Over the past couple of days I’ve read a couple of articles by friends regarding the decision of the active (currently serving) United Methodist bishops to have a closed meeting (which they call a forum). Generally the responses have been negative toward the bishop’s decision, suggesting that the lack of transparency further erodes trust in the bishops. As a person who has long argued for more transparency and authenticity, I resonate with these arguments, believing that political systems benefit from openness and honesty through the empowerment that comes from sharing information. In my past roles as a staff member at the General Conference, I have regularly lifted up our tradition of openness and transparency in the face of those who want to close off information sharing.
And yet, I find myself sympathizing and understanding at one level the need by our bishops for a space where they can talk freely and openly without concern for how they will sound in the press. While I try to be open and honest with my congregation, the fact remains that there are times when I need to get things off my chest that simply wouldn’t play well in print. That is one of the reasons for participating in confidential, closed clergy accountability and support groups — the need to vent. These are sacred spaces of personal confession — places to admit our own failings in the midst of our our attempts to grow into the person God wants us to be. While many of our bishops have similar relational spaces, I can see the need for the entire group of active bishops to have a space where they can be vulnerable and honest with one another in ways that could easily be misconstrued in the press as they face the challenge of renewing our communion.
Part of the problem is that our society, especially as interpreted in the media, views vulnerability and uncertainty as weakness to be avoided. We don’t really want our leaders to be humans in need of God’s grace. We want them to be filled with superhuman wisdom, firm resolve, holding firm ideological convictions that can never be move. Certainly we don’t want them saying, “I don’t know what to do…” or “I struggle with this in my life….” We may say that we want transparency and honesty, but in fact we want soundbites that suggest that our leaders have their acts together. And in our pursuit of perfect leaders, we often elect politicians who recognize that speaking the truth (even in love) can often get them in trouble — and it is the rare person who wants to be in trouble all the time.
In the face of that, I’m not surprised at the call for a private meeting without a press presence. But that need points to the fact that our faith is broken for we fail to acknowledge, recognize and celebrate that power and strength in God’s Kingdom is found in our weakness rather in our strength. While I understand the need for a safe space for open and honest conversation, what a witness it would be for our bishops to acknowledge that they too have not yet reached Christian perfection, that they too struggle with the same issues each one of us struggles with, and that they too often have moments of uncertainty about God’s call for them and for our church. What would it mean for our active bishops to share openly about the elephant in the room — that the world has changed dramatically in a very short time and the experiences of many of our retired bishops have little connection with the realities they face today? Are we really willing to let the bishops say openly what they want to say — that they can see the problem with the future of the church and that problem is us — a church that has equated membership with discipleship and is bearing the fruit of failing to develop disciples for the future.
I’m all about openness and transparency, but we are a part of the equation as well. Openness and transparency is a factor in bringing forth trust, but so is acceptance and grace. Are we really willing to have the grace, gentleness, kindness, acceptance, and the desire for connection to allow our bishops to say what’s on their mind?
Apparently, given their decision, they think not.