Bishop Fairley reflects on Annual Conference 2019

July 12, 2019
By Alan Wild
The recently concluded Annual Conference, held in Covington, Kentucky, saw the election of clergy and lay delegates for the 2020 General Conference, set for next May in Minneapolis. A petition and resolution concerning the church’s position on LGBTQ policy also were heard.

It meant hard votes and hard conversations, but it also was a time for spiritual and heartfelt worship for the clergy and lay delegates from the Kentucky Annual Conference.

Bishop Leonard Fairley recently sat down for a question-and-answer interview with Alan Wild, a member of the Kentucky Annual Conference staff. Here are excerpts from their dialogue:

Q: Just in general, what were your thoughts on how Annual Conference went?

A: I’ll begin with what was a joy for me at Annual Conference. What was a joy for me was the worship and of course, watching people re-engage with people they had not seen in a year. So, I would begin with that joy, just that sense of worship. Because I think all the work we do at Annual Conference should be about worshipful work. And so, my prayer at Annual Conference has always been that the worship would sort of set the tone of what we’re going to be doing and the holy conferencing that we’re going to have, so that was a joy of mine.

And I speak that joy because I also have to speak these words: I sense a heaviness, particularly because of this issue of human sexuality. I do sense a heaviness around that. And trying to be the shepherd of the people through that becomes more and more difficult, just trying to shepherd the people through and trying to be a neutral voice, gather people through it as a shepherd would. Maybe it was because we were electing delegates, maybe it had to do with the two petitions that came before us. I appreciate the spirit with which people talked about it, but it still did not remove the pain.

I thought we took a good step in creating the space for it to be talked about. But I still got that sense of fear from some people: being fearful to talk, being fearful to share, and I think for me, that was a pall. But we got through it, and I appreciate the spirit with which the people did it. So I have to say that was still difficult. I had to constantly pray to keep myself at an even temperament in leading the people through it.

Q: You sort of anticipated my follow-up questions there. I was going to ask what your favorite moments were and also what your hardest moments were.

A: Those were the hardest moments. My other favorite moments have always been like the Church Beyond: An Afternoon of Service. I really enjoy going to Ida Spence United Methodist Mission. I went there and re-engaged with the young man I met last year who was an artist, and just engaging with him and the children. That’s a part of this Annual Conference that I really love, being a part of Church Beyond.

I really enjoyed being with the retirees at dinner, or lunch – I forget which it was; it was like I was on roller skates all the time (laughing). But I really enjoyed being in their presence. And the youth lunch that we had. I always enjoy being with them. They ask amazing questions. I always enjoy that.

So if I stop and think about it, I really think the joys did outweigh the difficult moments. But the difficult moments were difficult. But the good outweighed all of that.

Q: What do you think our biggest strength is as an Annual Conference and also as a church? Especially in the context of the meeting just concluded, and especially in the context of the continuing human sexuality debate.

A: I think our biggest strength is this, and I’ve shared this with our leadership: The biggest thing we have going for us is that local churches are still about doing ministries. When I look at our local churches, some of the work I see on Facebook, Vacation Bible Schools are still going on, and as many know, VBS is important even to my journey and how I got here. So VBSs are still going on, the local churches are still doing mission, and so just watching the local churches continue to work and to serve people.

On Mission Night, just seeing Corey (Rev. Corey Nelson) there … seeing Corey in a suit! That was a highlight for me because I had on jeans and a T-shirt, and he was the one who was dressed up! And he let me know how he felt that Annual Conference was an important moment for him to share what they’re doing out at Grace Kids: A Church for Children. So that was a highlight of mine, just to see his eyes dance with the fact that the Annual Conference has decided to help support the church. Because those kids, they have no money to give. And the people at Encounter Missions (in Paintsville, in Eastern Kentucky), they have no money to give. All they have is to bring themselves and their woundedness and their needs.

I think it’s people like that who help us to understand what the church is really all about. And so as long as churches are serving people on the margins, we get a glimpse of what Christ has called us to be and do. And I see it all across our Annual Conference, and that’s why I think it’s important for me, it’s life-giving for me, to be out among the churches, at the camps, because I see a different story than what I saw even when I went to General Conference. I see a different story from what I see when we’re wrestling with delegates we’re electing to represent Kentucky. I see a different thing when I’m out among the congregations, when I’m out at our camps, when I’m out at our retirement centers, when I’m out at Wesley Foundations. I see a different story, and that story is the one that keeps me going. It’s that ministry will be done. People will hear the good news of the Gospel. In spite of the darkness and the turmoil that seems to be pervading in the institution.

So I think I’ve learned how to separate those moments in the Annual Conference, what we were doing in mission and ministry, those were the highlights for me. Because it gives me hope that somebody’s going to continue to do the ministry, regardless of what the General Conference decides, regardless of what resolutions or petitions come before it. Because in my journey as a Christian and before I became a Christian, I understood that for one, people can’t eat resolutions. Resolutions don’t save anybody. Petitions don’t share the goodness of the grace of God.  That’s the human contact and human relationships. And so, that gives me hope. And I’ve needed that.

Q: Are we in Kentucky in a better position than other conferences in the way we approach hard matters? We’ve seen some stories about the turmoil that’s going on in some other conferences.

A: Let me see how I can feel comfortable answering this. I think that where leadership has placed itself in the midst of the conflict, where we have become the lightning rod, we have become the story, is a major mistake. I don’t want this issue about human sexuality or anything else to become a story about me. And that could easily happen if I insert myself. And I know lots of people probably get upset with me because I haven’t come out and said I’m for this or that side. This is who I am as a person. I am not a militant person. I’m not going to come out rah-rah for the WCA (Wesley Covenant Association, a traditionalist organization), I’m not going to come out rah-rah for progressives.

And I know that bothers some people. But I also believe that as a shepherd of Kentucky, eventually when all of this gets through, somebody’s going to have to be there to pick up the pieces. And if I have aligned myself with one or either group, I’ve lost the ability to help pick up the pieces. Now, is it important that we have voices that speak out on both sides? That’s important. I have deliberately decided, whether right or wrong, to be one of those persons who would help pick up the pieces.

So when I look at Kentucky, I hope I’ve guided it in a way that we can talk about these issue. It’s why I removed myself and allowed God to speak. I do this every time I preach; I say, “Lord, remove me from this and you be at the forefront.” So I hope that my leadership in Kentucky in that way has helped us.

Now, do I get disappointed and frustrated? I looked at the election and I could see what was happening. And I would say more than one time: “Now, you need to make sure that your delegation looks like Kentucky.” And so, just trying to guide the people through that … I’m not a big fan of using worshipful work as a political tool. Now, did that happen? I’m sure it did. I’m sure that people on both sides had a list when we were electing delegates. I’m sure of that. And so, I’m not a big fan of that. I know that it happens. I know that human beings, we’re political animals. But I try to infuse as much of the spiritual presence and calming presence of Jesus Christ as I can.

And so when I looked at our Annual Conference and we got to that place where we were going to spill over into something similar to what happened at General Conference (held in February in St. Louis to consider the church’s stance on human sexuality), and I called the conference back to how we were going to do this, I think that’s one of the things that Kentucky has going for it, is that they will listen, and they will try to respect the way in which we’re going to try and do things. And that’s not always an easy thing to do.

You talk about what other conferences have done. I’ve watched that, where some conferences have just totally flipped the delegation. I’ve seen that. And what breaks my heart about that is that we’re simply sharpening our tools for General Conference 2020. And so we go to this 2020 and you flip the delegation, and then that side comes out on top, and then you come back and the other side begins to resharpen its tools, And then you go back to the 2024 General Conference and you just keep turning this thing over. And the tactics people have used to do that, it grieves me.

Now, I’m not saying which side is right or wrong. I hope everybody understands that. I think we’re at a point where God is actually trying to birth something new. And birth is not always easy. It comes with its pains. It comes with its uncertainty. It comes with non-answers. But you have to be willing to rest in the mystery. You have to be willing to say, “I don’t know what this is going to look like.” Because nobody had any idea how God was going to redeem the creation in the beginning.

Our theme this year was Holy Imagination, because it was out of God’s imagination. And I think we’re forgetting that a big chunk of getting through this is being willing to imagine something different. As Christian people, and as people in general, we’ve lost that ability to imagine. And sometimes it takes a death for that part of us to be reignited. I think we’re experiencing a death. But we also know resurrection.

Do I know what it’s going to look like? No. I think it’s a mistake to try to control what that’s going to look like. We say we have faith in God, and then we turn around and try to control. Both groups say we have faith in God: We have faith in God’s justice, we have faith in God’s love, we have faith in God’s peace. Those are the things that come to mind when I think about it. Now people can agree with me or not; that’s fine. But I do think that we get a glimpse of what the Kingdom really looks like when we’re out in these communities. We’re not going to legislate our way through this. It’s not going to happen.

Q: What kind of messaging are we going to do as a conference after our Annual Conference, and keeping in mind that we have another very critical General Conference coming up next year?

A: You know, I’ve thought about that too, because I think people have noticed that I’m not releasing very many statements here lately. And to be truthful, I’m tired of writing statements. Now I’ve thought about this and I will write something, but I need to get away for a little bit.

I hope that our delegation, because of the critical nature of this, would spend time out in the Annual Conference. I would hope that they’ll set up meetings across our Annual Conference where people actually meet with the delegation. I think that we will continue to engage our Conference scenario-planning team around prayer and around messaging. I will meet with that team pretty shortly here to begin to deal with things like messaging.

The other thing I notice about this is that in electing delegates, and I’m assuming that happens at every Annual Conference, we keep reinflicting pain. If there are Annual Conferences out there that flipped the delegation, and they’re cheering about that, that inflicts pain. And that’s if you flipped it either way: if you were progressive and flipped to traditional, if you were traditional and flipped to progressive, and you’re going, “Rah-rah, we won.” That’s inflicting pain.

One of the things I’ve had to do, part of my role I think, is try to engage with people one on one, people who feel like they’ve been hurt. To encourage those people to engage with the people they feel like have hurt them. Or to talk about it; it’s one of the big things I’ve tried to do since I’ve been at Kentucky. It’s a part of the accountability piece for all of us is to be willing to step up and share where we’ve felt pain. And I think that people are beginning to get it. I just met with a group of our leaders, and of course I’ve been on the phone with people.

I think the way to get through conflict is not to run from it, you engage it. And conflict is a relational thing. And so, if you don’t deal with the conflict relationally, the conflict will stay there, and it will just eat away like a cancer. And so just the sense of people taking personal responsibility to talk to each other is going to be key. And when I say talk to each other, I mean talk to each other across the spectrum. Don’t just talk to people who believe like you believe. It’s just like I feel that all Christians’ friends shouldn’t just be Christian. Because if all your friends are Christian, then who are we evangelizing?  Sometimes I fear the conflict causes you to freeze and not to talk to people from different perspectives.

The other thing that I think the conflict does is it causes you to assume. And of course, we know what assumptions do. And once we take sides, we assume the worst. We tend to go on assuming the worst of another person: “Well, this person doesn’t agree with me, so I’m going to assume the worst about this person.”

So those are the things that I’ve been thinking about and praying about, which is part of the reason I didn’t want to have this interview right after Annual Conference, is I needed some time to think and reflect and to pray. Because again, I’m the shepherd of the flock. And if the shepherd of the flock is not at a place of peace, it’s not hard to imagine where the rest of the flock is going to be. That’s why I have chosen not to take sides. That’s been deliberate. I know some people have said, “Well come on, why don’t you join us? Why don’t you join our side?”

Q: I’m guessing you hear that from both sides?

A: Oh yeah. Both sides. And really, it’s tougher to stand in that place. It’s a toughness that people don’t quite understand because people will say, well, you’re a weak leader, you don’t stand for anything. They’ll say that to you. It’s a tougher place to stand, but it’s a place that’s necessary.

Q: It seems like some of our most gifted pastors, at their level, are doing the very same thing you are. They have their own beliefs and positions, but they recognize that they need to represent everyone, and ultimately represent the Kingdom.

A: Exactly. So, that’s a harder place to stand. Now, some of my colleagues have chosen differently. That’s the reason I say it’s a hard place to stand. But some of my colleagues have chosen different.

Q: Again, both sides, right?

A: Both sides, yes. You’ve seen it on both sides. I’ve never attended a WCA meeting. I didn’t go to UMC Next (a progressive organization). I guess I’ve never been invited (laughing). So I guess people have gotten the message.

Q: What haven’t we touched on that you’d like to address?

A: I hope this is the message that gets across to all of our pastors and all of our leaders. We don’t have an option about inviting people to our churches. And that means everybody. We invite them there, we share the good news of the Gospel, and we let the Holy Spirit do the transforming. And so I want to make sure that our clergy understand: They are not to shut the door on anybody from coming to church, regardless of gender, sex, age, race, sexual orientation. All of us need the church. And once that story is shared, we let the Spirit convict and transform that person. I don’t have any power to transform anybody. All I can do is share the story and trust God to do the transforming.

So I don’t want any of our churches excluding anyone.  Everybody is welcome at our table, and that’s because at that table we find grace, we find mercy, we find forgiveness. On the other side of that is pardon and joy and life. And who are we to keep anybody from experiencing life? That’s a message I want all of use to hear coming out of Annual Conference: Just because we’re battling with this issue, you’re not to close the door on anybody. I want to say that as strongly as I can.

Q: Do you think people got that message coming out of Annual Conference?

A: I think they did. I think they got it. If you paid attention. And again, not to dwell on what happened at Annual Conference, but I think sometimes we have a hard time paying attention to the Spirit. And that’s what we really need to be paying attention to when we’re in space like that, or when we’re doing what we used to term all the time “holy conferencing.” If you’re doing holy conferencing, that means they have to pay attention to Something Other, because holy is Something Other, something sacred. You are there to pay attention and to listen to what God might say.

And so I hope that people, when they go to Annual Conference, experience the same thing as then they go to church: Are they listening for what God might say? I hope everybody left Annual Conference with that, but I’ve always enjoyed gathering with people, to watch their eyes shine as they meet brothers and sisters they’ve not seen in a while.
And so like I’ve said before, I’ve had to step back and count the blessings, while acknowledging the pain. Acknowledging the difficulty. But if I stay there, I’m not going to make it. If I stay in that place, I won’t make it. I have to always be walking toward the light. Darkness is necessary, but darkness points you to light. If I stay in the dark, I’ll never get to the light.So I have to pray and watch myself, too.