I Am An Institutionalist and a Revolutionary – Randall Miller, Ph.D.

Episode 2

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EPISODE 002: Pastor Molly checks in with Randall Miller, one of the most United Methodist people she knows. As a lay person, he has served as a delegate to every GC since 1988, as a Director the Board of UMCOR and the General Board of Church and Society, and as an alternate member of the Judicial Council. He has been an active leader in the Reconciling Ministries Network, and serves on their Board RMN, and was a member of the Mediation Team that crafted the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. He lives in San Francisco with his husband, Glenn.

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Discussion Questions

  1. Randall Miller describes experiences of church–even in deeply divided times–as a place where diverse people want to be together in community. How does this resonate with your experience?
  2. Randall Miller describes hope “that we still might overcome all of the disastrous things that have happened in our history, that have deeply harmed people. We might kind of repent of that.” What could repentance look like in your context?
  3. What changes would help the institutional church better support ministries of inclusion and justice?
  4. What can you do to encourage young people in your community? How can you nurture younger leaders?

Transcript

Molly: Welcome back to “Where Do We Go From Here, UMC?” I am Rev. Molly Vetter at the Westwood UMC in Los Angeles, and I’m glad to be with you again for further conversation about what issues, challenges, and possibilities are here before us, now, as United Methodists committed to inclusion, justice, and love. Our congregation has wanted to know more to understand how we might be a part of changing and shaping our denomination toward the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons and greater faithfulness in our long work for justice. I’m glad to be with you today for a second interview in this series.

My guest today is Randall Miller, who is one of the most “United Methodist” people I know. He has served on so many of the boards and agencies of our church, been a delegate to General Conference since 1988, been an active leader in the Reconciling Ministries Network, and the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He is both an institutionalist and a revolutionary, and I’m grateful for his time, his thoughtfulness, and his faithfulness in our conversation.

I invite you to jump in with me now, as we listen to how Randall is feeling about where we are in the church, right now.

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Molly: How are you feeling in this moment? And what do you hope for next?

Randall: Yeah, I was talking to a friend from the southeast a couple of months ago, as all of these recent developments were kind of—the General Conference being delayed ‘til 2024, and the increasing, I would call it, belligerence of the WCA and the impending launch of the Global Methodist Church or the GMC. And, you know, the turmoil about what to do with Jurisdictional Conferences and this feeling of deep stuckness.

And it did feel like we were moving chaotically towards separation, whether we manage that well or not. And the image that I shared with him was that really terrible scene in Gandhi

You know where India and Pakistan have decided to split, and people are kind of like rushing to be on the right side of the line, you know, in the last 24 hours. Even though that’s a little bit overblown, given the crisis that was, it does kind of feel like that–that we are messily moving towards some kind of official split in the United Methodist Church, and that people are very messily moving and trying to figure out which side of the dividing line that they want to be on.

It feels to me very chaotic. I still believe that separation is necessary and right, if really, you know; I don’t think it’s just 2 sides, but multiple folks on various sides or points of view don’t feel like we can live together in harmony— that we really need to find a way to sort of split, and it would be better if we could find a mutual mutually agreeable way to do that. But we haven’t been able to, and I don’t think the protocol has been viable for actually a long time now. So. 

I am still hopeful about what will be a re-formed United Methodist Church, and hopeful that that reformed church, at least in the US, will be strongly supportive of LGBTQ+ people, and that there’s this group of folks in the church center left, and even some people on the right, who will want to live with each other in community enough to explore what that means — overcome our fear and our anger and our kind of, the stuff that’s held us apart, and that we’ll have this kind of vibrant group of United Methodists who want to be with each other. Who want to be in ministry, and agree that we have to treat all people with kind of deep respect, and include everyone, in the United Methodist church. And I mean in leadership, I mean marriages continuing. I mean people who don’t want to do marriages opting out, but that the thrust of what has been the reconciling movement goes forward full steam.

But that will take some work, and we’re really only at the very beginning of that kind of rebirth of the United Methodist Church.

There’s a lot of hills, so…

Molly: I think of you as one of the, like, most United Methodist people I know, Randall. This is the denomination that you inherited from great-grandparents and grandparents and parents.

You’ve had leadership roles in a wide variety of spaces in your annual conference, and church, and in the denomination— you’ve both chaired the Commission on General Conference and been arrested on the floor of the General Conference in protest. 

Randall: Quite a contrast…

Molly: This is a lot to hold together. What keeps you working in the church? 

Randall: So, someone in my current congregation (by the way everyone, I am a lay person, not clergy. )

Molly: That’s helpful, right? Like, you don’t have to do this…this isn’t your paycheck…

Randall: People assume I’m clergy. Someone in my local church– we were talking on a panel, and she called me a cradle to grave United Methodist, which just makes me shudder.

I really value my family’s presence in the United Methodist Church, and the Methodist church before that in various forms. I actually don’t feel like a “cradle to grave” United Methodist.

I’m really committed to the United Methodist Church as long as I can see this glimmer of being able to move on many fronts to a more just and inclusive church, and that includes for women, and that includes in terms of racial equity concerns, and that includes certainly for LGBTQ+ people, and for people in the Central Conferences a pathway that is just not so deeply colonialist.

And so that’s what sparks me. And what keeps me in the church is that I have been in congregations, starting when I was very young, who invested a lot in me. These were not, you know, the stereotype of everyone sort of from a certain perspective, looking the same, acting the same, believing the same–that is not the case at all. It was people across the spectrum who loved me into being, and cared for me in times of what I experience as personal struggle.

And walked with me as I explored what it meant to live out my life is an out gay, Black man in the church. They didn’t all fully understand, but I love them for being on the journey with me. 

That, really, is what keeps me— even the Commission on the General Conference, when I was chairing that which was the worst experience in the church, barring serving on complaint teams.

There were people from across the spectrum in that Commission on General Conference who were respectful, who engaged with me and appreciated my skills. We didn’t always agree. But that’s what buoys me up, that there is still this kind of constituency, and people are uncertain, and don’t know everything that they need to know, and they don’t know what full inclusion means in any category, but they’re willing to kind of hang in there and build relationships and move forward. So that’s what keeps me in the church.

I would be less than honest to say that there haven’t been a number of times where I have really contemplated leaving, because it’s gotten that bad and certainly the Special Session in 2019 was such a low in the history, in my personal history, that I certainly contemplated leaving, so I don’t want to say that, you know, I’m here come hell or high water.

I’m really here because I think the hope I see is grounded in a theological hope that this is the work of Christ in the United Methodist Church, and that we still might overcome all of the disastrous things that have happened in our history, that have deeply harmed people. We might kind of repent of that.

And I’ve been a part of the harm in ways as well.

Church leaders, many of them Black, but Church leaders of all colors who really understood, you know, the Black history, the Black United Methodist history. You know Mel Talbert, Beverly Shamana, Randy Nugent, who used to be the General Secretary of GBHEM, and Leontine Kelly. Just this host of really great Black leaders, some of whom became bishops. Who walk that kind of double line between this church has done deeply harmful things to me and my community AND this is where we have vested our hope. 

I was thinking about the other day— where that came from, and it really came from them. They’re the ones, when I was at a point when I was younger–very, very, very very angry at the church, you know. Because you come to awareness of being Black. You come to awareness of being gay.

You come to awareness of what the Church has done on at least those fronts. They are the ones who showed me a path forward. And so it really is a path that I deeply believe in.

But I really feel like that’s why I stay in this groove, in terms of being able to see the hope. 

And I’m pragmatic. I will just say that I really hate the “having to talk about money and bolts” and we, those of us who count ourselves as progressives, centrist and inclusive. There is this opponent we have in the Wesleyan Covenant Association and before that Good News and the IRD.

There really was a point, probably 20 years worth of the struggle, where I thought, we just have different ideas about the world. I live in a world, increasingly, where a LGBTQ+  people are living their lives: getting married, having children, struggling with finances, wondering about the future. That’s just my normal—and they live in a very different world. And also with very different theological beliefs.

And that was okay with me. I did not agree with them, and always stood in opposition to their imposing that.

But I really have come to this belief that those folks on the other side, some of them, especially leadership, are in some ways morally bankrupt, and that they will do anything to move forward their vision of the church, particularly in reference to the protocol and the mediation.

And it’s abundantly clear to me that even that offer of $25 million was not enough to kind of compel behavior, or stopping the disruption and the persecution of folks, and, really, lying to their folks about who church leaders were. 

But yeah, it will not be the money and talking about money that will save us, in terms of what I hope is a reformed United Methodist Church.

It really will be a new generation of leaders, both lay and clergy. And I think, younger— I’m 63, so, younger leaders— who are committed to building those relationships and re-forming the church around the theological vision of this vibrant, faithful community that spans countries and continents. 

It will be hard work, but it will be worth it if that’s the goal: rebuilding this community.

But the money — no, that will not save us. Offering money… We have to talk about money but if we don’t have that other part, there’s no point in being the United Methodist Church, right?

Why come to a faith community to do the kind of stuff that you could do in any other management setting?

I’m a manager by career. I love management. I am a management geek. I but that is not why I come to the United Methodist Church, to talk about money and committees and administrative stuff. It’s necessary— but I come for what traditionalists would call “abundant life.”

Those kind of thriving relationships with other people, hearing of the gospel, and taking communion– that really refreshes and sets me on a new path.

Molly: So I chose to call this class and podcast “Where do we go from here, UMC?” I was Googling, and found a blog post you wrote in 2019, with a very similar title— a nod to Martin Luther King, Jr’s 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? His book was written just a year before the United Methodist Church was founded, and a year before his assassination, so at the very end of his life, and in the beginning of our institutional life. There was a line in that that I found really rich. I’m going to read you your own writing.

You said: “I’m the face of pressures to dissolve the United Methodist Church, or embrace a false unity, my commitment is to alleviate the suffering of LGBTQ+ people in all the places where the United Methodist Church is present, and I will take any reasonable and principal path to reach that destination.” I thought that was really rich. Does that still resonate for you? 

Randall: Yeah, I probably should say the other guidestar for me, including in working and leadership positions in what I think of as the institutional Church, is LGBTQ+ liberation.

So. Yeah, I do understand that taking leadership makes you somewhat of an institutionalist.

But I think of myself as a kind of subversive institutionalist.

But that’s really true that I really do deeply love the Church and I’m doing everything I can to change the current United Methodist Church into a place where people are not just tolerated, but empowered to live their lives in a deep, rich way and that commitment to the LGBTQ+ struggle, along with many, many, many, many others, including with people who have now become ancestral, is what also has motivated me. That’s my commitment–that I deeply love the church and its possibilities. And you know, that means kind of overturning some of the tables and moving us forward. 

I will say I even feel that way about the administrative processes of the Church. They’ve gotten too big and too expansive, and are a hindrance to doing lively ministry. I love what The Methodist Church and the General Agencies have done, most of my life. I’m a die hard fan of them. But I think maybe their time has come and gone. We need something to help people, like General Agencies, but we might restructure them a bit, so that they are part of this vibrant movement. Structure them, in conversation with them, so that we understand how church structure is supporting this vibrant, lively movement to be faithful disciples of Christ, and deeply committed to inclusion, justice, and equity. 

I think people don’t think that I’m still the radical who would overturn tables, but I really am. There’s just now a layer of age and institutionalism. 

Molly: And also you’ve been leader of all the committees.

So we’re here–our congregation, like you, shares this commitment to a church that represents the fullness of the diversity of our community, that embraces and celebrates the gifts of LGBTQ+ people, as well as works to overcome and dismantle racist structures and sexist structures.

So we’re here with you, and we want to get to a place where the institutional church is fully supportive of that. And there’s a lot of like–the ways we normally do that, like resolutions at General Conference or whatever, can’t happen. What can a church like ours do in this meantime? What do we do now? Are we just, like, deferred until that moment? What advice would you give for how to live now?

Randall: Yeah. How to live the between times, which is another Martin Luther King sermon.

So we, for good or for ill, the church at the general level, has been in a long period of stuckness, and it’s in a period of stuckness where multiple crises, Covid, everything else has rocked the church. For good or ill, that moment of stuckness is now coming undone, and things are beginning to move forward, and it is somewhat chaotic. We do still have to, everyone and not just institutionalists, have to keep our eye on the ball and be clear about the kind of United Methodist Church we want to live into in the future. So I think that’s another thing that people could do. 

And then just keep shining your light as a congregation that welcomes all people and is struggling to live into what that means. I think that’s incredibly important.

I’ll just say again that what gives me hope–one of the things–was that I was nurtured in a congregation. This is long before there was a reconciling movement, and long before I understood that I was a gay man. I was nurtured in my local congregation by people who loved me deeply and saw my leadership skills. They also saw–they didn’t fully understand–that as a young person in junior high and high school, I was undergoing a profound crisis of who I was, and though they didn’t sit me down and say, “What is it?,” they surrounded me with a cocoon, and kind of assured me that I would be all right, that I was a valuable person, that I had a contribution to make, in subtle and not so subtle ways. I really think that that saved my life in terms of, that I did not experience the really troubling things that happen to people who come out early in life. The disconnect from community, the feeling like your life is not worth anything, feeling like, you know the world is against you. I never felt like that, because I knew that I have this strong support from my local church of people who have mentored and cared for me. 

So much so that for years after that, 10 or 15 years, I would go back to my local church in my dreams, and walk the corridors there as a way of, kind of, I think, kind of stabilizing myself, and remembering that gift. 

Local churches can do powerful things to save LGBTQ+ kids, Black kids like me. Other people of color, women. And can do powerful things to change the way that the church is.

Molly: That’s beautiful. That gives me hope. Thank you, Randall.

Where was that church? Can we give a shout out?

Randall: Yes! Glenmont United Methodist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. It’s still there, much diminished, but still there. Just a church of the saints, many of whom now have passed on, but still just a fantastic church. 

Molly: Well, it’s been a gift and treasure to have this time with you today, Randall.

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Molly: Thanks for listening in to this conversation that I’m grateful to have had with Randall Miller. I hope that you have found hope for the work of the church in all of the places where we are, for the power and possibility to be communities of liberation and justice and joy. I encourage you to continue to listen in on this series, and to instigate conversations where you are.

We’ll be back next week with Episode 3–a conversation with Lonnie Chafin. The Treasurer of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, he is a long time General Conference delegate. He and I will sit down to talk about what all this talk about pensions and property has to do with the Gospel. I hope you’ll join us then. Thanks for being here today, and blessings.

Episode 2