Monday, June 11, 2007

The Politics of Annual Conference 2007

The opening devotional time prior to our opening Annual Conference Session was very well done. Brett Probert had the Youth Choir pumped up, and I could feel the presence of the Spirit (which I typically do not feel in contemporary worship this was a good thing).

I also felt, however, that the politics began at that point.

Bishop Thomas Bickerton went to great lengths to "depoliticize" Annual Conference, but, in my opinion, in so doing, actually made for an extremely political gathering. Concerning people's fears about political fighting, our Bishop said during the devotional time, “It will be OK – if we put our trust in the hands of a living God and not in ourselves.”

He followed those words, however, by quoting a wonderful passage from Martin Luther King, whom I respect a great deal. But it seems that, from the "get go", the message was: "Be racially inclusive".

Now, please do not misunderstand my words. If we fail to be racially inclusive, we fail to be the Church. This is not a political matter; it is a spiritual and theological matter.

But, is inclusivity a greater concern than, say, doctrinal faithfulness, or effective leadership, or relational gifts? Inclusiveness is a part of orthopraxy; it surely does not comprise the totality of orthopraxy.

I wondered why our Bishop quoted a passage from Dr. King about racial unity, rather than something about Church unity. Was I feeling too cynical?

Rev. Vance Ross was brought in from the General Board of Discipleship to lead us in a discernment process. He had good words to share with us, even though the Biblical exegesis wasn't particularly in depth or insightful. Rev. Ross' words were inspirational and optimistic, and that is always to be appreciated.

BUT...the tone was set. We were to discern the Spirit's leading in a prayerful manner; this was presented as something diametrically opposed to "campaigning" or simply voting for those who agreed with your theological prespective or your views on sex.

At the same time, we were told, often in somewhat surreptitious ways, that we needed to be racially inclusive, and that this, more than any other orthopractic or doctrinal concern, was to be a primary value.

This was all done in seeming ignorance of the fact that the denominational news service had published a commentary several months earlier entitled, "How to become a General Conference delegate" (featuring pictures of our own Conference's 2004 delegation, ironically enough), which encouraged folks to organize and campaign.

At any rate, that's when all heaven broke loose. The Conference discerned.

I can't tell you how many people told me that they felt as if they were being manipulated by our institutional leaders. Their votes reflected that. While many have seen the results as theological in nature, I believe they were more anti-institutional in nature (perhaps I'm being naive, but I just can't believe that the anonymous letters of the past few months had any effect on the votes). The "institution" (Bishop, Cabinet, Conference staffers...wonderful people all) were inadvertently, in trying to "depoliticize" Conference, creating an intensely political atmosphere.

John Ciampa was the first clergy election, perhaps our most respected pastor, a true thinker with a compassionate heart. Next was Sharon Schwab, a prominent leader and advocate for rural ministry, smaller membership congregations and local pastors.

Third was Bob Zilhaver. In the interest of full disclosure, Bob is a good friend of mine and served as one of my ordination sponsors. No one loves Western PA Conference more than Bob loves it. No one in our Conference knows the Book of Discipline as well as Bob knows it. No one in our Conference has his passion for justice; no one even comes close.

Just hours after standing before Clergy Session and asking for a ruling of law regarding the complaint and discipline procedures practiced by our institutional leaders (esp. the BOOM and the Cabinet), which Bob viewed as clandestine, unjust, and perhaps out of compliance with the Discipline, Bob received more votes than all but two clergy members. Bob's integrity speaks for itself. But he is possibly our most contentious, controversial pastor in many ways. For him to be lifted up speaks volumes not only about Bob, but the mood of the Conference.

I have no first-hand knowledge of any direct campaigning by anyone. I received no lists of suggested delegates. But in many ways, the first six (of eight) lay delegates elected were "Zilhaver-friendly", in that they share many, though not all, of his theological concerns (even those such as Matt Johnson who were largely unaware of any support, and never sought it). Bob's daughter Laura will actually lead the lay delegation as the top overall choice.

This was no coup d'etat. But the message was clear. There was a shift in the heart of the Conference. Several prominent Conference leaders barely got elected, whereas in the past, they'd have led the way. The Cabinet, which has dominated our delegation in recent decades, was by comparison a non-issue.

There were some great elections. Eric Park is one of our finest leaders, and many of us hope he has an opportunity someday to lead while wearing Episcopal vestments. Matt Johnson will serve on his final laity delegation, and many of us look forward to the day when he can be an important part of our clergy delegation. Joan Reasinger will serve as our first Deacon to represent us at General Conference.

As the shift continued, there were several calls for racial inclusiveness. The problem is that our Conference hasn't really produced any great leaders of color, and that's to our detriment. We clearly have more work to do in this area. But it looked as if people were not going to vote for someone simply because of their race. In the years ahead, Western PA Conference needs to do more to raise up minority leaders; we've done a sinfully terrible job ministering to the African-American folks of western Pennsylvania. We have a lot of work to do in this area.

So, the Conference discerned. And the results were unexpected. For good or ill, we have our most conservative (or, better, "evangelical") delegation perhaps in a century. And the institutional leaders failed to make a big impression, receiving a message that requires much prayer and further discernment.

"Politics" is not a dirty word. Just as "liturgy" is "the work of the people", politics is "the work of government". The Annual Conference, as the governing Church body in our area, did its work. The representatives of the people spoke. The ordained clergy people spoke. There was a real shift. And, since we were told that this was all done through Spiritual discernment, those who are dismayed at the elections have little recourse but to either deny the Spirit's presence altogether or ignore how the Spirit moved.

There are concerns, of course. Our clergy delegation is hardly inclusive of younger pastors, even though excellent candidates such as Greg Cox, John Shaver, and Jim Walker were available. Despite the fact that United Methodism in western Pennsylvania is largely female, we have only two women on our GC clergy delegation (and three on our lay delegation), and only one more on our JC clergy delegation. Clearly, we need to do more work in the African-American community...not simply to raise up leaders, but to make disciples.

And, we need to find a way to discuss the issues of the day in the open, rather than ignoring them, or trying to focus on unity while important conversations are bubbling under the surface. There's no shame in loving debate and conversation. We just need to find a way to do it. Our Bishop and the other Conference leaders meant well by trying to depoliticize things, but as long as it is our responsibility to deal with real issues, there will be, must be, politics. As John Howard Yoder taught, there is nothing and no one more inherently and offensively political than Jesus Christ and his Cross.


Anonymous said...

Keith, I appreciate the honest discussion of inclusivity and the election process. At our annual conference , there were times that I felt uncomfortable with several comments that almost blatantly said, "OK,we need to elect a minority now..."

In the end, there were at least three ethnic minorities elected, but it seemed strange. Don't get me wrong, I totally understand the need for diversity and inclusivity. Heck, I even support affirmative action!

I simply don't know how I'd feel if I went home to my wife and said, "Hey, I got elected for general conference!" "Wow, that's great! Was it your leadership, your theology, maybe your integrity? Why did they pick you?" "Well, they said they needed a white guy.."

Chris said...


Thank you for sharing with us your thoughts on AC 2007. I respect you in many ways brother.

Personally, what I am walking away with came from the Bishop's ordination sermon - to remember my calling (I fear that I have been doing the work, and not allowing the Spirit to lead me).

Thanks again!

Jeff Vanderhoff said...

"And, since we were told that this was all done through Spiritual discernment, those who are dismayed at the elections have little recourse but to either deny the Spirit's presence altogether or ignore how the Spirit moved." That is a very concise way of putting it, and I think the understanding which you've put forth here speaks volumes. Bob Z's election shows the high regard our conference has for him, regardless of how polarizing he is when it comes to disciplinary matters and such. While we didn't elect any lead candidates under 35, let's be honest - we have VERY FEW under 35. I think 45 will have to become the new standard, and I'm thrilled to have Eric Park representing our AC as one who is at least under 45. I don't think youthfulness had anything to do with Eric's election, however, I firmly believe that he was lifted up because of his pastoral abilities, leadership skills, and general AANG (All Around Nice Guy!) personality. You mentioned Jim Walker, John Shaver, and Greg Cox as younger candidates as well, but you neglected (in a RARE moment of humility, I'm sure:) to include yourself in that list, Keith. You had a great number of votes yourself, and I think you'll have a good shot next time around. Brett Probert would have had a chance, but too many people wrote him in as "Brett Problino" and those ballots were then considered invalid.

Eric Park said...

I appreciate all the affirmation, Keith and Jeff.

But all this talk of age suddenly makes me feel like a very ancient 41-year-old!

I feel like challenging Shaver to a push up contest!!

Randy Roda said...

Keith...good piece. On the political stuff...I stopped listening after hearing the bishop say "I Am Thomas J. Bickerton and I am not anonymous." What was he trying to say? Anonymous is bad. What about those guys who wrote epistles and then signed them with Paul's name? We call it Scripture.

I guess I felt that the opening speech set the political tone, and for me, conference never recovered. I like the delegates...I don't know what I'm gonna do with Zilhaver's now gigantic ego.

All in all, I had a great time at conference. I enjoyed the worship, rekindling frienships and making new ones.

Jeff Vanderhoff said...

I LOVED it when it the Bishop said "I am not anonymous." I thought that was an important point to make, and was glad that it was well received (by most, based on the extended applause). Why did I appreciate it so much? Because of the whole stigma attached to those anonymous letters. It is said that when John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence, he signed first, and he signed in large letters, stating that he wanted to be sure the King would have no trouble seeing his signature on the document. That's the kind of stance that is worthy of respect, and that is what is sadly lacking in the anonymous letters.

Randy Roda said...

Good point, Jeff. The letters should have been signed.

Matt said...

Excellent analysis, Keith...I really appreciate what you had to say. I understand what you're saying when you say that 6 of the 8 are "Zilhaver-friendly" but please remember that I (and others, I'm sure) had nothing to do with that. I really can't stress that enough! Not that I don't like Bob, but I don't like the dirty politics that happened before AC that I was somehow wrapped up in, even though I was unaware and unwilling! I'm not saying that Bob was the leader of that either, but the conservative movement was, and at this point, even though I am an evangelical conservative, I don't want that label. I'd like to be thought of as a radical Methodist.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

I hear you, Matt. It was my intention to stress that you were univolved in any political campaigning; folks may have supported and/or endorsed you, but you had nothing to do with that.

Also...yes, Bob was not involved in any way with the anonymous letters.

Greg Cox said...

Ahh, yes - but isn't it funny how most people know who did indeed write the "anonymous" letter?

Anonymous said...

Keith, thanks for the thoughtful analysis of AC. Even though we didn't get anyone under 40 to be official delegates I felt we let others know that there are some young clergy around. ...And as Vanderhoff stated you did leave your name of the list. And to Eric congrats first (your election is truly awesome) but I will take you on in a pushup contest any day that is after we finish a marathon and a sit up contest. Great seeing everyone at AC and have a blessed week.

Randy Roda said...

I too will come to Zilhaver's defense. He not only had nothing to do with the letters, but to my knowledge, he did no politicking for anyone at all. Although often controversial, he is first and foremost a man of integrity. I have never seen a person in the church who has done more to help the institutionally weak. His tireless work as an advocate...his legislative archive and his agenda have always been about justice and fairness for all.

That being long as being part of the delegation to G.C. is a status symbol, there will be political hand fighting. I know that I sat next to Zilhaver in the plenary sessions and he never asked me to vote for anyone.

I agree with Matt and hope the members of our delegation will be independent voices seeking to discern God's will for the church. No labels, letters or agendas matter now.

My prayers are with each member of our delegation.

Pastor Bill said...

Keith - you really have a strong sense of how the AC elections went... Any other reactions to the conference? Even though I was going to postal if I heard the word discerning one more time (especially in the context of worship...since we all know what they were "really" talking about), I really felt the conference was one of the best I've been to in 15 years.

Oh, and on the "youth vote" thing - maybe we ought to check the median age or average age of our clergy before we set an age for "young clergy"... I think the under 45 suggestion jeff v. made is probably a little more realistic (heh, and Keith - I was feeling pretty old at 39...sigh...)

Bill B.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Personally, Conference was a bit of a disappointment to me this year because my wife couldn't be with me. She helps keep me grounded and to keep perspective, and, to be honest, she's a heckuva lot prettier than John Wilson and Joel Garrett.

Other than that, Conference was OK. I've been to worse; I've been to better. Bishop Bickerton's initial Conference with us was probably my was just so optimistic and positive. This year's had some definite highlights, and it's always good to reconnect with colleagues in Christ. It could have been a lot worse!

I hear what you're saying about the age issue. At 36, I still felt older at times!