The Commission on a Way Forward held its first meeting in Atlanta, Georgia January 23-26, 2017, with 32 members from nine countries in attendance.
Led by commission moderators Bishop David Yemba, Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball and Bishop Ken Carter, members worked and worshipped together and began the foundational work integral to their charge of developing consensus about how to move forward amid different theological understandings of LGBTQ identity.
“We need to diagnose what is happening in our churches, in our denomination and in our world,” said Bishop Ken Carter. “We sometimes pre-arrive at a diagnosis. Let us be careful and deliberate and thoughtful and take the time we need to diagnose what is going on in our church.” The moderators are not members of the Commission, but help to facilitate the conversation.
Presentations from Dawn Wiggins Hare, General Secretary of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, and Erin Hawkins, General Secretary of the General Commission on Religion and Race, focused on gender, race and culture and provided some principles for self-monitoring and laid the groundwork for the group to agree on behavioral norms and build a covenant for their work together.
A significant portion of the four-day meeting was spent in small group discussions, with the aim of building relationships and establishing a foundation of trust and understanding among members. Larger group discussion followed.
“Our work is conciliar work, which means we are going to have to focus on things together,” said Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball. “We are here to build trust and community.”
“Out of shared experience comes trust,” said Bishop Carter. “There is simply no trust without shared experience … We hope to build trust within this group.”
Conversations ranged from reflection on challenges, hopes and concerns to the current state of what’s happening in the church to the meaning of unity to practical questions about how the Commission will go about its work and the processes and strategies that will be used to structure that work and meet the target dates.
Reading assignments and learning are a part of how the Commission is approaching its task. Gil Rendle, senior vice-president (retired) of The Texas Methodist Foundation and coach to the Commission’s moderators, led a learning session focused on his monograph, Knowing How to Read the Signs.
“If you are going to rebuild a system, you have to work with the end in mind. You have to know what you are trying to produce before you decide what you put into it,” said Rendle. “The only way for you to move forward is to become very clear about intended outcomes.”
The session aimed to help the Commission become clear about the difficulty of their work and an understanding that different tasks and behaviors will be required in order to get different results.
“This work is unique among the efforts of the church because it has to consider the perspectives of all constituencies,” said Rendle. “But there seems to be hopefulness despite the difficulty and complexity of the task.”
A second learning session on day two focused on The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute, which explores the heart of resolving conflict.
“The Anatomy of Peace invites us to reflect on how we can be part of positive change,” said Bishop Steiner Ball. “As we look at a way forward, what does it take to be an agent of change? The overall concept is a heart of war and heart of peace. A heart of peace sees others as people. A heart of war sees others as objects.”
Bishop Carter characterized the Commission’s work as adaptive work, rather than technical work. “Adaptive work is simply how we incorporate our values in a changing and challenging environment. We do not do this work in a stable environment. Just by virtue of the church having two general conferences within a two- or three-year period, we know that will have an effect on the church and the reality of the environment we face.”
Some initial proposed outcomes were developed, along with a list of learning objectives and information needed to help the Commission accomplish its desired outcomes. The membership also worked to identify voices and constituencies to be directly engaged in conversation in this endeavor.
Six work groups were formed to begin doing “homework” – engaging in dialogue, interviewing experts and gathering resources to meet these informational needs. The work groups have begun to identify their next steps. Additionally, the commission discussed next steps for understanding the history and theology of the United Methodist understanding of connection/conference/unity/identity.
The work groups include: learning about the experiences of other denominations; looking at the polity and strategy for effective use of the 2019 special session; understanding the experiences of LGBTQ persons; understanding the current denominational situation; understanding what Central Conferences want from a new form of connectionalism; and understanding the power dynamics inherent in the construction of the Commission itself.
“I think the spirit within the meeting has been good,” said Bishop David Yemba. “The subject is very difficult, but I think there is clear willingness of each member to participate and so far there is active participation of each member and this is encouraging. In my observation, there is collaboration within the small groups, and they are changing instead of always having the same groups.”
The next meeting of the Commission will be February 27-March 2 in Atlanta, Ga. For more information on the Commission on a Way Forward, visit umc.org/wayforward.
The 32-member Commission on a Way Forward was appointed by the Council of Bishops to assist the bishops in their charge from the 2016 General Conference to lead the church forward amid the present impasse related to human sexuality and resulting questions about the unity of the church.