CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter—
[If you are looking for the column “The UMC is Conservative but Not Mean,” you need to scroll down to F, 6-14-19]
I think I was one of the first annual conference vote organizers in Methodism, along with Miley Palmer and Jack Newsome and Dick McGuire. Collectively, we were known, not affectionately, to the power structure of the Central IL Conference as The BNC Ring, because Miley and Jack pastored in Bloomington, and I in Normal, and Dick in Colfax.
This comes to mind as regional conferences around the country end their week-long annual conferences, in which they elected clergy and laity delegates for the 2020 General Conference, the total denomination meeting that will decide the future of the Divided Methodist Church.
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when campaigning for a position was the surest way not to get it. That was not true of politics, of course, but if you wanted to be class president or prom queen or a delegate to General Conference, you had to wait patiently with an “aw, shucks” pose and attitude. What you had to do to get elected as an annual conference representative to the General Conference was attain a position in the conference power structure, as a District Superintendent [DS] or some other major administrative position, or as the pastor of a big church. All those elected were from that power structure. It was automatic.
But in the late 1960s, things were changing, and the power structure, church or otherwise, did not want to acknowledge the changes. The power structure folks benefited by keeping things as they were, be it race relations or war profits. Because of this, young people were dropping out, especially from the church. Our numbers—membership, worship attendance, etc—were going down fast. The BNC Ring thought we needed to do something about it.
I remember talking to a DS about a major church that had declined in membership from four thousand to two thousand in just a few years. I thought that church needed a change in leadership, in order to fulfill its mission. “Oh, he’ll retired in a few years, and then it will come back up,” the DS said. It was clear he just didn’t want to deal with it. Also, he was wrong. And he was delegate to General Conference.
The BNC Ring decided we needed to elect new, younger delegates to General Conference, the legislative and leadership and programming group for the entire denomination. The GC needed to start doing things in new ways, and we were sure it would not if it were filled with just the same old people who met every four years to ignore the problems.
We weren’t trying to get ourselves elected. That would be neither seemly nor possible. But we had a slate of folks who were old enough to be experienced and electable, but young enough to be willing to try new ideas.
I asked one of our friends—same age, seminary classmate—to vote for our slate of delegates to General Conference, explaining to him that we needed new blood to make necessary changes, since the old guard obviously would not make those changes. “No,” he replied. “I think the District Superintendents and the pastors of the big churches have earned their way into those positions and thus earned the honor of being a delegate to General Conference.”
He was neither venal nor stupid. But he lived by an honor code. That’s been our problem for a long time. Being a leader is not an honor, it’s a responsibility. Leaders in the church are not in their positions to enforce the laws of the past or to enjoy the plaudits of the crowd, but to show us how to be disciples of Christ in the now.
Throughout the whole Divided Methodist Church, a lot of dishonorable people were elected in the last couple of weeks. That bodes well for the church.
John Robert McFarland
“We just sat around waiting to die, and we’re not going to do THAT again!”