May 16th, 2012

how long

A Member, not a delegate

I went to a pre-conference briefing to prepare for the Indiana Annual Conference meeting next month. I've been going to these things for years. It's part of the drill. I sat in the back and listened. Most of what I heard was the usual stuff. But one word grated on my ear: delegates. Two different presenters, both employees of the Annual Conference, referred to those who will attend the Conference as delegates.

I cringe each time I hear us so described. For as the Discipline makes abundantly clear, we are not delegates, we are Members of the Annual Conference. And there's a long history behind that.

We ordained clergy are, and always have been, Members of the Annual Conference in a direct sense. When we are ordained, our membership is transferred from the congregation to which we have hitherto belonged to the Annual Conference itself. The Indiana Annual Conference (and, especially, the Clergy thereof in Full Connection) are my local church, the place where I hold membership -- the only place where I hold membership in the entire connection. I am not an employee of the Annual Conference; I am not a delegate; I belong to this body. I am a Member.

Such was always the case among the clergy, ever since the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784; however, the story of laity in the Annual Conference is more complicated. In the beginning, only the clergy were Members of the Annual Conference or attended. It took a long time, and a church split or two, for the laity to achieve equal representation with the clergy in the Annual Conference. And whatever they might have been called at one time, ever since the founding of The United Methodist Church, the laity elected to attend Annual Conference have also been Members of the Annual Conference, though without losing their membership in their local churches. To call them delegates or something while the clergy were called Members would imply that they did not have an equal role in the body.

So, what does it matter what we call 'em, anyway? Well, it matters a lot. Remember, The United Methodist Church is an ideological body, with lots of official titles and slogans and buzzwords. When you don't use the right lingo, it sticks out. So people usually make an effort to use correct terminology. Therefore, it says something about those things they allow themselves to be sloppy about. Calling Members "delegates" has significance.

For the Indiana Annual Conference is morphing into a body unlike what I thought I was joining all those years ago. We are becoming more like the NRA or the Boy Scouts. Our Annual Conference session is like a convention or a trade show these days. We don't want to do any real business, which we think bores the attendees (whatever they're called). We want them to show up and be inspired, be involved, be busy with all the cool stuff we -- meaning the leadership of the Annual Conference -- have designed for them to be doing. We don't want them to have real input on our agenda; we just want them motivated to promote the agenda already determined by the people who count.

We were told tonight that our Conference's goal is to get everybody to think of themselves as the Annual Conference, all through the year. Meanwhile, I get all kinds of peremptory e-mails and barrages of publicity from headquarters, all of which assume that I am either an employee or a customer, but not a Member. It seems to me that if you want us think of ourselves as the Annual Conference all through the year, you might treat us as if we actually were Members of the Annual Conference, as agents rather than as patients, as Members rather than as delegates.

I have spent over thirty-six years of my life trying to belong to this body, which demonstrates in more and more ways every year that they don't really want me -- don't really see me as a person in my own right, as someone valuable and welcome -- they just want my responses as and when called for, to fulfill what they -- whoever they are -- think should be done. And I'm not saying this just to be whining, but to point out the inconsistency of what they say they want to accomplish and what they actually do. The theme of this year's Annual Conference is "Making Room," as in making room for people who want to be part of our church family, for people who want to follow Jesus. We want them to know that they are wanted and they are loved. And yet, we treat each other as if we don't matter. There is a dreadful inconsistency here, and not just at the Annual Conference level. I see much the same sort of thing in many local churches, and certainly at the general Church level.

I came alone and I left alone. Nor do I think I would have been missed if I had skipped the whole thing. Which is why I'm thinking that when I retire, I probably won't attend Annual Conference any more. I might be happier not showing up, and I think that might make them happier, too. But then, what is the meaning of all these years of striving to belong? For that, I have no answer.