I have recently returned from Tampa, Florida, where I participated as a “Reserve Delegate” for this year’s United Methodist General Conference. General Conference is the official legislative body of the United Methodist Church. It meets once every four years to develop the structures, rules and theological/social principles which guide our denomination. This year 988 delegates were present, coming from five continents, with 40% of the delegates from countries outside the United States. While we in the US are distressing about the continuing decline in membership, and stressing about the attendant decreases in funding for the church, United Methodism in Africa, and in parts of Asia is rapidly growing. Being a global church is a gift and a challenge to us as we seek to provide relevant ministries in the midst of varied cultural contexts.
As a reserve delegate I spent most of my time at Conference observing the work of legislative committees, and engaging voting delegates in conversation aimed at encouraging particular votes. Members of the Western Jurisdiction met together each day at 7 am to share observations and to strategize on issues of concern to us in the west. This was a great time to reconnect with friends and colleagues and to celebrate our western flavor of United Methodism.
Some of the major actions coming out of General Conference include these:
- The elimination of guaranteed appointments for United Methodist clergy (Prior to this vote, Elders in good standing have been guaranteed an appointment; this new legislation means that it will now be easier for Bishops to encourage ineffective clergy to exit, if they follow a prescribed process.)
- The rejection of a proposal to set aside one bishop (apart from responsibility for any geographic area) whose job would be to preside over the Council of Bishops and supervise the general agencies of the church.
- Entering into full communion with several historically black pan-Methodist denominations. (This would open up the possibility of accepting clergy leadership from these other churches in the Methodist family.)
- Removing the United Methodist Women from the oversight of the General Board of Global Ministries, and making UMW a stand-alone entity in the church.
- Creating and funding a National Plan for ministry with Pacific Islanders.
- Rejecting “positive investment” in Palestine, while also narrowly defeating a proposed divestment in corporations doing business with Israel in order to bring a more just peace for the Palestinians.
- Participating in an Act of Repentance for sins against Native American peoples.
- Retaining the church’s current position on homosexuality, while also adopting a new introductory statement in the Social Principles which allows for faith to be lived out in the context of different cultures.
- Adopting a $603.1 million budget for 2013-2016… which is actually a 6% decrease over the current budget for the denomination.
- Electing new members to the Judicial Council – our “Supreme Court” for the church
- Working diligently on proposed new structures for the denomination
Structure was a big issue for General Conference 2012. We arrived in Tampa with three detailed proposals to make sweeping changes in the way we direct the work of the denomination. One proposal came from the Connectional Table (the current leadership structure), while another was dubbed “Plan B” and sought to soften the Connectional Table’s proposal as a compromise position; and a third proposal came from Methodist Federation for Social Action. At issue in each of these plans was the question of how leadership would be chosen, and the tension between representational leadership (which often leads to large and expensive boards but also provides maximum input from various constituencies), and strategic or visionary leadership (which can have the effect of being more nimble and easy to make changes happen).
After several days of intensive work in the Legislative Committee designed to deal with questions of structure, the whole body debated and perfected a fourth plan – called “Plan UMC”. That plan was then referred to the Judicial Council for its review, and the Council determined it was unconstitutional! So, at literally the 11th hour, the General Conference accepted a proposal from the existing general agencies to voluntarily decrease the size of their boards. The question of structure will undoubtedly be on the agenda once more when General Conference meets here in Portland, Oregon in 2016.