I’m not much of a math nerd—words and systems are more my thing—but I always loved the proofs in geometry. You know, those “problems” where the solution is already known but the students’ job is to show how and why it works. This is because sometimes in life, it’s not about finding the answers; it’s about the steps we take to get there. Process matters.
I’ve also learned, from life more than from mathematics, that it is possible to come to a good outcome via an unjust process, and it is likewise possible to have an excellent and fair process, but arrive at an unsatisfactory outcome. (In)Justice in process does not necessarily equal (in)justice in outcome.
I’m afraid that The United Methodist Church is about to construct a proof for this non-equation.
The vast majority of what I hear as we approach the Called Session of the General Conference is argument about which “plan” delegates will support. There are plans from the Commission on the Way Forward and plans from caucus groups. There are plans to keep the denomination together at all costs, plans to offer exit ramps, plans for constitutional amendments, plans for removing discrimination from the Book of Discipline.
But when we focus on the plans, even the best plans, even plans with good intentions, we run the risk of neglecting people.
We must never, ever forget that “human sexuality” is not an issue, a debate point, or an idea to bat around. It is a term we United Methodists use as a catch-all to talk about the inclusion—and more often exclusion—of people on the basis of sexual orientation, relationship status, and gender identity. Real people, like my loved ones, my colleagues, me. This General Conference is not about plans or church unity or dissolving a denomination. It’s about people. Because the Christian faith, a faith rooted in incarnation, is about how God is present among people.
Since the conversation is about people, we can only address our divisions if we build relationships between living, breathing people. Between different theological camps. Between straight, cisgender Methodists and LGBTQ+ Methodists. And it’s impossible to build relationships with people who are not even invited into the room.
That’s why I’m dismayed that less than 2% of delegates to the Called Session are LGBTQ+. I’m dismayed that only one Annual Conference chose to elect a new delegation, focusing on making sure the voices of LGBTQ+ people are represented (thank you, New York!). I’m dismayed that I am the only LGBTQ clergy person on my delegation (a low-ranking reserve), and I feel I cannot speak for the vast array of our community.
The question isn’t about how people will vote on plans. There are many wonderful allies and advocates who I know will hold the lives and loves of LGBTQ+ people in their hearts and minds as they cast their votes. There are allies and advocates who ask what LGBTQ+ folks want and need, and who will probably vote the same way many of us would. But no ally, no matter how magnificent, can build relationships for us. No well-informed delegate can speak for an LGBTQ+ person out of our own lived experience. No advocate can sit face to face with someone who has never shared a table with a gay person, a trans person, a bisexual and genderfluid person, and stay in it together until each sees the face of Christ in the other.
This is what we mean when we say there must not be conversation about us without us. Valuing the gifts, experiences, lives, and loves of LGBTQ+ United Methodists means talking #WithNotAbout us, and trusting that God works in these relationships and conversations to bring about transformation in individuals, the church, and the world (learn more about how we are building these relationships at withnotabout.org).
At the end of the session, I’m less concerned about which plan people vote for. I believe God has a plan for us that will be far more excellent than the ones we’ve dreamed up. But I do care about how we get there. I care about if we see one another as people. Because we can pass the best plan in the world, but if we do it while excluding LGBTQ+ people from the conversation that is about us, then exclusion still wins the day. We can pass a plan that re-inscribes harm on the LGBTQ+ community, but if we do it from a place of relationship, of seeing one another as people, then all is not lost, and there is still hope for an incarnational God to surprise us in the midst of our connection.
So, dear allies and advocates, strangers, friends, and delegates, what does this one LGBTQ person ask you to hold in your heart this week? I ask you to lay down your focus on vote counts and strategy for a few minutes. I ask you to explore where you can step back so that LGBTQ+ folks can step in. When can you cede your seat in worship, around a meal table, your voice in truth-telling and in debate? How will your conversations and deliberations be with, not about? How will you make sure you strategize without ever losing sight of the (in)justice in how we get there?
I invite you to journey this week from your love of people, not plans.