After annual conference

We are in the midst of a global pandemic. Life is different. Church is different. Annual conference, we knew, would be different. Limited. Lacking.

But what happened at the 2020 annual meeting of the Upper New York Conference is unacceptable. 

No one expected perfection, but we did expect perfection to be striven for. Instead we and the Holy Spirit were locked out of the room. 

There was no legislative process. No transparency. No participation. No worship. No breaks. No rules committee meeting before our rules were printed. No time to review recommendations and reports, which we received, incomplete and out of date, just two weeks before the conference.

We have a communications and worship team able to give us Holy Spirit and Holy Conferencing each year. They were denied this chance Saturday. Our hearts are broken. (But our spirits are not.)

No excuse

The COVID-19 global health crisis has changed life for all of us. We’ve been forced to adapt how we do church and mourn the ways in which we can’t. It has been taxing and trying. Yet across our conference pastors and laity found ways to worship, serve and connect. We who call ourselves Christian know we need to feed and be fed, especially during times of crisis. 

We’ve done this without help from our bishop. Instead of reaching out, he retreated. We know he’s done with this denomination, but we can’t be faulted for expecting him to not be done with his conference. We can’t be faulted for expecting him to do his job.

A rescheduled annual conference offered the blessing of time to prepare for the new circumstances. In the time between the April announcement of annual conference’s postponement and the October meeting, churches and technology found new, friendly, accessible ways to be together, do business and praise God. Other annual conferences met using familiar technology that allowed people to see one another and participate as fully as possible.

The Upper New York Annual Conference has no excuse for what happened Saturday—not circumstance, not limitations of technology, not surprise. Those who made the decisions failed us.

Silenced and separated

Extending grace does not mean accepting negligence. It is extending grace to consider Saturday negligence and not malice.

The call-in system was confusing and difficult. Participants could not hear callers clearly. The poor audio made captioning so incomplete as to require us to question if our meeting was even legal, for possibly not meeting the conference and denominational standards for accessibility. The conference, with a call for declaratory decision, will let the United Methodist Judicial Council decide this for us. 

A familiar platform like Zoom would have done wonders to help participants feel like we were together. We couldn’t even see the names of the people in attendance, let alone see faces in the way Zoom would have easily allowed, hearing and seeing clearly those with motions and questions and those answering questions. 

Zoom and similar platforms offer the ability to mute all participants, to limit chat. There are very few valid arguments against using familiar platforms most know and most other annual conferences in The United Methodist Church used. 

Somehow, after annual conference, a time of coming together, we felt even more separated.

Some tried to amend our organizational motion to allow the body to make amendments. They were silenced, technical problems as the excuse, while those arguing to disallow amendments were given disproportionate time. Two of those speaking against the motion were cabinet members present in the makeshift studio, whom we could thus hear perfectly clearly. 

We heard that our annual conference is the defendant in eight cases regarding the Child Victims Act. We heard that several churches are being named. This topic was given just a few minutes in a trustees report focused on how the conference plans to protect itself. Then we moved on. 

For other problems we faced, read Ian Urriola’s guest blog. For how the day unfolded, read the UNYFI Twitter feed.

We would direct you to watch video of the livestream, but it’s not yet available.

Justice for all

We seek justice in the system, accountability in the budget and a valuing of all voices as inherently important as a means of enabling our work of full inclusion for LGBTQIA United Methodists and other marginalized groups.

God makes space for all people to be loved, inspired and work together. We will keep calling on the church to do the same.

We are the Church

We could have been together Saturday, even if virtually. We could have been encouraged and inspired, but instead we were silenced and our presence treated with disdain. We could have been fully informed, but instead we were given incomplete materials with little time for review and our rubber-stamp expected.  

What happened Saturday was not church. 

But we are the church. You are not alone. Reach out to us and tell us what you need. Let’s create together the nourishment and support we were not given.

On the eve of annual conference

Ian Carlos Urriola praises God at Wesley Theological Seminary in December 2019. Photo by Lisa Helfert for Wesley Theological Seminary. Copyright 2019. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Guest post: On the eve of Annual Conference, Ian Carlos Urriola, lay equalization member from Genesee Valley District and member of Asbury First United Methodist Church, male, Latinx, has something to say.


To say that this has been a hard year would be an understatement. I don’t need to list everything traumatic that’s happened this year. We are all living through it. As I look around at the state of our communities and the world, the only thing that seems clear to me is that few things in life are certain when the storms of chaos are raging all around us.

The first is this. I am certain that there is nothing—absolutely nothing—that can separate you or me or any of us from the love of God through Christ Jesus. We all are beloved children of God and bearers of the divine image and nothing can take that away from us. This love unites us all in one body with a common call and a common purpose: to love God and to love our neighbor. It’s that simple.

Of course, the second thing of which I’m certain is that parts of our body are suffering and dying due to the chaos we are seeing, and that when one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers. 2020 has revealed to us the deep and systemic ways parts of our body suffer or are devalued and silenced by those with power.

We see now how these systems and structures have led to entrenched differences and disparities in the lived experiences of Black and Brown persons in our own country and around the world from that of those who have and continue to benefit from the legacy of white European colonialism. We have seen that our society isn’t built in a way in which Black lives do matter. And since my liberation is inextricably bound in your liberation, we must not only proclaim loudly that Black Lives Matter, but we also must take an active role in dismantling those systems and structures built by white supremacy. It is not enough to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we must drive a spoke through the very wheel itself.

And lastly, the third thing of which I’m certain is this. In times of chaos, those with power will use chaos and uncertainty to consolidate their power, unless we stop them. It’s no accident that while millions of Americans have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, the richest 1 percent in our country has only gotten richer. It’s no accident that our leaders use this as an opportunity to stoke the flames of division by promoting fascist propaganda in an attempt to silence and disenfranchise those who dare to challenge the status quo. It’s no accident that those in charge hide behind the circumstances of the chaos, pleading, “Show us grace,” while they obfuscate, obscure, rob the coffers and abuse their power to advance their own agendas.

Annual conference

And friends, I wish I could say that the Church was above all this, that our spiritual leaders, set apart for a ministry of servant leadership, general oversight, and supervision were immune from the ways in which power destroys. Sadly, that is not the case in our United Methodist denomination, and it is certainly not the case in our Upper New York Annual Conference. 

As we prepare to engage in a time of Holy Conferencing tomorrow in a time and manner wholly unprecedented, I can’t help but feel as though the chaos of the moment is being used to silence our body as a whole. Our organizational motion claims that “limitations of a virtual gathering” prevent us from making amendments. This prohibits us from doing any work to perfect that which comes before us. Unless our organizational motion is amended at the start of our annual conference session (you can find it on page 6 of the 2020 Pre-Conference Journal), we will have only the ability to vote yes or no, and, if reports from our clergy session are any example, our ability to speak will be very limited. We are being asked to give our rubber stamp to a budget for which there has been no transparency or accountability, even after we have been told that our episcopal leader has one foot out the door of this denomination. 

We are being asked to radically increase funding for ministries that have historically shown us no accounting for how they spend our ministry shares (lines 30, 35, and 36 of the updated draft ministry shares budget). No rationale has been provided for these or any proposed changes in our budget, nor have we been told where these funds are coming from. And even though our General Council on Finance and Administration has called on all annual conferences to continue calculating general church apportionments using the formula from the last quadrennium until the General Conference formally approves a new formula for this quadrennium, we are being asked to approve spending for general church apportionments using a proposal that our denomination has not yet approved (line 18 of the updated draft ministry shares budget). 

As a body, we typically only gather once a year to do the work of Holy Conferencing. We only get one shot to set the intention for our annual conference’s work for the upcoming year. But if we can’t work as a body to perfect what’s before us by offering amendments, there is no reason for us to gather. If we aren’t shown transparent accounting for how the ministries of our annual conference intend to spend the resources that we give them, we cannot make informed decisions as a body, and so there is no reason for us to gather. Because of this, I am asking you to help me accomplish the following two tasks for our time together tomorrow.

Take action

First: When the organizational motion comes before us, we must work to amend point 6 using the following language:

Bishop, I move that we amend the organizational motion by striking lines 18-23 in their entirety and replacing them with the following: “6. The meeting will be conducted in a manner such that all participants are afforded a reasonable opportunity to participate. When a motion comes properly before the body, the presiding officer shall wait no less than sixty seconds before bringing the body to a time of voting. All participants will have the right to address the body, debate, perfect through amending, and vote on any report or motion before the body, in accordance with their rights provided by the 2016 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. Poll logs will be maintained for all votes.

And second: I ask that you join me in signing and distributing these two letters calling for transparency when it comes to funding and budgeting. The first asks our New Faith Communities, the ministry receiving the largest budget increase in our 2021 budget, to provide the annual conference within three months a report on how their budget has and will be used in the upcoming year. It asks New Faith Communities to provide us with details on who gets funding and who makes funding decisions, how leaders and locations are chosen, the demographics of leaders and locations in which new faith communities are established, what metrics of success are used, and how New Faith Communities grows The United Methodist Church.

The second asks all ministries receiving a significant increase in their budget ($5,000 or more) to provide a report to the annual conference within three months on how their budget has and will be used in the upcoming year. These ministries include Camp and Retreat Ministries, Hispanic and Latino Ministries, District Operations, New Faith Communities, and Vital Congregations. It also asks Vital Congregations to report back to the annual conference, within three months, with more information on Spiritual Leadership Incorporated (SLI), including how SLI coaches are hired to train leaders and help grow and support a thriving United Methodist Church.

It is said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. As we find ourselves living through a global pandemic, I’m not certain that is the best turn of phrase for the times we find ourselves in. And yet its underlying truth still remains. When those who seek to consolidate their power through obscuring narratives in the midst of chaos and prevent those who are a check on that power from holding them accountable, we have no option but to shine a light to provide greater transparency. Clarity is kindness, after all, and so we cannot accept anything less from our leaders and our ministries. 

Regardless of what comes of our time together tomorrow, I look forward to gathering with all of you, even if only virtually. I know that UNYFI will continue to broadcast throughout our session on our WhatsApp channel. If you are not connected to it, or if you are unsure if you are connected to it, email uny4inclusion@gmail.com for the link. And if you run into any tech problems during the annual conference session, our conference staff is standing by at (315) 898-2023 and techsupport@unyumc.org

Ian Urriola is a UNYFI lead team member, lay member at Asbury First in Rochester, General Conference delegate and director of the Shenandoah University Youth Theology Institute

Prayer for the vulnerable

To all in Upper New York, beloved of God and called to be a holy people:
Grace and peace to you from Abba God and our Savior Jesus Christ.
—Romans 1:7, amended

Beloveds of God,

Grace and peace to you, in the name of the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. We hope and pray that you are healthy and whole in body, mind, and spirit. We know that God is with us, our rock and our redeemer, ready to help us through any storm.

We write to you today to let you know that you are in our prayers and on our hearts. In this unprecedented time of responding to a global pandemic, we know that there are many challenges. Some among us are struggling with social isolation, chaffing against restrictions that will do good for the whole but hurt for the individual. Some among us are struggling to hold together groups of people or organizations we love, all while being limited in what we can do. Still others among us are essential workers, doing all they can to care for the whole and yet taking great personal risk to do so. To complicate matters, financial instability is prevalent, and illness and grief are often close at hand.

It is into this space of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear that we speak and act as people of God. The words of the Creed of the United Church of Canada remind us of our faith and God’s resilience:

We are not alone,
we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

Dear ones, we are still called to be the church! The church has seen crisis before, and the church is capable of adapting. The form of the church is different right now, but it is still the church. For now, our primary work hasn’t changed: we work to stay connected to the Divine as well as to one another so that we can better love the world.

You may have heard that the United Methodist General Conference has been postponed until 2021 in order to keep participants safe. While we at UNYFI believe this is a wise and important decision, in safety first, we also know that it postpones justice for the LGBTQIA+ community, and that it means postponing safety for the LGBTQIA+ community. Being part of a church that names and lives God’s love for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities is also a matter of life and death, and we grieve the justice delayed.

We continue to commit ourselves to working toward full inclusion in The United Methodist Church, in the Upper New York Annual Conference, and in our local churches. For now, we simply encourage all of you to be as safe as you can be and to reach out to vulnerable loved ones. The definition of “vulnerable” has expanded recently, and we particularly notice that older people, those with compromised immune systems, and those with underlying health conditions are particularly vulnerable. We worry that LGBTQIA+ people often have less access to quality medical care. We also worry for our Asian and Asian American siblings, who are experiencing regular outbursts of hate and racism.

Dear ones, we are able to be a beacon of light in the world, no matter where we are or what we are doing. May God’s light continue to shine through us.

In God’s Love,

UNYFI

UNYFI stands with The United Methodist Church

Upper New York for Full Inclusion was created in 2019 out of a deep desire from moderates and progressives to reclaim our church as an expression of God’s love in the world. As we look toward the future and a possible split in the denomination, we remain deeply committed to inclusion and to staying in The United Methodist Church. We love the mission and ministries of The United Methodist Church. The wholeness of our global connection matters to building the kin-dom of God.

UNYFI stands with The United Methodist Church. The Upper New York Conference should too.

For UNYFI, a call for full inclusion comes out of our belief in God’s love and grace. We believe that our role in the Body of Christ is to live as expressions of God’s love and grace in the world, and that means making working toward a church where all of God’s beloveds have a place to be, to be celebrated, and to share in God’s work.

We dream together of a church where all are free to be fully human in Christ, where imago dei (made in God’s image) is seen in each other person. We imagine a church where all are free to be in ministry, not fighting for their right to do ministry. We work toward a church free of hypocrisy when it declares its doors open.

What will happen to The United Methodist Church when current policy stops getting in the way of the Holy Spirit?

We’ll fight better, love better, take care of one another better. The church will grow as its members grow within it. God’s inward and outward reach will be extended by removed barriers. The kin-dom itself will grow.

Give yourself a moment to really think about a fully inclusive United Methodist Church. Let yourself feel that joy, even for just a moment. Then join us in working to make it happen.

We invite you to listen deeply to the Divine, to ponder carefully what you hear in your heart, and to find hope for the future. Together, we can do incredible ministry, especially once we are able to freely work together with all the people of God, welcomed and celebrated in full inclusion.

P.S. Wash your hands, follow health department instructions, stay safe so we can build the kin-dom together!

First do no harm.

First do no harm.

Do good.

Stay in love with God.

—Reuben Job’s interpretation of John Wesley’s Three Simple Rules

In passing the Traditional Plan, The United Methodist Church has violated the Simple Rules put forth by John Wesley. The plan does harm, it does not do good, and it violates the love of God.

Recently, Mainstream UMC invited United Methodists to sign onto a letter “calling for a moratorium on all complaints, charges, and trials of LGBTQ clergy and for clergy performing same-gender weddings pending the outcome of the May 2020 General Conference.” This very popular idea has been supported by Bishop Ken Carter, the outgoing president of the Council of Bishops, among many others. In addition, Bishop John Schol of the Greater New Jersey Conference and the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops have released statements saying that they will not enforce unjust laws.

That is, bishops have a choice about if they follow the laws of God’s grace, or the unjust laws of the church.

In June, the Upper New York Annual Conference repeatedly voted its choice not to participate in the harmful and punitive policies of the Traditional Plan. This was our choice to make, whether or not it was ruled out of order. We also have choices about if we follow the laws of God’s grace or the unjust laws of the church, and we clearly picked God’s grace.

We call on all United Methodists in the Upper New York Annual Conference to continue to stand on the authority of God’s grace, and God’s grace alone. Our Social Principles say, “Therefore, we recognize the right of individuals to dissent when acting under the constraint of conscience and, after having exhausted all legal recourse, to resist or disobey laws that they deem to be unjust or that are discriminately enforced” (164.F). If any are asked to participate in punitive measures, we encourage resistance. We will not be moved, because our Resurrection story is that God’s love always wins in the end.

We, as Upper New York for Full Inclusion, ask you to stand in solidarity with the bishops doing no harm by signing the Support the United Methodist LGBTQ+ Safe Harbor Declaration.

We, as Upper New York for Full Inclusion, continue to urge Bishop Webb to follow the will of the conference and join his colleagues in doing no harm.

Prayer for the evening of June 7

Holy One, Scripture teaches that Jesus prayed, before his death on the cross, that we may be one in you. We lament our sins of commission and omission in which we have attempted to define “one” through human-made doctrine and poor translation and interpretation of your living Word. As you gaze upon all of creation and all of humanity with infinite love, so help us to see the divine in one another.

As we continue to gather together in Syracuse as the Upper New York Annual Conference, may our words and actions reflect your love and grace. Give us courage to speak your truth, and give us discernment to know when to speak. Grant us the ability to hear, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “in order to listen instead of hearing to be heard.”*

Embolden us, through your Spirit, when we want to remain in a place of comfort and complicity. Enliven us with your Spirit when we seek to live as an institution and not a beautiful, diverse, messy, and wonderful body united by your love. Enfold us in your Spirit when we feel weary and want to walk away.

We pray these things in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Mother of us all.

Amen.


Carmen Perry, delegate to General Conference 2020

Prayer for the evening of June 6

Loving Creator, Risen Christ, Abiding Spirit: with humble gratitude we approach you desiring guidance, discernment, and wisdom. You entrust to us the care of the human family, and this earth which sustains life. As a human expression of the Body of Christ, we seek to do your will, even when we are stumbling along the path of life and faith. Please forgive us of our wayward wandering and with grace restore our vision of your goals. Infuse us with a passion to care for one another. Give us courage to speak out against injustice. And help us to treat every part of your creation with gentle kindness that together we may change systems and attitudes that oppress and harm your precious ones. Yearning to grow in every articulation of love for you, we offer praise and thanksgiving.

Amen.


The Rev. Beckie Sweet, delegate to General Conference 2020