I’ve been thinking a lot about John Meunier’s question “What would it take for us to trust each other?” in this final week before our United Methodist General Conference. I have real reservations with what seems like a corporate world attitude about the solutions to our problems as a denomination. I have all sorts of critiques to level against the various proposals being considered. But I was convicted of something this past weekend at a wedding of two dear friends who are both Methodist pastors that was co-officiated by our conference’s beloved director of ordained ministry Beth Downs. Sitting around the reception table with dozens of other Methodist pastors, it really hit me that the Virginia Conference is a family, and we will continue to be a family no matter what happens next week in Tampa at General Conference. I’m not afraid of Tampa because compassionate, brilliant human beings like Beth Downs will be down there representing us.
I have never met another person who somehow manages to be both exceptionally organized and warmly pastoral the way that Beth Downs is. She’s got an enormous conference of pastors to keep track of (we’re one of the largest with over a thousand churches). Somehow she knows all of our names. And when you have a conversation with her, she can remember where you left things in the last conversation that you had. You can always see her wheels turning, trying to figure out how to help you discover and use your gifts perfectly. You also know that you will absolutely meet Beth’s deadlines for every piece of paperwork that you have to submit to her. It’s not because we’re afraid of her, but because she commands excellence. My licensing school class made Beth Downs fan club buttons. Our love for her verges on fanatical.
So what hit me as I was watching Beth up front at the wedding is that Tampa is going to be filled with people like her who are super-smart and want very badly for the United Methodist Church to be a healthy, thriving family. I realize that other conferences aren’t necessary as blessed as we are; I know that there are nasty, egotistical people out there in positions of power. But I think it’s too easy to whip ourselves into hysteria over some kind of heartless, faceless force of darkness that is going to destroy Methodism when every single person who will gather in Tampa is someone who prays and confesses their sins to God and has experienced at least some measure of fruit in their ministry in order to have the credibility to be elected to represent us.
I just hope that whatever decisions they make at General Conference will allow people like Beth to continue to be shepherds who follow sublimely subjective, intricate intuitions about how to evaluate and support other pastors. I hope that General Conference isn’t so rigid in its affirmation of graphs and bubble sheets that our pastoral evaluation process becomes as clunky as a government agency. All of the statistics are valuable resources, but there are so many factors that cannot be captured mathematically. Our conference officials and district superintendents need to be allowed the discretion to be pastoral in their oversight of the rest of us. As long as there are enough other Beth Downs in Tampa, I feel safe putting my future in their hands. Of course they will all need lots of prayer from all of us. But let’s try our best not to be afraid.