Last week I returned from the national meeting of our denomination, the General Assembly of the Christian Churches, Disciples of Christ in the United Statesand Canada. These meetings take place every two years and it is a time to learn about what is happening in the denomination, network with like-minded folks and address particular social issues. Being new to the Disciples, I still feel like a bit of an outsider at these events, but I’m growing more comfortable in my new denomination. This is only the second General Assembly I’ve attended. I feel sure those who came up in the denomination, attending Disciples colleges and seminaries, active on denominational committees and boards, could give you a better picture than I of what the Disciples are up to nationally, but here are my reflections.
In an age when denominations like ours are declining in numbers and influence, the Disciples are especially so. The combined pressures of the bad economy and a shrinking church could be felt everywhere at the meeting. Yet, compared to my first General Assembly two years ago, I experienced a much more positive and forward-thinking outlook by the church’s leadership. Last time around, I came away feeling the denomination was in survival mode and merely circling the wagons as it slid into complete irrelevance; this time, I saw some of that but saw a lot more of people forced to let go of ways of doing things that no longer work in today’s context. The net result was a meeting that highlighted churches who were transforming from dying congregations to communities with new life and vitality. Granted most Disciples churches continue to die, but it was both hopeful and exciting to learn about churches that had made the right decisions to dream new dreams and make a difference in the 21st century.
Yes, as is true of most mainline denominations like ours, the average age of participants was somewhere above 175 years old, but compared to two years ago, I saw more younger clergy and laity represented at all events. Also, throughout all events, the leadership had made a concerted effort to be inclusive in terms of gender and ethnicity. The result was a program that looked a lot more like the Kingdom of God in its diversity than just a bunch of Caucasian men.
A disappointing omission in the diversity of people in leadership at the meeting was the lack of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. With a few exceptions, the elephant in the room that many seemed not to want to discuss remains the full inclusion of LGBT people in Disciples life. I was encouraged, however, when Sharon Watkins, the Disciples General Minister and President was reelected for a second term and she mentioned pursuing meaningful dialogue as a denomination regarding the inclusion of LGBT people as one of her priorities. While at the assembly, I attended the GLAD Alliance Banquet (GLAD = Gay and Lesbian Affirming Disciples). GLAD Alliance continues to be the main voice for speaking up for the full inclusion of LGBT people in Disciples life. Our church was recognized at the banquet for becoming Open and Affirming in 2010. I was proud to represent FCC at the event.
Of course, I gained much from hearing wonderful speakers like Holly McKissek ofSt. Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, KS, the dean of Disciples preaching FredCraddock and the celebrated author and leader in the “emergent church” BrianMcLaren. I also felt blessed to participate in a healthy discussion about immigration reform and an immigration reform prayer walk on the streets of downtown Nashville. Yet, I especially appreciated the business sessions which took on some difficult issues but did so with civility. A resolution regarding sexual abuse in the church became a little difficult when different people who had been abused took issue with whether they should be called “victims” or “survivors” of sexual abuse. People spoke against and for both terms based upon their experience of abuse. In the end, a compromise was struck and both terms were used, but more importantly the voices of those who had previously been silenced were heard. My sense was that discussion and debate still mattered at the assembly rather than things being rammed through by a few power brokers in a back room
On a personal note, the General Assembly was meaningful for me because I attended it with my father, who is now also a Disciples minister. Both of us know the pain of leaving the church we grew up in, yet he lost more than I did when he left Baptist life behind. He let go of a lifetime’s worth of relationships that mattered to him. I had only begun my career in ministry when I chose to no longer claim the Baptist label. On the last night, he sat with a group of ministers who had all previously been Baptist but were now Disciples. They had known each other in their previous lives. As they sang and worshiped together, they experienced a sense of healing as they reunited in their new church family. Perhaps that is what I will take away most from the General Assembly—the belief that at its best, our denomination—just like our local church—can be a place for those who have been rejected and excluded elsewhere.
Grace and Peace,