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REFLECTIONS: Have we lost our commitment to inclusiveness? Bishop Woodie W. White, Jan 25, 2012
Bishop Woodie White
By Bishop Woodie W. White UMR Columnist
I was first elected as a delegate to the General Conference in 1968. What a year to be a delegate. It was the Uniting General Conference, bringing together the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church to form the United Methodist Church. There was great excitement as a new Protestant denomination was emerging, one that would be the largest in the nation.
There was also excitement among delegates as they anticipated a new Church without segregated organizational structures—especially since the Central Jurisdiction, a racial jurisdiction among five geographical jurisdictions, would not be a part of the new denomination.
Racial inclusiveness would be such an essential, core value of the Church, that a statement on “Inclusiveness” would be made a part of the Constitution. But more importantly, for the next 25 years, inclusiveness remained a United Methodist characteristic.
United Methodist-related institutions and the denomination’s general agencies were intentional in their efforts, and became sensitive to assuring the broadest racial and ethnic participation in governance, staffing and programs. The denomination became increasingly aware of its diverse constituency—African, Asian, Hispanic, Native, and white American. In addition, there was a growing awareness of the global nature of United Methodism, as well as the denomination’s constituency outside the United States. There was pride of such diversity and inclusiveness.
Especially at the level of the general church, there was intentional effort to assure that committees and boards reflected the broadest possible inclusion of diversity. And everywhere this was done, an attempt was also made to assure organizations, staff and programs reflected the church’s diversity, too. Diversity would assure inclusiveness with intentionality.
However, though we assumed inclusiveness would follow from diversity, with the passing of time I wonder if there has been a lapse in this sense of intentionality and this United Methodist ethos. Is inclusiveness, perhaps, not as much a core value as it was 44 years ago when the denomination was established?
In this regard, I wonder if it would not be helpful for all United Methodist organizations to make some assessments: What is the nature of the organization’s inclusiveness? How is it defined? Who is not present? Who is? How is inclusiveness reflected in organizational life? Even as communities and neighborhoods become increasingly inclusive, is the same development no longer expected of worshipping congregations? Today, many local churches face an absence of inclusiveness, rather than its emergence. In some cases, they may now even be the least inclusive organizations in the community.
The United Methodist Church is known for its global character, and of such we should be proud. But how inclusive are the Church’s structures and life? What difference does it make that our membership is diverse?
As United Methodists seek to increase our evangelistic efforts and reach out to the unchurched, as we engage in restructuring to be more effective and relevant, I hope we will not forget one of our core values in the process: to be an inclusive church in an inclusive community.
Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Candler School of Theology.