Friday, April 27, 2007

GEC Meeting April 2007

I went to Tucson for the GEC meeting with great reluctance and fear. I thought the chances were good that we would either explode or simply walk away from one another. Neither happened. It was the most civil, constructive, focused GEC meeting we have had in a very long time. I came away feeling that I had been heard about divisive issues in the denomination for the first time.

What happened? Perhaps it was fatigue. Perhaps it was the fact that reality was finally getting hold of some. In any case, it seemed like God may, at least, have walked through the room.

One of the rumors out there says we spent a long time discussing the Imus fiasco. I don’t know what meeting those folks were in. I remember at one point, in one discussion, one speaker used the Imus affair as an illustration. We did not digress into a discussion about Imus. I cannot say whether the reputed “insider” allowed the table discussion to be hijacked down this road, but I can say with absolute certainty that it did not happen at my table, and it did not divert the discussion of the larger group. Those hearing such reports might want to rethink the reliability, if not the integrity, of their inside sources.

Our work began with a very long session built around Stephen Covey’s (the son) book The Speed of Trust. Many of us have known that trust across this denomination has been shredded in the last 10 years. It is so bad, and has had such an impact on us, that several spoke openly about the “post-traumatic stress” that the group is experiencing. I was encouraged by the fact that we have finally begun to talk constructively about trust. We committed to behaviors for the rest of our meeting that would contribute to trust.

Almost all our time was spent discussing, revising, arguing, and tweaking the work of the writing team. Unfortunately, there still has not been a sketch of that plan released, which makes it very difficult for me to discuss with any integrity.

In brief: The plan endorses a federation form of organization for the denomination. I have argued for a long time that federation is the best way for us to understand ourselves. Federation, however, can take several forms. As they say, the devil is in the details. This is not entirely a return to the societal days, but it is a movement in that direction. The General Board, as it functions now, will no longer exist. There will be no interlocking memberships between the General Board and the various program boards. Instead, each will become radically smaller and self-sustaining. The means for maintaining connection and accountability is not yet settled. Likewise, while it is generally assumed that covenants will be the basis of our very loose union, the nature and content of those covenants has not even been part of a casual conversation.

I am not entirely happy with the form, as it was discussed at Tucson. I think we are giving up on many things that I hold dear. However, I think it is probably the best we can do right now. I am committed to making it the best it can be.

It was obvious, that progress on the structure discussion was predicated on finding some way to deal with dissension across the denomination. Indeed, Criterion 6 (of 8) that GEC presented to the General Board in November says: Resolve the division over homosexuality or at least move the denomination forward on this issue. We spent two sessions, separated by an evening of reflection, in working with this. At the conclusion, the promise we made to one another is:

“We covenant as GEC members to give due consideration to all ABC Policy Statements and Resolutions in recommending persons to serve at denominational levels.”

All persons who serve on the General Board are charged with adopting, approving and implementing ABC Policy Statements and ABC Resolutions. Once a statement or resolution is duly established by the General Board, all Board members and the staff of the Office of the General Secretary must implement these policies and resolutions regardless of whether or not they agree with the decision. General Board members have a right to dissent but are not released from the responsibility of implementing all policies and resolutions. Further, the Covenant of Relationships specifies that the Covenant Partners (regions and program boards) will “implement ABC Policy Statements and ABC Resolutions within the areas of their assigned functions, subject to General Board review.” This was emphasized, with legal counsel, at the GEC meeting in April 2004.

It is my personal opinion, that the current conflict across ABCUSA, to a large degree, rests on inconsistencies (both real and perceived) with respect to the implementation of policies, resolutions, etc., related to human sexuality. The real “flash point” for dissension around the implementation of these statements is General Board functions and the relationships between regions—in other words, those places where we come together, or the “national arena.”

Dr. Roy Medley, the General Secretary for the General Board, has already indicated that he “abides by the policies and resolutions of the General Board, and encourages the National Board and the Regions to honor those decisions.” (letter 3 October 2005); and that this is his “personal belief … and responsibility to uphold this as the official position of the General Board of ABCUSA. This has been implemented in the admission of official exhibitors at the ABCUSA Biennial, chaplain endorsements, and in the staffing practices of the staff accountable to” him. (letter 17 July 2007).

If faithfully executed, I believe the GEC covenant will effectively remove the sources of conflict from the national arena while preserving the uneasy balance of the Baptist principles of personal interpretation, local congregational autonomy, and associationalism. It is not a perfect solution. It will not totally satisfy everyone. Indeed, I am not totally satisfied. But I am prepared to wait and see. I urge others to do the same. It will not take long to determine if this is going to work. In the meantime, we can redouble our efforts for reorganization.

This covenant really does not change anything with respect to many regions. I have already covenanted with other regional executive ministers in the “Pastoral Letter” of 20 November 2004. It is still operative. It is consistent with the way I have tried to behave even before it was written. Further, I am bound by the explicit policies and directions adopted by my Board. There is no conflict between my region’s policies, the REMC “Pastoral Letter,” the GEC “Covenant” presented here, and existing ABCUSA resolutions and policy statements.

Consequently, I will not endorse or recommend to denominational positions (including General Board representatives) persons whose lives and practices are not consistent ABCUSA resolutions and policy statements. I expect my colleagues on GEC to behave similarly.

Trust across the denomination is in short supply. Only careful attention to integrity will allow us to move forward. I am cautiously hopeful that the consensus of the GEC expressed in this covenant provides a means to move away from the controversies which have polarized our denomination for decades. I urge us all to be faithful, and beg for your prayers.