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General Secretary's Report at the Spring 2011 Meeting PDF Print E-mail

 

Would it not be out of character for the people called United Methodists to remain unrepentant or worse, feign their repentance?
We must systematically and substantively plumb the depths of these and related topics.
 

 

Report of the General Secretary to the Board of Directors

of the

General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns

of

The United Methodist Church

By the Rev. Dr. Stephen J. Sidorak, Jr.

 

March 31, 2011

 

Claremont United Methodist Church

Claremont School of Theology

Claremont, California

 

 "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope." 

(Jeremiah 29:11, NRSV) 

 

INTRODUCTION

     William Sloane Coffin once told the story of a woman who goes to see her psychiatrist because she is suffering from a severe case of indecision.  You see, she is torn between two men, both of whom want her hand in marriage, but she cannot make up her mind about which is the right one for her.  So, the psychiatrist says to her:  "Tell me more about them."  "Well," she says, "the one guy is laid-back, fun-loving and great company-the kind of person who would be perfectly delightful to spend the rest of your days with.  The other fellow," she continues, "is up-front, no-nonsense and very reliable-the kind of person who would be as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar in a crisis."  After a very long pause, the psychiatrist asks her:  "So, how many times in your life do you plan to be in a crisis?"

     Hold on to that thought.  I will revisit its relevance to this report at the end of it.  Just ask yourself the question over and over again as I proceed.  "How many times in your life do you plan to be in a crisis?"  Let it sink into your psyches as I proceed apace.

GEARING UP FOR THE 2012 GENERAL CONFERENCE

     I sometimes mention to certain people in high places that I have never attended a General Conference of The United Methodist Church.  After their initial shock and alarmed dismay wears off, they usually reply with something inscrutable like:  "Oh?" (with a question mark) or "Oh!" (with an exclamation point).  In either instance, I get the feeling that they regard this to be a glaring deficiency on my CV. Some of the leaders of our church have immediately attempted to instill the fear of God in me.  "Do you not know what can happen to you and your agency there?  How will you ever be adequately prepared for the goings-on in such a setting fraught with peril for the naive or ignorant?  Other leaders of our church have suggested:  "It is just another meeting and, besides, you cannot control what a General Conference will do-or do to you."  Well, I step back and take it all in.  No, I do not want to be seen as completely unprepared and lacking in advocacy skills on behalf of GCCUIC and things ecumenical and interreligious.  Yes, I do want to be seen as organizationally sophisticated and as utterly Machiavellian as the next GS or veteran general conference attendee.  Then, I remember The Beatles:  "I get by with a little help from my friends."  My friends will include many a bishop, many clergy and many laity, I have known for decades.  They will include friends I have found the last couple plus years among the current and former members of the GCCUIC Board of Directors, especially those elected as general conference delegates and others we may bring in to be on site.  It will also include a newfound friend, the Rev. Dr. Ezra Earl Jones, noted author and long-time General Secretary of the General Board of Discipleship now comfortably retired, who I am happy to report, has graciously agreed to accompany me on the journey toward the 2012 General Conference and stand by my side during its sessions in Florida.  I hasten to offer thanksgiving to Bishop Rader for putting the two of us in touch with one another.  Ezra Earl will be an outstanding resource for GCCUIC and I am most grateful for him for taking me on and being my "coach."  "Yes I('ll) get by with a little help from my friends, With a little help from my friends."

     I am certain I will serve GCCUIC to the best of my ability, continue to strive to be a "self-differentiated" leader and maintain, insofar as is humanly possible, the discipline of being "a non-anxious presence" as the 2012 General Conference nears.  I will do my homework, ask the same of the executive staff and work with others, more knowledgeable and seasoned than me, such as Ezra Earl, to equip this board of directors by immersing it in the intricacies of the proceedings of a General Conference.  We will position GCCUIC to be a key player in the ecclesiastical drama as it unfolds in the Convention Center in Tampa.

     We began gearing up for the 2012 General Conference around July 2, 2008-the day after I started on the job.  We gear up even more here and now.  But our gearing up gets ramped up upon adjournment of this board meeting.  Our next board meeting in September in Chicago will be dedicated to the orchestration of GCCUIC's presence and influence at General Conference, particularly around the conceptualization of our legislative strategy.  I remain open to your advice as we move forward.     

"HEALING RELATIONSHIPS WITH INDIGENOUS PERSONS"

     As I have crisscrossed the connection hosting listening sessions on the 2012 General Conference Act of Repentance,  I have been taken aback repeatedly by indigenous people who opened up to me in unexpectedly, surprisingly, honest ways.  I would always wonder-would I ever be that open with a complete stranger?  Such has been one of the genuine blessings of my job-to itinerate among native peoples. 

     The basic lesson I have learned as I have made my rounds can be summarized in the words of an old friend of mine, now of blessed memory.  "The truth will make you free, but first it makes you miserable."  It may be that this is the beginning of repentance-to be made miserable by the truth.  At least that has been the case with me.  In effect, unable to face the truth, we tend to grant ourselves the privilege of amnesia.  We see no need to "re-member" native peoples.  Often this unforgivable forgetting takes the form of "national amnesia," as Martha Minow termed it her book Between Vengeance and Forgiveness.  I suspect it can take on the form of institutional amnesia, too.  Even churches can refuse to "re-member" native peoples.

     Let me now invite you to be of assistance to our Ad Hoc Task Force on the 2012 General Conference Act of Repentance.  I implore you to ask yourselves how you can be helpful to it.  I will make some suggestions.

  • Help us contemplate what Aristotle thought the art of philosophy consisted in, namely, "drawing distinctions."
  • Help us draw a distinction between the culpability of the U.S. government in general, versus that of Methodists in particular, and to recognize when such culpability was patently inseparable.
  • Help us draw a distinction between "apologizing" and "repenting"-and to be cognizant of the difference between the two.
  • Help us ascertain how we move from a sincere individual inclination to offer an apology to the formal intention to conduct a corporate "act of repentance."
  • Help us determine to whom we ought properly to apologize and exactly for what.
  • Help us take the appropriate steps towards repentance.
  • Help us frame a contrite request for forgiveness for a designated audience of indigenous peoples.
  • Help us to grasp why it is that some native peoples may accept an apology and others may not and what, if anything, to do about it.
  • Help us decide what must be done, if anything, should there be an obviously widespread unwillingness to accept any apology.
  • Help us consider what is required for reconciliation to occur and what to do, if anything, should alienation persist.
  • Help us respond to the inevitable White or other "resistance and backlash." (Melissa Nobles)
  • Help us discuss candidly the idea of restitution, ponder its implications and assess realistically its costs, financial and otherwise.  As Melissa Nobles maintained in her book, The Politics of Official Apologies:  "The passage of time makes the rectification of most claimed injustices difficult, if not impossible.  Without the possibility of direct remedy, might an apology be regarded as empty rhetorical gesture, without much impact?"  How do we address the necessity for redress?
  • Help us judge whether or not we have "turned around" and by what criteria we will measure this.
  • Help us deal with any accusation that our repentance seems hollow, that it does not ring true, or that it is simply the manifestation of what Roy L. Brooks, in his book When Sorry Isn't Enough, described as ""contrition chic," or "the canonization of sentimentality."
  • Help us remember that a ""failed" or pseudo-apolog(y)...(does) more harm than good," that "an apology that fails is potentially more destructive than no apology at all," in the words of Aaron Lazare from his book, On Apology
  • Help us ready ourselves to be forgiven, if forgiveness is offered.
  • Help us envision what a meaningful and faithful "act of repentance" might look like and imagine what "the words of assurance" regarding forgiveness might sound like.
  • Help us reconcile The United Methodist Church to its membership among indigenous peoples.
  • Help us dream dreams for the next quadrennium in order that the 2012 Act of Repentance bears much fruit, even unto the seventh generation.

     Would it not be out of character for the people called United Methodists to remain unrepentant or worse, feign their repentance?

     We must systematically and substantively plumb the depths of these and related topics.  Each one of you can be helpful to our AOR Ad Hoc Task Force as it tries to help The United Methodist Church honor its declared intent to help in the "healing (of) relationships with indigenous persons."

     Please, talk about this among yourselves and share your thoughts and feelings with the members of the AOR Ad Hoc Task Force before you leave this place, especially after the AOR update tomorrow morning.  Let us use this time in Claremont to conduct another listening session among ourselves.  In short, help us

YOUR EXECUTIVE STAFF

     With the filling of the full roster of four executive staff in September of last year, we began a comprehensive accounting of the portfolios for which each of the executive staff is responsible. Every task in the respective portfolios was quantified in terms of required personnel hours and the funds necessary to bring it to satisfactory completion.   At the same time, task responsibilities were organized into comprehensive portfolios for each executive staff person, arranged according to the professional qualifications, duties of office, and board approved job descriptions.  What became clear as we carefully analyzed the four portfolios was that the multiple tasks amounted to the workload of between two and three full-time equivalent positions for each executive staff person.  You heard me correctly-"between two and three full-time equivalent positions for each executive staff person."  In an effort to ensure the quality of our work and maintain appropriate levels of individual effectiveness, portfolios were further organized and prioritized in relation to GCCUIC's own "high level (agency) goals."  This is still a work in progress with many hard choices yet to be made.  The analysis undertaken on the four portfolios led ineluctably to the development of an extremely well-organized and tightly logical work plan for your executive staff to carry out the ecumenical, interreligious and denominational ministries of GCCUIC.  I am very grateful to Glen Messer for devising the instrument for this study of the executive staff portfolios and for walking us, along with Kathryn Williams our HR Director, through a process that promises to benefit GCCUIC enormously, improve the overall performance of each executive staff person and mightily contribute to our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health-individually and collectively.      

     Speaking of spiritual health, Henri Nouwen characterized the workaholic nature of church leadership by noting:  "Being busy has become a status symbol."  Before we conducted this self-study, I knew something was awry in my own inability to have a life apart from my work as your GS.  I was "being busy," to be sure.  Never did I sense it as any sort of "status symbol" nor did I revel in it inappropriately.  I was just too darned tired of being so darned busy all the darned time.  I merely sought some merciful surcease from what seemed to be a 24/7 job.  Nevertheless, I refer not only to my "self-care," but to the "other" care for each executive staff person I believe I have in virtue of the office I hold.  I construe my own portfolio to include a solicitous concern for those with whom I most closely work.   Bluntly, this portfolio self and group analysis revealed how ridiculous and unrealistic the demands are on the four of us.

     The portfolio exercise quickly indicated our need to involve more "volunteers," beyond the 82 United Methodists volunteers already involved.  Current and former members of this board of directors will need to become much more involved as ecumenical or interreligious representatives of The United Methodist Church to various conciliar bodies and interreligious organizations in the future.  We will need you get many things GCCUIC done.  You might just sit down and take an inventory of your own voluntarism availability.  Perhaps you are in a time and place in your life, and have acquired the requisite expertise and experience, to step up to the challenge of greater ecumenical and interreligious involvement.  

     Executive staff will turn its attention to this neglected, important dimension of our common life and work in the very near future.  It is imperative for us to call upon many others to do more of the work presently expected solely of GCCUIC executive staff.  You may be hearing from us!  As Saint Augustine discerned,   "God has work to do with us that will not be done without us."

 

THANK YOU "NOTES"

     I must express my deep appreciation to many people for the good work, and hard work, they do for GCCUIC, and for the cooperative spirit they evince in doing it.  To Bishop Swenson, our President, thank you very much for your strong leadership of this board of directors and your ready accessibility, wise counsel and steady support of my ministry as GS.  To Bishop Rader, Ecumenical Officer of the Council of Bishops, thank you very much for the team effort approach you take with GCCUIC and me and the way in which you model a consultative style and collaborative commitment that has served our church so well.  To the chairs, co-chairs or vice-chairs of all of our structural units and all of the members of each of these, thank you very much for the leadership you provide, the initiative you take and the results you show.  To the support staff of GCCUIC, Connie, Olga and Jeanette, thank you very much to each of you for the professional way in which you carry out the countless duties that land on your respective desks, for the congenial manner you demonstrate in taking care of the office business of GCCUIC and for the "radical hospitality" you offer to everyone who passes through the doors of Suite 300 at 475.  To our two contractors, Bishop Fritz Mutti and Ms. Ginny Underwood, thank you very much for your exceptional dedication to specific GCCUIC functions as an extension of our common endeavors.  To the executive staff of GCCUIC, Betty, Glen and Kathryn, thank you very much for your devotion to the vision and mission of GCCUIC, your collegial competence, selfless style and sacrificial service, the confidence in my leadership you display in ways large and small and your patience and understanding of all my weaknesses and shortcomings too numerous to count.  I remind you of the book Leadership Is an Art and the insight contained therein of Max De Pree, "leadership is a condition of indebtedness."  To all of you at GCCUIC, board and staff alike, I not only acknowledge my indebtedness, I also realize I can never begin to repay it.

CRISIS

     "So, how many times in your life do you plan to be in a crisis?"  Good question.  A loaded one, too.  There is no question crises occur.  No one expects to live life free of them.  We hope to escape as many of them as possible.  Eventually, however, we can find ourselves in a crisis.  All signs are that The United Methodist Church is in the midst of crisis now.  We did not plan on it, yet it has arrived.  The current crisis was precipitated primarily by the economic downturn in the fourth quarter of 2008.  The ongoing economic uncertainty and difficulties of financial forecasting do not leave most United Methodists sanguine about the prospects of coming out of this crisis any time soon.

      But the current crisis was a long time in the making and it was not due to strictly fiscal constraints at the outset.   Partly, it was a design problem.  Ezra Earl Jones quipped in his book Quest for Quality in the Church, quoting a friend of his:  "The system is designed for the results it is getting.  If you want different results, you will have to redesign the system."  Too many shy away from going too far in their critique of a crisis and shrink from prescribing a potential exit from it.  So, in denominational circles, I have heard, time and again, words to this effect:  "Not to worry, The United Methodist Church has been threatening to change for over forty years!"  Of course, the implication of that statement is that we really have no worries, that this crisis too shall pass, that we should not take it very seriously and thus there is no reason to change.

     But I believe in the contemporary proverb:  "One should never let a crisis go to waste."  In fact, that is why I raised the issue about the possible restructuring of GCCUIC in the first place.  It was always my intent to broach this subject, although not until I had more firmly established myself in office, more convincingly demonstrated my loyalty to GCCUIC and more diligently earned the trust of each one of you.  Then, the foundations started to shake.  Time did not permit me to attend fully to these matters in the way I would have preferred.  The buzzword of change was heard at virtually every meeting I attended at the level of the general church and it began to ring in my ears and the ears of my counterparts at the General Secretaries Table.  The word of warning that went out is you better change-or die.  Indeed, it was that dire.  It was in this rarefied atmosphere of denominational crisis that I decided the better part of wisdom was to pursue a proposal for change.  I felt as if a kairos moment was upon us.  It was not for me to deny it, but to seize it.

     In their book, Leadership on the Line:  Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky write:  "The hope of leadership lies in the capacity to deliver disturbing news and raise difficult questions in a way that people can absorb, prodding them to take up the message rather than ignore it or kill the messenger."  You may want to kill the messenger, but please do not ignore the message.  I will continue "prodding" you to take up "the adaptive challenge" to change.  The wisest way to go about this is by "giving the work back to the people who need to take responsibility," as Heifetz and Linsky claimed.  Therefore, the work is now back on you. 

POSSIBLE GCCUIC RESTRUCTURING

     Let me offer one more word about the possible restructuring of GCCUIC.  We must legislate for the continued existence of this general agency charged with Christian unity and interreligious concerns and, should this board choose, legislate also for Christian unity and interreligious concerns to be expressed in an entirely new way in and through the Council of Bishops.  At this critical juncture, we can ill-afford to undergo what Rabbi Edwin H. Friedman diagnosed as "a failure of nerve" on the part of leadership, especially the leadership that comprises this board of directors.  We have to think these things through together.  Therefore, let us sleep on all the weighty legislative work of this day.  On the morrow, when we take action on legislation, let us be ever mindful of the memorable words of the Message from the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order at Santiago de Compostela:  "A test of our koinonia is how we live with those with whom we disagree." 

CONCLUSION

     I return to the theme of our meeting taken from Jeremiah 29:11.  "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope."  I am anything but a biblical scholar and will undoubtedly prove that point forthwith.  In the biblical commentary I have read about Jeremiah 29 a few considerations become abundantly clear.  First, we will never know precisely what plans God may have for us, yet we can be confident that they are only "for (our) welfare...to give (us) a future with hope."  Andrew W. Blackwood, Jr., in his Commentary on Jeremiah observed:  "They (the exiles) did not know God's plan.  But God knows it and will see it through."  "God...will see it through."  The old adage can serve us all well, here and now, "let go-and let God."   In his book, Journey in the Wilderness, Gil Rendle heralded such a time as this as "The Jeremiah Moment" when "Moving Ahead Means Letting Go."  Second, the description by the prophet of the historical predicament of the exiles is "a remarkably acute assessment of the situation and a blueprint for millennia to come," as Robert P. Carroll observed in his book, Jeremiah:  A Commentary.  We need an equally "acute assessment" of our structural situation today within The United Methodist Church.  While we will not find any "blueprint for millennia to come," much less "a blueprint" for the next quadrennium, we can rest assured that "Yahweh has plans of well-being," as Carroll concluded.  Third, let us not succumb to our worst fears about what may or may not occur in terms of possible GCCUIC restructuring.   Nor let us take to any flights of fancy that there is any quick-fix for what may or not be broken.  Instead, let us remember these words of Matthew Henry:  "(God) will give (us), not the expectations of (our) fears, nor the expectations of (our) fancies, but the expectations of (our) faith, the end of which (God) has promised and which will turn for the best to (us)."  Let us remain steadfast in our faith that the Lord will provide us prudence and direction, courage and strength, to see the way ahead.

         With Charles Wesley, let us be together in the spirit of prayer as we recall it is "Christ, from Whom All Blessings Flow."  Let us pray...

"Move and actuate and guide,

diverse gifts to each divide;

placed according to thy will,

let us all our work fulfill."  Amen.

         Thank you very much.

 
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