Eight years ago, I experienced my first election to General and Jurisdictional Conference in Arkansas. As a probationary Elder, I did not have a vote. Since my opinion did not count, I was not privy to the politics taking place behind the scene. No one had sent me an email or letter. No one had called to influence my vote. If I remember correctly, there were no elections on the first few ballots. Speeches were made to be inclusive as we began electing white male Elders as our delegates.
On one particular excursion around the arena, I could overhear a group talking even though the rounded configuration meant I could not see them yet. Neither could they see me. A loud voice exclaimed that he thought he would have to put on a skirt to get those last votes to be elected. Another voice warned him that he should be careful saying things like that. His response was there wasn't any of "them" around. He said that just as I came into view. Of course, I was a nobody so it really didn't matter to anyone gathered there that what had just been witnessed was inappropriate. And if that is where the story ended, this would have long been forgotten.
A few minutes later, the same man was sympathizing with another lay delegate over the pressure to be "inclusive". Fifteen minutes later, he was standing before the conference with many pastors who were fighting for diversity holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome." It was a bit confusing for someone in ministry less than five years.
As a woman who has spent most of her career(s) in male-oriented professions, I do understand the longing to have a place at the table and how foreign that appeared to those who have been at the table for years. Inclusivity was initially met with hostility, then skepticism that evolved into indifference. Inevitably, someone discovered it could be exploited for political gain. Experiencing this in the church has always bothered me. Until this year, I had stopped attending national conferences because reverence, even in worship, seemed to be secondary to other agendas. This spring, I attended three conferences that gave me hope - two were United Methodist and one was with the Lilly Foundation. A different model was at work - it was a model of coaching and mentoring, encouragement, and accountability. The only agenda in place was the making of disciples.
In April, I was invited to a conference called "Lead Women Pastors in Large Membership Churches." Currently there are 1200 United Methodist churches with memberships over 1000. Only 93 of those churches are pastored by women and many of those are serving with their spouse as a clergy couple. For the last three years, the Board of Discipleship has researched the leadership styles of those women in the United Methodist Church that have managed to successfully push against the envisioned "glass ceiling" of the local church. About forty women were present for this particular conference. Many had been leading large membership churches for years. A few had experienced difficulties and were exploring other options. They were an incredible collection of women from various parts of the country, various ethnic groups, and various ages.
The amazing thing was there was not one word of entitlement, discrimination, or political agendas spoken there. Instead, we listened to how women lead differently, where deficiencies had been discovered, and how we could help mentor the younger and less experienced but gifted women in our conference to prepare them to one day take lead roles. Many of the women had experienced difficulties because they were not prepared when they were given a place at the table. Yes, some of this had to do with the fact the women had not been mentored in the same fashion as some of their male counterparts but that is something we can change. No one was acting victimized there. It was a "let's roll up our sleeves and get to work so that the generations of women behind us will be ready because they will get the opportunities not granted women even ten years ago” type of meeting. The Conference was enlightening and inspiring. It was empowering and uplifting.
Needless to say, going into Annual Conference I was so hopeful regarding our own gathering of both the Conference and clergy. Although I had my own questions regarding the main agenda item, Imagine Ministry, I was inspired by the honest discussion and genuine connection displayed on the Conference floor. Our leaders had called for deep change and it was happening. Trust was building, people were engaged even in our differences, consensus was building, accountability was happening, and we were fully focused on one result - making disciples of Jesus Christ. Patrick Lencioni could not have told a better tale. It was a new day with a new narrative.
Would deep change occur as we voted for delegates to General Conference? Unfortunately, it was the old narrative being repeated without any seeming conviction of deep change needed. Colleagues were labeled by gender, color, and assumed theology. Agendas were set. Deals were brokered. We were told how we should vote and all too often, it was by gender, race, and theology. The clergywomen's luncheon was not the uplifting experience the national conference had been. These women deserved better. There was no talk of mentoring the next generation or striving to make certain those in leadership positions were prepared to lead all people striving to make disciples. I felt like a child being told what a potty was years after I had been out of diapers.
Now I realize this is the way things have always been done and for many who have grown up with this system, it is simply part of the process but for those of us with different life experiences and who have seen a better way, it is a huge disappointment. Perhaps rather than promoting a position from the standpoint of diversity, we need to be mentoring each other and mentoring the next generation of leaders. For me, the politics of demanding a seat at the table simply because I am a woman no longer rings true. We have a place at the table and will continue to have a place at the table - not because we are entitled but because we have leaders among us that have a greater vision of all the church can be and was created to be.
There will come a time when color and gender no longer matters. There will come a time when the process is more known for its spiritual discernment and less about politics. There will come a day where our children can look at us and see authenticity in our conduct as disciples of Jesus Christ. It is my dream but as I have been privileged to see, it also the dream of so many others.