Crossposted at We Your People, Ours the Journey.
by Becca Clark
Monday night was magic.
We had our first Twitter Chat for #DreamUMC, the conversation born out of the strong desire to keep shaping the future of our denomination in the wake of General Conference. You can read the full archive of the chat here, or you can view bullet points of answers to the questions we discussed (and some unofficial demographic info) at the facebook page.
First of all, wow! There were 171 people tweeting, and many many more I know who were "lurking," or as I call it, actively listening. We sent 1,272 tweets, not including retweets. That's a lot of conversation in an hour! Although dominated by younger voices, the conversation spanned generations, came down fairly even on gender representation, included voices of clergy, laity, and folks between the two, and crossed the U.S. pretty well. We have some work to do yet on inviting the voices of persons of color and reaching out to hear our siblings in the movement from around the world. But there is a lot of energy for movement and hope in this body.
Especially as the conversation got started, what was amazing to me was the passion of the participants. Here, ten days after General Conference ended, people were still filled with pain, regret, brokenness, and grief. Here, despite the brokenness and raw pain, people were still filled with vision and hope and excitement for the future of the United Methodist movement. Such deep pain and deep joy, woven together often in the same person, speaks volumes for the vibrancy and heart of the UMC. As the conversation concluded, the call to continue and progress in our work together was overwhelming and joy-filled. I have rarely felt more in the presence of the Holy Spirit doing a new thing, and never while staring at pixels on a screen.
Reflecting on the conversation, I want to try to synthesize what I heard. We asked three questions, and some themes emerged from the responses.
Question 1: What did you learn/take away from General Conference 2012?
In response to this question, this is where I experienced a lot of pain and brokenness. Many tweets lifted up a new or renewed understanding of our division as a denomination, and several spoke directly about lack of trust. One person wrote "Trust issues abound and we have no idea how to heal them." Others spoke of the power imbalance in the denomination, and disillusionment with this power. "Manipulation (from all parties and sides) carries more influence than Holy Conferencing." Many tweets lamented the legislative process, and how it seems to be in the way of the true work of the Spirit and the forward movement of the church. "Movements cannot be legislated," one wrote, and another: "it is wrong to expect reform to happen @ the structural level."
Many people lifted up both the blessing and challenge of being a global church-- or as I've recently had reframed for me (in this excellent post by Wes Magruder), an international church that wants to be a global church. The beauty and diversity of the global Methodist movement breaks down when we try to articulate theology and polity across radically different contexts. As one person put it, "I learned that theology is contextual and structure probably ought to be too."
Still others took away hope from the General Conference. "God is not finished with the UMC!" was a frequent refrain. People celebrated new connections and friendships, and the sense of not being alone, in either the feeling of sorrow or the passion for ministry we share. Many celebrated the desire for change and the opportunity for conversation and hope. Much as we may try to Methodologize (think I made that up) our movement, that doesn't stop the Holy from breaking in. As one person wrote: "even when we think all hope is gone, the Spirit has a tendency to show up and surprise us!"
[caption id="attachment_2169" align="alignright" width="225"] My husband snapped a picture as I got ready for the chat. He informed me that the glasses were a must.[/caption]
Question 2: How has this new knowledge changed your Dream (vision or hope) for the United Methodist Church?
The next time I am feeling discouraged about the state of the world in general or the church in particular, I promise myself that I will read through these answers again, or just ask a fellow dreamer to tell me their dream for the UMC. These answers were beautiful. Still much pain laced through them, but such amazing and faithful dreams.
Broken dreams were named: "I'm struggling to see how a schism will be avoided," one person wrote. In another place, a participant would add "I think it's already happened." Trust issues were raised again: "I now realize that in order to move forward, we need greater trust. Far too many folks became us vs. them."
The need for localized contextual ways of being the church was named and lifted. One person summarized this feeling well: "I have become much more in favor of regionalism/contextualism. Annual conferences and local congregations need to be unbound," while another wrote "I wouldn't have understood it before #GC2012, but I'm all for a US central conference now."
Many, many of these dreams envisioned openness and inclusivity for all people, some naming especially the GLBTQ community, but many leaving a wide-open statement-- regardless of any division. "I am now even more passionate and committed to building relationships across cultures and other barriers...without agenda," one participant wrote. Another said, "I (continue to) dream/hope that the UMC will be UNITED, but in our diversity, not just our name."
The dreams included a deep need for personal transformation and formation as disciples, and the hope that personal transformation would expand out into a transformed way of being and relating to one another. "It has made me more determined to teach Wesleyan theology, more determined to share Wesleyan formation, less fearful," said one tweeter, while another wrote that we need "less 'fixing,' more constructive listening and discerning what a holy life and life together may be."
In this part of the conversation, one person wrote that General Conference convinced them to go all-in and seek ordination, to get deeply into the system and work for change. Another wrote that GC convinced them to abandon the ordination track and fully embrace and claim the power of lay leaders within the church for transformation. It struck me as wonderful that both articulate a sense of transformation and purpose and calling, and it highlights for me that the call to ministry has to do with our gifts and passion, not our titles or position on the laity-clergy spectrum.
Question 3: What's one achievable change that would make the UMC a bit closer to the church you dream about?
Here the conversation was at its most powerful for me, as people's passion was channeled into positive, practical visioning. What I learned is that there are lots of people who see the same way forward I do (I think it has a lot to do with contextualizing our theology and practice, through some form of national or regional central conferences for the U.S.), there are many people who have other or additional creative ideas for transformation. Nothing gives me more hope than passionate people who also can think proactively.
[caption id="attachment_2171" align="alignleft" width="300"] Wordle WordCloud of the Q3 answers (online here)[/caption]
There were many cries for a U.S. Central Conference, something for which I've never heard a huge groundswell of support before. But as I mentioned earlier, the tension of trying to live globally (not internationally) amid massive cultural differences really tied our hands and hearts at this conference. One person put it this way: "A US Central Conference free to set our own standards around the issues that divide the global church. That is it." Another wrote, "Ditto, US central conference. &, quit trying to motivate US church w fear. Motivate w love (good news)."
Many spoke to the need for refocused ministry efforts at the "church" level, and one person emphasized that we need to "expand our idea of 'church' to include non-conventional forms of ministry (campus ministry, non-profits, on tap groups, etc)." Another sumarized this need, saying: "invest in the local church, focus less on ad campaigns and expensive meetings and more on the work of the people."
Still more voices lifted up the need for justice-seeking local ministries: "quit trying to legislate for holiness and rather emphasize social holiness," said one, and another, "go back to some of our roots of leading social change instead of following it."
I was especially heartened by the numbers of people describing a need for deeper theological education and spiritual formation at all levels of the church. One participant wrote of the church's need for "much more serious commitment to Wesleyan theological education. We need more curriculum based on theology AND context." Another put it this way: "new emphasis on practical theology at local & general church level, a theology of 'doing' church-aka being the body of Christ." This theological formation-- from the grassroots up, not the top down!-- impacts our entire way of being as a movement. Said one individual: "Return to Wesleyan tradition. more local autonomy, more Lay leadership, prevailing GRACE, full inclusion, I could go on."
Very practical, short term suggestions called for the elimination of dashboard metrics tools: "Dashboards (obsession only with the quantitative) creates a distorted view of kingdom building that is consumer driven." Others called for term limits for bishops and for delegates to General Conference. And of course, there was a call to reinstate the Conference Cookies.
One participant invited us to dream up "a radically different way to do GC2016. I have no idea what that looks like, but we need to start imagining now."
Many goals were personal and connectional, speaking to the heart of what Methodism is, in my opinion. Some were general: "Encourage more collaboration & working together rather than fighting against each other." Others much more personal: "I'd really like to be in meaningful conversation with our sisters and brothers in Central Conferences." Still others focused on the #DreamUMC conversation itself as a place where change needs to happen: "reach out to my CC friends and people of color to make sure that the tweet chat has a wider range of voices."
One person concluded with a simple goal, "Stop worrying about our fears....just do ministry...." I've found that at any level of ministry, this is the best advice.
Conclusion & Looking Ahead
For many of us, this conversation was only the beginning. As the hour drew to a close, people expressed joy and hope through the process, "It's like a Holy Spirit wave!" one person wrote, and I agree. Another person wrote that Twitter gave them a whole new understanding of Pentecost, and I can't help but see how much of this conversation, and the form in which it is happening, will shape my sermon for that holiday next week. I concluded the time feeling uplifted, hopeful, and heard (which is ironic, since as moderator, I kept most of my opinions to myself-- a challenge for this raging extrovert). And I felt and feel deeply blessed to be part of a church and a movement filled with so many passionate people who love and serve Christ in radical, hope-filled, life-changing ways.
We plan to chat again in two weeks, on Monday May 28th, 9 pm eastern.
And as often as we need to in order to equip ourselves, organize our thoughts, and hold one another up in grace and hope.
Becca Clark is an ordained elder in the New England Annual Conference and on an exciting journey of faith and ministry. She's pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Montpelier, Vermont, and co-founder and president of a local non-profit organization, Just Basics, Inc., bringing together and structuring programs that work with members community to address their basic needs and confront cycles of injustice. Becca is a dreamer, a loving soul, a seeker of justice, a wife, a mom of two, and a friend, and loving nearly every minute of it. Not at all in that order, usually.