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GC2019 delegates discuss Way Forward

When General Conference delegates get together, they often spend their time discussing votes and lobbying fellow delegates to vote as they do.

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Lonnie Chafin, a lay delegate from the Northern Illinois Conference, wanted a different approach ahead of next year's special session of The United Methodist Church's top legislative assembly.

The 2019 special General Conference seeks to resolve the denomination's longtime division — a dispute that threatens to splinter the 12.5 million-member, multinational denomination.

With that in mind, Chafin helped bring together a multinational group of 55 delegates and 10 additional church leaders for a gathering aimed not at bolstering a particular perspective but at building relationships.

The group, which met in July at United Methodist-related Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville, Tennessee, does not have a name.

No press attended the meeting.

"We wanted delegates to talk about the plans without spin," Chafin said. "To that end, we tried to get a theological spectrum in the room."

Not invited, he said, were people "who are willing to break the church over their own position." That guideline, he said, excluded people on the extremes.

Mainly, it was people who wanted to talk about how to keep the church together.

Chafin said the view articulated most during the meeting was a deep love for The United Methodist Church. "I watched people on all sides of the political spectrum get emotional and choke up when they talked about how much this church has meant to them," he said.

Even without legislation in hand, Chafin said, the group used publicly available information to discuss the three plans.

Most participants at the Nashville meeting, said Rev. David Livingston, a Great Plains Conference delegate, came away recognizing that delegates will not be able to pass the perfect plan in 2019. That recognition opens the way to finding common ground.

The Rev. Kalaba Chali, a Zambian native who is now mercy and justice coordinator in the Great Plains Conference, came to the meeting with experience around the denomination's global connection. He is not a delegate nor an advocate but instead attends General Conference as a French-English translator.

He described the meeting as "very Spirit-filled."

"It wasn't about competing for one side but about having dialogue," he said.

His hope is that delegates from Africa, Asia and Europe, will be able to examine the legislation in their own languages before siding with any particular advocacy group.

He added that he has spoken with United Methodists in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Mozambique who are interested in finding some compromise to help the church stay together.

Chafin said the Nashville meeting is not the beginning of a new group or movement. But he hopes it is the beginning connections that will last through the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis.

"There's no question, we're all part of the same family reunion now."

Heather Hahn, multimedia news reporter, UMNS

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