Next week, members of the Kentucky Annual Conference will gather in Covington at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center for Annual Conference. The three-day event is typically a “family reunion,” where friends gather to reconnect, worship, and discern where God is leading our movement in the coming year.
I’m usually excited for this annual gathering. This year, however, I dread going to annual conference.
It has nothing to do with fighting Northern Kentucky traffic. It has nothing to do with my annual search for an affordable meal option. It even has nothing to do with the long lines for coffee during breaks.
It has everything to do with the current state of our denomination. We are in a state of infighting, which is not healthy for the long-term mission and vitality of the church.
Following a contentious and heated 2019 General Conference, we approach Annual Conference with the work of preparing ourselves for the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis. There will be the important work of voting on delegates to General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference. There will be discussions on resolutions for General Conference. There will be vote calculating by interest groups concerned with getting their preferred slate of candidates approved.
It will be the culmination of what has been a political reaction to a prayerful discussion, as we prepare for another legislative battle in the midst of a church conversation on where God is leading us.
Since General Conference, much of our discussion across the denomination has looked more like what we would see in Washington and Frankfort than what we would expect from a community called to hold each other up in prayer and love. There have been articles written on what the authors expect to happen in our tradition. There have been organizational meetings to prepare for the next battle in a long series of political-like conversations.
What there hasn’t been are opportunities for the church to come together to mend the wounds that are clearly there. The United Methodist Church is hurting, because of how we comported ourselves in St. Louis. I was there and saw it firsthand. We were a far cry from the church Christ calls us to be, and more of a reflection of the worst of ourselves. We only continue the hurt if the means to our ends continue to look more like political campaigning and party politics.
The people who make up the United Methodist Church need an opportunity to breathe, to be centered in Christ’s love, and to process. That cannot happen while we are trying to gird ourselves for the next battle at the same time.
The church is called to be a place of healing and compassion. We are to be a place of forgiveness and grace. When we are more worried about our power and winning the argument, we have lost the ability to offering healing, compassion, forgiveness, and grace to each other. If we cannot share that within our own communities, how much more are we unwilling to show it to the broken and hurting people within our own neighborhoods?
I have believed for a long time (and still believe) that the conversations we undertake in the church miss the point on the larger issues we have in North America in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. We talk about which side of the theological spectrum is right or wrong, and while theological conversations are important and necessary, they pale in comparison to the deeper conversations about how to give witness to Christ to a broken and hurting world. This is the same broken and hurting world that is need of the message of Christ, but is often turned off by the message because of our inability to be Christ-like towards one another.
We need to spend more time talking with one another to figure out where we can find our commonalities.
We need to spend more time discerning the best ways to connect with the people we are not reaching with the gospel.
We need to spend more time discussing how to help families.
We need to spend more time praying for God to lead us through the struggles that we have.
We need to do more than give lip service to these questions, while we also discuss the important things within the church. And we need to do it all with a love for progressives, conservatives, and everyone in-between.
So forgive me if I’m not looking forward to another round of partisan infighting within the church. Forgive me if I want no part of the discussions about who is right or who is wrong. It doesn’t mean, as some would suggest, that I am unwilling to make a stand on the necessary arguments of today. It simply means that I believe there are bigger issues for the church to be concerned about, and my heart is breaking that our time will be spent looking inward instead of outward.