“This work is difficult and it is complex and I have been learning a lot, which I enjoy, but more than anything, it is a gift to be on this side of things and to see the really hopeful picture that our Church could have.”
— Rev. Casey Orr,
Commission on a Way Forward
Since its opening phone conference in December, the 32-member Commission on a Way Forward, led by Commission moderators Bishop David Yemba, Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, and Bishop Ken Carter, has met twice in Atlanta and will meet next in Washington DC in early April. (Read a more detailed description of each meeting on UMC.org/wayforward.)
In addition to study, worship, and prayer, the foundation of this group is trust — so a significant portion of these first few meetings was spent in small group discussions, with larger group discussion to follow. According to its moderators, this work is highly conciliar, meaning that it requires focusing together on the task they are charged with. So the first order of business for this group was building relationships and establishing a solid foundation of trust, understanding, and community among its members.
The group also agreed at the outset to working in private, outside the presence of media, with a strict covenant to hold all discussions and deliberations in confidence. Progress is being relayed via press release at the conclusion of each meeting.
In its first meeting, the Commission:
- Identified challenges inherent to this group, including building trust, [individual] experiences of suffering and harm, silos, desire to gain turf, language differences, cultural diversity, and the complexity of human sexuality/LGBTQ issues.
- Celebrated a corresponding set of strengths, or assets, recognized by the group as gifts from God, including leadership, spiritual maturity, common ground, desire for unity, time and space for reflection and discernment, a spirit of collaboration, and a sense of a larger purpose.
“The assets that are present in the Commission are truly gifts from God,” the Commission writes, “and we believe them to be sufficient to respond to the challenges, and indeed to transform our challenges into gifts. This is and will not be a human achievement, but is the unfolding work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.”
Diagnosing the Issues
To begin the careful work of diagnosing what is going on in our churches, our denomination, and our world, members of the Commission:
- Established principles for self-monitoring, behavioral norms, and a covenant for their work together.
- Focused on creating trust and understanding around issues of gender, race, and culture that will be foundational to its work.
- Reflected through small and larger group discussion on specific challenges, hopes and concerns, the current state of what’s happening in the Church, the meaning of unity — as well as more practical questions about processes, strategies, and structure the Commission will use to meet its target dates.
Prayer, Study, and Reflection
Because reading and learning are key to the Commission’s approach, the group has heard presentations from:
- Gil Rendle, senior vice president (retired) of The Texas Methodist Foundation and coach to the Commission’s moderators. Rendle led learning sessions focused on his monograph, “Knowing How to Read the Signs,” and on centralized and decentralized organizations, the basic understanding of which will serve as a foundation for later conversations on denominational structure. Rendle says that despite the complexity and difficulty of this task, he feels a sense of hopefulness as he observes how the Commission is working to consider the perspectives of all constituencies. “A way forward cannot be an extension of the same path that got the Church to this point,” Rendle remarked. “Albert Einstein said, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.’”
- The moderators led discussions of the three values essential to taking steps toward decision-making — accountability, complexity, and trust — and then the Commission joined together in study on Galatians 1, a letter that stirred the fires of the Protestant Reformation and was important to both John and Charles Wesley, as well as “The Anatomy of Peace” by the Arbinger Institute, which explores the heart of resolving conflict and invites reflection on how to be part of positive change. “As we look at a way forward, what does it take to be an agent of change?” asks Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball. “The overall concept is a heart of war and heart of peace. A heart of peace sees others as people. A heart of war sees others as objects.”
- Bishop Woodie White as he reflected on the period that spanned the 1940s, ’50s, and most of the ’60s when African-American churches were segregated and placed into the Central Jurisdiction until the formation of The United Methodist Church in 1968. Likening the Church to a family, Bishop White said, “I believe we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and because I believe that, I won’t let you write me out of the family and I won’t write you out of the family. That gives me hope that we are children of God.”
- Saying that the unity and disunity of the Church has been, in a sense, his life’s work, Dr. Russ Richey of Candler School of Theology shared insights about how Methodism has historically dealt with disagreement and conflict over the past two centuries: The 19th century saw separation and organizational division among American Methodists every decade. The century following brought unity, even amidst divisions that were more internal than structural. “By and large we stayed united, but there were serious divisions and controversies.”
Work Groups in Progress
Since forming in January, six work teams have diligently pursued their assignments, and reports of work completed to date include:
- Initial research — interviewing bishops, pastors, and laypersons from other denominations and gathering data and resources to report to the Commission. Denominations are unique in terms of polity and experience, and none is a perfect match with The United Methodist Church.
- Information on the power of language and culture, sexual orientation and gender identity, including conversations with reconciling congregations and research gathered on experiences and perspectives from Africa.
- Ongoing research seeking clarification about the rules, petitions, logistics, and roles of the Council of Bishops and the Commission on the General Conference.
- Information on the current landscape and the different strategies at work: the Confessing Movement and other renewal groups, Reconciling Ministries and progressive strategies, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, and general discussion and questions from groups in the Central Conferences.
- A plan for gathering information within the Central Conferences related to diversity of attitudes regarding LGBTQ issues in different social, cultural, and religious contexts, with a strong recommendation to explore the subject of unity with the Central Conferences.
The Commission also continued discussion both in small groups and as a body regarding additional input they need from other groups and individuals in order to begin compiling a comprehensive list of what they need to learn, who they need to learn from — and how they would shape their final outcomes.
Saying that she has been deeply impressed so far with the way things are going, Rev. Casey Orr remarks, “I feel confident that something meaningful and powerful can happen with so many different voices being brought together. So many amazing people with diverse backgrounds and experiences — people who have impressive resumes, but more importantly, people who are profoundly kind, compassionate, and faithful people. This work is difficult and it is complex and I have been learning a lot, which I enjoy, but more than anything, it is a gift to be on this side of things and to see the really hopeful picture that our Church could have.”