July 27, 2017 Tom Berlin

Why Not Open Meetings?

The Commission on a Way Forward (CWF) met recently in Chicago in closed meetings that some described as “secret.” Secret is a powerful word. It evokes surreptitious deals made in smoke-filled rooms. The meeting was held at the Wespath building, and they are pretty focused on health and longevity, so smoke-filled was out. I understand the concern. No one wants to be associated with a lack of transparency. As a member of the commission, I have been thinking about when it is appropriate to be in a closed meeting and when a meeting should be open. Most meetings in the United Methodist Church (UMC) are open, other than staff-parish meetings in the local church. This is to say that when sensitive matters are discussed, like salary or job performance, we all understand why it is best to close the door and talk in a discreet space. The hope is that committee members will be more candid, thoughtful and creative in their dialogue. On the other hand, it is important for people to have access and information related to any process connected to church governance.

The CWF works with a series of very complicated issues. We talk about how to live together given our varied views on same-sex marriage and ordination of gay and lesbian people (the Book of Discipline only mentions the LG portion of “LGBTQ”). The work is multicultural. The UMC is an international denomination that has members in the United States, Asia, Africa and both western and eastern Europe. We are to offer a proposal that will allow for as much unity as possible while still offering some level of resolution to our long and sometimes rancorous discussion on these matters during a time when some, for the sake of conscience, have defied the mandates of our governing documents. You can see why the question of open meetings has a purpose. Reporters could share how deliberations are going. An open gallery could enable visitors to share their thoughts and add to the material the CWF has requested from numerous caucus groups, boards, agencies and church members.

And yet, I am sure of one thing: the closed meetings of the CWF have built trust amongst its members, dramatically advanced its work and enabled us to have open and forthright conversation. Members can consider a number of perspectives and proposals without feeling the need to spend too much energy guarding turf for the sake of an audience.

As I thought through these issues, it occurred to me that the commission is different from any church meeting I have ever attended. Commission members are doing the work of diplomacy. Members are from four continents. They are traditional and progressive, male and female, gay and straight; they represent multiple cultures and viewpoints. There are bishops, laity and clergy. While we try not to work in a representative fashion, we understand that we will offer a plan that could impact a broad array of constituents in several cultures and countries.

When the metaphor of diplomacy came to mind, I turned to a friend at Floris UMC who enjoyed a career in the State Department and has been interested in the work of the CWF. It occurred to me that our work may remind him of his own. After we had talked, I asked him to share some thoughts about diplomacy and closed meetings together in an email. Here is a portion of that correspondence:

“Let me offer a perspective on the operations of this unique commission. In many respects, it is a diplomatic exercise in the best sense of the word. My experience as a Career Ambassador in the United States Foreign Service gave me the opportunity to work with Presidents and Secretaries of States of both political parties on very important diplomatic questions. Our negotiating partners were people of good will, but they came different countries and cultures and often held policy views very different from our own. Naturally, living in a democracy, it was important for us to be transparent with the American people about our objectives and the processes we pursued to achieve them. At the same time, we needed to maintain the trust of our negotiating partners.

To be specific, we knew we could accomplish nothing without creating an atmosphere of trust with officials who started out with views different, sometimes radically different, from our own. We could not establish and sustain the trust necessary to reach understandings and agreements if we conducted talks and negotiations, especially exploratory talks, in a fish bowl. When we were striving fully to understand the views of other officials, it often was important to ask questions and test ideas. We could not do that if they and we knew that outside partisans in the debate would instantly and vehemently subject us to vicious criticism for not being sufficiently strident and uncompromising in articulating his or her own position. We all admired President Woodrow Wilson and his admirable ideals, but no responsible diplomat today believes that “open covenants, openly arrived at” means that CNN should broadcast live the proceedings in all negotiations, that transcripts of preliminary talks be published immediately in the New York Times or that anyone who wishes should be able simply to drop by and listen to the deliberations.

Rather, if the goal is to negotiate peace on difficult conflicts, diplomatic experience suggests other techniques should be used to enhance transparency and obtain input from interested parties. For example, it is good for the interested public to have opportunities to submit views at the beginning and throughout the process. It is important to provide informative but general and high-level updates, to explain the types of issues under discussion and, at least directionally, the possible compromises that are under consideration.”

The CWF is in a process that will move from closed meetings to a fully available report. It is to offer a proposal to the Council of Bishops that will eventually be considered by the delegates of the called General Conference in 2019. A more extensive update of our work is now available. Take a look at that update, and you will see what we are learning, observing and discussing. The commission will offer more updates in the months ahead. When a plan is eventually submitted to the Council of Bishops and then shared with General Conference delegates, the UMC will have a very open conversation about its merits as well as concerns it may evoke.

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Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.

Comments (7)

  1. Ron Hill

    Your comments regarding closed meetings and transparency line up with my experience as a school board member in a large school district. Sometimes the work you undertake can challenge our own moral compass. I have faith in the Commission to protect God’s children and God’s institutions when doing His work that you have been called to do. We try our best to navigate this line of transparency when individual’s lives are at stake. The main stream media makes your job difficult, add in “social media” and its like navigating a minefield. I thank you for your service, time, commitment and willingness to share.

  2. Jodi Parins

    I find this appalling. Even in Stagf Parish meetings there are times when they are open and only confidential when salary, performance and the like are discussed. Even in political setting, personnel committees meet problicaly and adjourn to close session when appropriate. Also it is my understanding is there are no LGBTQ members on the committee.

    The relationships are now made. It is time to be 100% transparent and allow participation by the public.

  3. Karl A Zeggert

    This important issue should be conducted in open meetings. Observers need not enter into the discussion, but to observe and report

  4. Beth Glass

    I echo Ron’s thanks for your service, time commitment and willingness to share. I think that “space” is often needed to build a sense of trust and am grateful that the CWF has invested both time and space apart from public scrutiny for that end. I continue to pray for the work of this body and am thankful for all who are serving on it.

  5. Tim Agar

    I appreciated both Tom’s thoughts and those of the church member with long State Department experience. It is a challenging task to balance all concerns in order to serve the greater whole. I believe the process is imbued by the Holy Spirit’s presence and guidance because of the commitment and faith of the people involved. They are “us” and “we” are them. We know them and hopefully can trust that they will wade through this time of discussion and questioning with the Christ-centered hearts we know them to have in our daily interactions with the CWF’s members. Certainly we don’t know everyone involved in the process, but collectively the greater “we” of the UMC have chosen these folks to bring together their best selves to provide a direction that we can all see and support, knowing that no result will be perfect. It takes patience and our continued prayerful support for all of this to end up with the best possible result. I am so hopeful and feeling blessed.

  6. Loren Harmon

    They simply don’t like or trust us Helots. Democracy is anathema. My Pastor summed it up when I complained … “that’s why they hire me, to make decisions”.

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