Reflections from the 2017 General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene

Reflections from the 2017 General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene

This June gathering of the global Nazarene family in Indianapolis, Ind., will go down as one of my favorite General Assemblies. I walked away with deep hope for the church, greater determination to be global, and optimism about our mission. I served as a delegate of USA/Canada Education region, representing the 10 institutions of our field. These include both Trevecca Nazarene University and Eastern Nazarene College.

The 10-day gathering began with the GNEC (Global Nazarene Education Consortium) gathering. Leaders of our 62 higher education institutions from around the world worked on collaborative efforts, best practice learning, and global mission. It was a delight for me to see the four international presidents who have earned their doctoral degrees in our Ed.D. program, as well as two current participants in the program and two applicants. Several years ago, we decided to offer one free seat in each Ed.D. cohort for an educational leader from a developing non-USA institution. Trevecca is making a significant impact in offering doctoral preparation to some of our best global leaders. It was also a delight to hear the reports on the Global Nazarene Library. This digital library is providing resources globally to our partners. Ruth Kinnersley, director of Trevecca’s library services, has been engaged in this project from its inception. In many developing countries, access to this library has propelled our institutions to the forefront of library resources. Denominational affiliation in a world of independent mega-churches may be a negative for some, but it enhances our ability to have strong global partners.

On days 3-5 of the Assembly, I had the chance to participate in three presentation panels and seminar sessions. The first was a discussion on the Theology and Practice of Ordination in the Church. Our challenge as a global church is to call for the highest level of preparation possible while recognizing that access to education varies significantly from nation to nation and even among diverse minorities and socio-economic groups. The same standard of qualification for ordination cannot be applied to all but this process needs to be held in check considering the complexity of our world and the need for well-trained pastors to address this complexity. One member of this panel was my friend Tara Beth Leach. She grew up in the church I pastored in Illinois, was called to ministry, and now serves as senior pastor of Pasadena First Church of the Nazarene, one of our historic congregations. Tara Beth is one of our best preachers and thinkers. Watching the next generation step into leadership was invigorating.

A second session was hosted by Nazarene Publishing House, now renamed The Foundry. This open air conversation was a panel conversation about my book A Charitable Discourse: Having the Hard Conversations. I chatted with Virginia Bauer, Matt Hastings, Erik Gernand, and Shawna Songer Gaines – all great clergy friends. We conversed about congregational hot potato topics – when and how to talk together, the generational divide, the difference in meaning between pastoral and pompous, and how to avoid blowing up a church over a difference of opinion. Being with these four great leaders made me want to believe in cloning.

The third presentation was a solo lecture on Human Sexuality and The Church. Using some of the material from a new ebook release, Human Sexuality II: A Primer for Christians, I laid the groundwork for the legislation coming to the General Assembly from a task force that I had participated in for the past three years. We were assigned the work of rewriting the Manual section of The Covenant of Christian Conduct. I’ll reflect on this work a little later. (The ebook is available here. All proceeds go to the Trevecca Student Scholarship Fund.)

One of the highlights of General Assembly is the Exhibit Hall. Imagine massive. Trevecca and ENC had side-by-side booths where we greeted alumni, recruited future students, and conversed with old friends. The sign hanging above the two areas said, Two Cities: One Mission, with the skylines of Boston and Nashville prominently displayed. Denise and I found stools and straddled the line between the two booths, greeting friends old and new.

I wish you all could have experienced the camaraderie of the booths. It was like a family reunion of generational alumni. Everyone knew some of the same people. Tall tales were told, pranks remembered, tears shed as deceased friends were recalled, merger discussed, children introduced to their future college, and hugs galore were given. I enjoyed watching Russ Long, chair of the ENC Board of Trustees, as he worked the ENC booth most of the weekend. He made the trip to Indy for the whole weekend just to be part of helping the ENC family get their arms around the prospects of a merger. I was moved by his passion and energy. And the first mixing of the employees representing Trevecca and ENC was a union to celebrate. I know I’m prejudiced, but the energy around the Trevecca/ENC booth seemed to captivate the whole Exhibition Hall. Thanks to all who built the booths, transported them, constructed them on site, worked them, and then tore them down and brought them home. You provided a space and place for something significant to happen.

The legislative work of the General Assembly began on Saturday with a delegate orientation and committee meetings. All delegates were assigned to one of 10 committees. My assignment was on the Christian Action Committee. This body of about 200 dealt with the resolutions of an ethical nature – sanctity of life, sexuality, alcohol, marriage, racism, etc. If you would like to read the resolutions, they are available at GA2017.com. Scroll to Resources, choose “English,” and the committees will be listed with the various resolutions under the committee.
Two significant issues in the CA Committee had to do with alcohol and human sexuality. The discussion on our stance of abstinence from alcohol revolved around the issue of whether it should remain a condition for membership. The attempt of the legislation was to affirm the call to abstinence as an act of loving regard for and solidarity with those who are being harmed by it, but to also recognize that our calling is unique among the denominations and to make place within membership for those who might disagree with our position of abstinence. The call of young clergy was for integrity around the issue, admitting that many members of the church drink socially even as the church tends to follow a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” practice. I blogged about this issue last week. The legislation was amended and brought to the floor of the General Assembly the following week. After some brief discussion it was referred to the Board of General Superintendents for further study. A task force will be appointed to bring recommendation back to the 2021 GA.
The second issue of significance was the report of the Task Force on Human Sexuality. This report can be read in its entirety on my blog post Thoughts on Human Sexuality. The committee heard the report, discussed at length, and voted unanimously in favor of adoption. There was a holy hush in the room as we realized the power of the unity that had enveloped this discussion and position. Issues that have ripped apart our Episcopalian and Methodist friends, threatening the division of their denominations, had brought us together around a position that was biblical, truthful, gracious and redemptive. Having served with the international leaders who had crafted the statement over the past three years, I cried with joy. The legislation went to the floor of the General Assembly Plenary Session and was passed with a 97 percent approval vote. I was proud of my church.
On Sunday, the midpoint of the 10-day conference, we gathered in worship as ~40,000 people from 162 nations celebrated our Lord and shared the communion meal together. Thousands more live-streamed the service in their congregational gatherings around the globe. Then we all rushed off to Sunday dinner. Both Trevecca and ENC held their alumni and friends dinners in nearby hotel ballrooms. Denise and I, plus our three daughters, did the “merger dash.” We welcomed the Trevecca crowd at the door until the salads were served, then zoomed over two blocks via waiting van to do the ENC dinner talk as they were eating the main course, then zoomed back to the TNU site where dessert was being enjoyed, and gave the TNU talk. Then we sat down and ate a piece of dry chicken. It was fun to see the fellowship of the alumni of these two schools and to share with each a report on their alma mater. On our way back to our hotel room, we stopped by the Southern Nazarene University luncheon and greeted Loren and Linda Gresham, who are completing 50 years of service to SNU. We also congratulated Dr. Keith Newman, the incoming SNU president. The family of Nazarene educators is a gift to the Church.
On day six, the Plenary Sessions began and for the next four days we dealt with hundreds of legislative items brought before the Assembly by the committees. Some of it was exciting—a Manual revision of restoration of pastors, debate on the article of faith on Sanctification, whether the GA ought to meet every four or every five years. Some of it was boring. I won’t name those because I’m sure they were vitally important to someone, though I know not who. The highlight of the Assembly was the election of two new general superintendents. The church elects six to lead the global work. Two of our past six were retiring and the four incumbents were re-elected with strong affirmation. For most of history, we have elected six Anglo American men. We had elected only one female and two non-USA leaders prior to this Assembly. We elected Dr. Filimao Chambo, an African, and Dr. Carla Sunberg, missionary, educator, and multi-lingual servant. The church took a giant step forward in recognizing the diversity of the people of God in its leadership. I was seated near both of the newly elected general superintendents. As the ballot of their election was announced, the African delegation broke into a song of celebration and ushered their brother to the platform for his acceptance speech. When Dr. Sunberg was announced, they did the same for her. I heard them saying to her on the walk to the platform, “We love him (pointing to Dr. Chambo) and we love you. We will pray for him and we will pray for you.” I love these African Christians.

 

Comments

  1. Dan
    This is a great & encouraging report. Was there an intentional plan discussed to address the “mass exit” of Millenials from Church? By age 22, it is estimated 70% of people age 19-29 will abandon our Judaeo/Christian belief system and not return. One of their major reasons for leaving is the narrow-minded Church.(USA) As we know, our main-line denominations are dormant and declining, as older and faithful members transfer to heaven.
    Blessings!

    • Dan Boone says:

      The good news is that the millennials were there and leading in seminars, on panels, writing legislation. They had late night social times together. I believe the ones who have stayed are about to lead something good. Of course, we still have along way to go.

  2. Becky Nielson Erwin says:

    As you would expect, I have attended every GA since I was ten years old. Unfortunately, because of my parents’ rapidly declining health, I was not able to attend, but I followed everything closely. We took my dad (Joe Nielson) to my brother’s house to watch the Sunday morning service live stream. That morning was one of the rare times he was fully engaged and we had tears in our eyes as he watched closely and made some positive observations. As a sociologist, he has always been interested in the globalization of the church and had great insight thirty years ago as he studied the challenges of globalization.
    Your observations make me proud of a denomination that is willing to tackle difficult cultural changes while maintaining a biblical point of view.

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