflict from contention to collaboration” (p.vii).
As leaders, it is imperative that we understand various types of conflict. Everist wrote, “It is important to take the time to learn about conflict” (p. 26). And if we are looking until we see, we will also come to the place of taking the risk to step back from our position long enough to see a bigger, broader perspective that may mean WE move to a different position, understanding, or way of seeing the situation. This does not preclude making necessary changes, but it may also mean BEING changed ourselves.
For example, if the elimination of guaranteed appointments is upheld, it could create new levels of conflict between clergy and other clergy, congregations, pastors and clergy, congregations and the Annual Conference—because there are no current metrics to determine effectiveness. And although new metrics are being developed, history has shown that the standards used have been culturally biased toward people in the mainstream. This creates an inequity, which leads to conflict with the system for individuals who are farther from the epicenter of the status quo.
So where do we go from here? I believe we need to focus in each aspect of what we do on “building community.” Building community means providing safe space for people who differ to come together to discover what is the common yearning of their hearts.
Though it may seem impossible, it is the both/and of the human condition that allows us to find unity even in the midst of conflict, diversity, or disunity. Lederach wrote, “The capacity to live with apparent contradictions and paradoxes . . . lies at the heart of transformation” (Little Book, 52). He talks about the need to address A and at the same time, build B.
So, in The United Methodist Church, while we are addressing issues of the need for new leaders and rightfully focusing on strengthening newer and younger leaders, we must at the same time require and resource the development of current leaders. As we continue the conversation about what it means to be a global church, we must at the same time learn about the people and cultures different from ours, and more about our own cultures. As we go through the process of creating an equitable, just form to follow our function of making disciples to transform the world—at the same time we must create equitable processes of accountability, nurture the faithful 99 percent of clergy who have given their lives to serve God in the local church, equip laity to answer God’s call on their lives, and nurture them as they fulfill that call and give up the U.S./male/economic/Anglo privilege that hinders the existence of true global community.
We have the capacity to do this. In the book The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2012), authors John McKnight and Peter Block wrote, “Capacities reside in individuals and can be nurtured to exist in the collective.”
In other words, “It’s in there.”
As Christians we have the capacity to be spiritually fruitful and to look beyond fault to see the need. We have the capacity to, as Paul wrote in Galatians 5, bear the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And though from where we are looking right now, it may be a little dark still, as Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, “somewhere out of the dark a bird is singing to the Dawn.” 1
We can sing to the dawn because we know it is coming. We can see the faint rays of hope that begin to shine through when we have been willing to keep looking until we see.
Paul wrote at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, “Faith, hope, and love continue, these three—but the greatest of these is love (v. 13, author’s rendering). Ultimately it will be the power of love and the capacity to infuse it as our primary motivation that will allow us to come to a future in which the whole church recognizes its unity and sees that conflict and diversity and difference are a gift and an opportunity.
Dear God, give us eyes to look and hearts to see.
1. Paul Laurence Dunbar, “Representative American Negroes” (essay), in The Negro Problem, 1903; see Wikipedia, s.v., “Paul Laurence Dunbar,” http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Paul_Laurence_Dunbar; and Wikiquote, s.v., “Representative American Negroes,” http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Representative_American_Negroes.
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