Preparing for General Conference

Tom-Lambrecht-BioBy Thomas Lambrecht –

Every four years, reminiscent of the Olympic Games, several thousand delegates, staff, and observers representing United Methodists from around the world gather for a two-week meeting to set the course of the church for the next quadrennium. Each time, the location moves to another one of United Methodism’s five jurisdictions or regions in the United States. Next year is the Western Jurisdiction’s turn, with the General Conference taking place May 10-20, 2016, at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Oregon. Coincidentally, this is the same city where the 1976 General Conference took place 40 years ago. The 2020 General Conference will take place in Minneapolis, in the North Central Jurisdiction. Beginning in 2024, General Conference will move outside the United States for the first time in history, with 2024 being held in Manila, the Philippines, and 2028 being held in Harare, Zimbabwe.

General Conference is the most important meeting that the denomination holds because it is the only group that speaks officially for all of United Methodism.  General Conference sets the budget for the general church, which filters down to the local church in the form of the apportionments each church pays to support the general church agencies, bishops, and mission work of the denomination. The General Conference also enacts the policies of the UM Church in the form of a Book of Discipline, which contains our doctrinal standards, the requirements for membership and ordination as clergy, the rules governing how local churches and annual conferences are to operate, and the policies and priorities governing the 12 general church agencies that coordinate the global work of the church.

In addition to setting policies and requirements, General Conference also passes numerous resolutions taking positions on a wide variety of social issues, found in a separate Book of Resolutions. These resolutions often cause much disagreement and debate.

In the past, General Conference has consisted of nearly 1,000 delegates representing the U.S., Europe, the Philippines, Eurasia, and Africa. The number of delegates was reduced to 864 for the 2016 conference in an effort to save money and make logistics easier. Much of the detail work on various legislative proposals takes place in one of the 12 legislative committees that function like committees in Congress. Proposals are considered, amended, and approved or defeated in committee. Those approved are then brought to the floor of the plenary session of all the delegates for final action. Many are approved on a consent calendar for proposals that have almost no opposition. A relative few proposals are actually debated and sometimes amended on the floor of the plenary session before being voted up or down.

Polarized Politics

Unfortunately, like the Olympics, General Conference has become a contest between different groups within the church. Progressives are represented by the Methodist Federation for Social Action, Reconciling Ministries Network, Love Prevails, and other groups. Evangelicals have the Confessing Movement, Good News, UMAction, and other groups. Each racial or ethnic group has its own caucus, which is an official part of the church. There are other special interest groups such as the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders, the United Methodist Rural Fellowship, and the Rural and Urban Network, among others. Informal groups also gather together to exert influence on General Conference, such as the Aldersgate Covenant for centrists.

Mirroring the polarized political climate within the United States, General Conference reflects the division between progressives and evangelicals, with fewer in the moderate or centrist camp. This polarization heightens the conflict and sometimes makes it difficult to accomplish the needed work. In 2012 the General Conference deadlocked between three different factions (evangelicals were not one of the factions) over proposed structural changes to the general church bureaucracy. After the time had passed for legislative committees to complete their work, when no proposal could gain a majority of the committee, a smaller group put together a compromise proposal that eventually passed the plenary session. However, the plan was declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council (United Methodism’s Supreme Court) on the last day of the conference, leading to a wild scramble to pass something in its place. In the end, no major structural changes were approved. This failure was seen as symptomatic of the “gridlock” that imperils the work of the General Conference.

Disrupted by Protests

Since at least 1992, every General Conference has been interrupted by demonstrators protesting against the United Methodist position on marriage and sexuality. Briefly stated, United Methodism holds that while all people are loved by God and of sacred worth, same-sex sexual relations are contrary to Christian teaching. The demonstrations can last for an hour or up to half a day, costing the conference valuable legislative time and hindering its work. At the 2000 General Conference in Cleveland, some of the demonstrators, including two active bishops, were arrested and fined for disrupting the conference.

In 2012 at Tampa, the pro-gay group Love Prevails led demonstrations that again shut down the floor of the conference. In a negotiated settlement, Love Prevails agreed to allow the conference to continue on condition that all legislation related to homosexuality and abortion would be postponed until the end of the conference. Thanks to delaying tactics by some delegates and the panic caused by the Judicial Council ruling the structural plan unconstitutional, none of that postponed legislation was acted upon. According to many observers, the 2012 General Conference was the most dysfunctional and least productive conference since the church began in 1968.

Portland 2016 threatens to be an even worse repeat of Tampa 2012. Love Prevails is again threatening demonstrations that will shut down the conference. There is talk that they plan to begin their demonstrations on the very first day, even blocking the work of legislative committees. Since 2000, the Council of Bishops has been reluctant to use firmness in dealing with the demonstrators, but these new plans may force their hand.

There has been some suggestion that the conference could be closed to observers, with only the delegates and staff present, in order to ensure that the meetings could continue. While this would work for the plenary sessions, which are normally live-streamed over the internet, the 12 legislative committees are not live-streamed, and closing them would be a real loss to the church. We have not only a tradition but a requirement in our Book of Discipline that meetings would be open to the public except for some very narrow exceptions. It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out.

 

2016 versus 1976

The United Methodist Church is much different today from what it was the last time General Conference was held in Portland in 1976. In 1975, church membership fell to 10 million, having lost over one million members since the church’s founding in 1968. Today, U.S. church membership stands at about 7.3 million, a decline of 27 percent in 40 years.

Worship attendance in 1975 was roughly 3.6 million. Today, it stands at about 2.9 million, a drop of 19 percent. In 1975, there were 73 annual conferences. Today, they have been consolidated to 57. We have lost about 5,000 churches in the U.S. since 1975.

At the same time, United Methodist membership outside the United States has soared. In 1975 there were only 356,000 members outside the U.S. Now, there are 5.5 million members outside the U.S., 5.2 million of which are in Africa, the fastest growing region of The United Methodist Church.

The amount of money spent by the general church per year has changed quite dramatically, as well. In 1977, general church apportionments were the equivalent of $220 million (in 2015 dollars). Projected apportionments for 2017 are just over $149 million, a 32 percent decline. In 2017 general church apportionments will account for $3.23 out of every $100 spent by local churches. In 1977, that amount was $4.47.

Good News Efforts

Good News and the other members of the Renewal and Reform Coalition are working hard preparing for General Conference 2016. We will have a team of volunteers present to observe the actions of each legislative committee and hand out daily newsletters and other information. Our briefing breakfasts will assist delegates to learn what is happening in the various committees and be prepared to address important issues as they arise. We will assist evangelical delegates in coordinating strategy and working together to move The United Methodist Church toward greater accountability to God’s Word and a renewed dependence upon the Holy Spirit for mission and ministry in the world. The faithful efforts of many evangelical leaders in the church make a measurable difference in the outcome of votes at General Conference.

Good News is indebted to the sustained prayers and finances of thousands of individual and congregational supporters across the U.S. who make our work possible, since we do not receive any official church funds. Those who favor a more biblical United Methodism are able to impact the church’s present and future through the efforts of Good News and like-minded groups. Progressive groups are also dependent upon non-church funds to maintain their efforts, although they also receive substantial support from non-United Methodist and even secular foundations.

General Conference is a contest of visions for the church. Different parts of the church have different visions for what the church should be. This is our only opportunity as a church to hash out what direction we believe God calls us to take for the next four years. Given the deep disagreements and polarization of the church, the result coming out of General Conference is usually a conglomeration of various incompatible parts of different visions. Please join us in praying that God will lead General Conference 2016 to a greater consensus on what God is calling United Methodists to believe and teach, to do and be.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.

Comments

  1. Tony Stevenson says

    I hope and pray that the UMC delegates keep and enforce the current BOC. Please do not let those sway us from speaking God’s truth-which is found in His word, the Bible. I have seen the affects of UMC Ministers that preach from the pulpit that same sex marriage is ok…It is NOT ok and God’s word says so—-just like ALL other sin as well. We need to be in the “savings of soul’s business” and not bowing down to [progressive pressures.

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.