faith in action

Revising the Social Principles: A global process

The General Conference tasked Church and Society to revise the Social Principles. The process is ongoing and has included conversations with United Methodists around the world. One United Methodist reflects on her experience.

Two people read the Social Principles.
  • Bible studies and new members’ classes as a pastor.
  • Consultations with congregations and pastors from my tenure as a district superintendent
  • Conversations with members of communities, families and friends.

What do all of these have in common? They’re all settings in which I have dialogued and applied the teachings of the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church.

My application to Church and Society requesting participation in one of the worldwide Social Principles consultation conversations in 2015 felt very much like a natural continuation of this ongoing work and commitment. I struggle to express my joy at having been selected to participate on one of the Social Principles writing teams in 2017.

I believe that I have an opportunity, as do others, to receive the Social Principles as a lived expression of a shared faith. Gathering with other United Methodist leaders from around the world as laity and clergy, serving in the parish, the academy, and a host of different settings, quickened both the vibrancy and urgency of this work.

Furthermore, the gathering served as a staunch reminder of the global witness of our church and the privilege of engaging this work together. The cultural contexts, deeper and sometimes different interpretations of words and statements, help to keep us energetically involved in the work. The assumptions we made regarding what appeared to be so clear to each of us, were challenged in ongoing ways. We were often close, but not quite there. Yet, we persevered. It was sometimes the case that hearts prevailed before minds, because the hearts were committed to engagement.

It may come as a surprise that some of the issues about which people in the U.S. are concerned are not priorities in the same way to people in other parts of our Church. Similarly, some issues were of paramount importance to some of our sisters and brothers in other parts of the Church, but are sometimes taken for granted among those in the U.S.

We came to appreciate with fresh eyes the many ways in which we are bound together, which are stronger than our differences. We also discovered that assumed perspectives were often held together by tenuous threads. There were the expected differences of opinion that may be explained by context, theology, life experiences and personal viewpoint. I give thanks that we were able to enjoy both the freedom of honest, self-expression and the commitment to collaboration regarding what we understood to represent the highest and best of our Wesleyan heritage. In this, the quadrilateral form of our discernment served us well.

We employed the use of translators when necessary as we sought to pray, converse and brainstorm. We spent time with a partner or in teams where the work was divided along the lines of compatible principles. We also had time to sit and reflect; time to break bread together and be together. We were servants of the church, engaged in essential work.

I remember asking myself, “how will my draft of one principle impede or help shape and further the conversation on principles before and following the one of my assignment?” Our connectedness as leaders for a season should always raise a cause and effect question.

I was blessed to work with a partner, Dr. Ellen Blue, who is a member of the academy. As was the case, the dates for our writing team gathered in Washington, D.C., occurred just a few days following Hurricane Irma. I was challenged to obtain a flight from Florida. I could not have known that our conversation and Ellen’s recent book, In Case of Katrina could provide sources of encouragement, hope and healing for work of restoration with my annual conference. Thanks to the Connection, our work was steeped in relationships, wisdom, wonder and resources and continued prayers for our ministries.

We do not know the form of The United Methodist Church of the future. We do know that we have a faithful witness to the Church, a tradition of rich theology, a deep texture to our ministry and a desire to be “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world,” as The United Methodist Book of Worship puts it.

The Social Principles may represent the best of who we are and the best of who we hope to become in the future!

The Rev. Sharon Austin is a former district superintendent and currently serves as the director of connectional and justice ministries for the Florida Annual Conference and was a delegate to the General Conferences in 2012 and 2016. She and her husband, Michael, are the parents of four young adult children.