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.
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.
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 email@example.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 firstname.lastname@example.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