It would be a mistake to end this brief series on Christian Conferencing (using the Round Table illustration) at the level of practice. I want to end by remembering why we engage in holy conferencing in the first place.
First and foremost, we do it because we believe it is a means of grace. This an obvious point, but one that can get lost under the pile of tools and techniques–whether ancient or modern. We believe that God speaks into, among, and through Christian Conferencing, and this conviction means we believe God does things through a collective mind that would not occur through an individual mind. Christian Conferencing is a surrender to that larger possibility.
Second, we practice Christian Conferencing because it is an expression of humility, which is itself (in the Wesleyan tradition) an evidence of love. In relation to General Conference there is nothing more important than to create a spirit of humility. Delegates dare not meet apart from the rock-solid foundation of love for one another. Christian Conferencing fosters that spirit.
Third, we engage in Christian Conferencing because it preserves our belief that revelation unfolds over time, and that one thing leads to another. If I have any overarching fear as General Conference approaches, it is the fear that delegates will go to Portland with a problem-solving mentality. Christian Conferencing is not a problem-solving technique, it is a communal act (and commitment) to let God’s revelation emerge over time. Assuming that good decisions reflective of God’s will emerge at General Conference, they are not essentially policies to write up in a Book of Discipline; they are dynamic realities that demand we follow them into greater Light as they mature. This keeps polity alive, rather than allowing our life together to deteriorate into dead orthodoxy.
Christian Conferencing is not for 2016. It is for 2020, 2024, 2028, etc. More importantly, it is not for General Conference. It is in our Wesleyan DNA, to be practiced by congregations, Districts, and Annual Conferences day after day, just as are all the other means of grace.
This is one reason why I share the anxiety of some who believe that it is virtually impossible to expect hundreds of delegates to arrive in Portland and suddenly have the ability to practice Christian Conferencing. This is a legitimate concern, and it is surely possible to use the language of Christian Conferencing while doing something else.
But it has to start somewhere, and if the delegates are among our best leaders, then what better time or place than to make a devoted attempt to use one of our Instituted Means of Grace for the good of the UMC. We have elected them to lead us through wise discernment. Christian Conferencing is a means to that end.
In the time that remains before General Conference, delegates must train themselves in Christian Conferencing by doing it among themselves in each locale. A recent gathering of Philippine United Methodists is a good-faith example of that aim. And as I said previously, the General Conference needs to have consultants on sight to do some further training and to provide subsequent guidance as the delegates make use of Christian Conferencing.
Some may believe that the risk is too great in using a process that is so foreign to our actual experience, and that the best we can hope for is an awkward stumbling. But this would not be the first time in Christian history that the people of God stumbled on their journey, nor will it be the first time God has been with a faltering people as a Pillar of Cloud by day and a Pillar of Fire by night.