Monday, May 14, 2012

The Great and Powerful Oz: Changing the Dynamics of Holy Conferencing

In the last couple of blog posts, I have discussed what happened at General Conference 2012 and how technology affected the way legislation is created and changed, and how business is conducted at GC. But what does all this mean for the future of holy conferencing in the UMC? Well, I mentioned in my last post that conferencing is becoming more communal and less representative in nature. But what happened at GC2012 was more than that. A change of perspective took place among those experiencing GC2012 communally through social media and the live stream. In my last post, I talked a lot about power: how having power can allow a person to be involved in processes that affect the global church on a massive scale, but not having power leaves a person voiceless in the event that they do not like these changes. For the first time, folks who had never been to GC realized that there are battles taking place behind the scenes as well as on the floor of GC, and the outcome depends on who has the power. Before live streaming and social media, what happened at GC was a lot like the “Great and Powerful” wizard in The Wizard of Oz.

LION: Look at that!  Look at that!  Oh -- I want to go home -- I want to go home!*
OZ: I am Oz, the Great and Powerful! Who are you?
DOROTHY: I -- If you please, I - I am Dorothy, the small and meek.  We've come to ask you --
OZ: Silence! The Great and Powerful Oz knows why you have come.

When Dorothy and her friends first meet the Wizard, he appears fearsome, belching fire and smoke, and wise, since he seems to know what his newest subjects need. Later, we discover that Oz isn’t who he says he is.

DOROTHY: Please, sir.  We've done what you told us. We've brought you the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West.  We melted her.
OZ: Oh… you liquidated her, eh?  Very resourceful!
DOROTHY: Yes, sir.  So we'd like you to keep your    promise to us, if you please, sir.
OZ: Not so fast!  I'll have to give the matter a little thought.  Go away and come back tomorrow!
DOROTHY: Tomorrow?  Oh, but I want to go home now.
TIN MAN: You've had plenty of time already!
LION: Yeah!
OZ: Do not arouse the wrath of the Great and Powerful Oz!  I said -- come back tomorrow!
DOROTHY: If you were really great and powerful, you'd keep your promises!
OZ: Do you presume to criticize the Great Oz?  You ungrateful creatures! Think yourselves lucky that I'm giving you audience tomorrow, instead of 20 years from now. The Great Oz has spoken!

Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the Wizard at the controls of the throne apparatus, his back to the viewer. The four friends react as they see him after Dorothy calls their attention to him. The Wizard at the controls speaks into the microphone. He turns and sees that the curtain is gone, then turns back to the controls. The Wizard peers out from behind the curtain.

DOROTHY: Who are you?
OZ: Oh - I - Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Go - before I lose my temper! The Great and Powerful Oz has spoken!
DOROTHY: Who are you?
OZ: Well, I -- I am the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz.
DOROTHY: You are?
OZ: Uhhhh -- yes...
DOROTHY: I don't believe you!
WIZARD:     No, I'm afraid it's true. There's no other Wizard except me.
SCARECROW: You humbug!
LION: Yeah!
WIZARD:     Yes, that's exactly so.  I'm a humbug!
DOROTHY: You're a very bad man!
OZ: Oh, no, my dear. I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad Wizard.

In a sense, social media has “pulled back the curtain” on the once-mysterious General Conference proceedings. For decades, we all waited patiently for our delegates to return and give us their reports, which were factual but brief. We knew that sometimes our church fought over contentious issues, but we trusted our delegates and gave them the benefit of the doubt. Now that we have seen not only what happens on the floor but what happens behind the scenes as well, United Methodists have realized that the inner workings of General Conference aren’t especially spiritual. And there’s nothing exceptional about the delegates who perform this work— they’re just like us. Now that we’ve seen those who are in power at work, we realize that they are just ordinary United Methodists who happen to have their hands on the “levers” of our church. They aren’t necessarily our best and our brightest, but they’re our most passionate members. We’ve assumed benevolence on their part for a long time, and now that the smoke has cleared and the curtain has been pulled back, we’re not so sure anymore.

What all this means is that General Conference– and all holy conferencing among we Methodists– is going to become much more transparent. One incident highlights this need: the elimination of guaranteed appointments. This measure was bundled into a consent calendar with a lot of other items to be passed all at once. First of all, it should not have been put on the consent calendar because it has far-reaching implications, both for current/ incoming pastors and for our ability as a church to attract and employ new pastors. It is my opinion that the measure should be been debated. Second, whoever placed it on the consent calendar knew that debate might cause it to fail, and had sufficient influence to slip it into a place that no one would think to look for it. The body, as is wont to do with large bundles of “fluff” legislation, passed the entire consent calendar right away with no debate. Only after the vote did a few delegates realize that they had just eliminated guaranteed appointments without knowing what they were doing. Delegates used Twitter to organize and call for a reconsideration of the consent calendar, but the vote to reconsider failed. Pastors’ lives were changed in about five minutes flat and there was nothing anyone could do about it. In the future, delegates will be paying much closer attention to even “no-brainer” legislative procedures, and any issue that impacts so many people will have to be discussed before a decision is made.

This also means that members who are concerned about the Church who care about its future, but who do not go to GG, need to collaborate in between conferences to make our ideas and opinions heard. If we want our church to not just survive, but to thrive, it’s time to take action. After Dorothy discovered who the Wizard really was, she didn’t just sit back and say, “I’m disappointed in you, Wizard.” She stood up for what she really wanted– to go home– and asked for it directly. It’s time to stop thinking about how to change the church to keep it alive and to start thinking about how the Church can fulfill God’s hopes and dreams for it— and our hopes and dreams for it.

Join in the discussion tonight! Young people of the UMC (and those who are young at heart) are invited to come to a Tweetup (Twitter + MeetUp) called #DreamUMC tonight at 9 PM. You can find instructions for how to join the discussion here. But if you just want to watch the discussion without joining Twitter, you can simply to and search #DreamUMC. I’ll be joining in— I'm @wickedmethodist. I believe that the United Methodist Church can be the kind of church God wants us to be now, and I can’t wait to hear what my fellow Methodists in the Twitterverse have to say! I hope to “see” you there!

* All quotes above are taken directly from the movie script for The Wizard of Oz.

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