General Conference vs. Christian Conferencing

Bishop Christian Alsted Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

Bishop Christian Alsted
Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

By Walter Fenton-

While presiding at annual conference sessions, one United Methodist bishop so frequently referenced “holy conferencing” that a group of clergy began to playfully count how many times he used the phrase in a given hour.

After emphasizing “holy conferencing” for at least the past four General Conferences, the Commission on General Conference now wants that bishop and other United Methodists to adopt “Christian conferencing.” It is not entirely clear why the shift was made, but it is clearly the preferred way the commission wants the church to think of General Conference.

But exactly what “Christian conferencing” is, and even more importantly, how 864 delegates charged with a largely legislative task express it, is highly debatable.

At the pre-General Conference gathering earlier this year in Portland, Oregon, Judi Kenaston, chair of the Commission on General Conference, said, “Christian conferencing is what General Conference is all about. We are a connectional church with many varied cultures and opinions.”

Bishop Christian Alsted, who serves in the 9,254-member Northern Eurasia and Europe Central Conference, and is chairman designate of Connectional Table, added, “In fact, Christian conferencing is not just a time set apart for conversation, but rather it is everything we will do at General Conference together.”

These are fine sentiments as far as they go, but they are so grandiose and broad as to either render the idea meaningless, or to reduce it to the simple observation that the delegates are Christians so the conference is a Christian conference.

Dr. Kevin Watson, scholar in Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, attempted to bring some clarity to the idea of Christian conferencing in two blog essays (click here and here). Although Wesley only used the phrase “Christian conference” once (apparently he never used the phrase “holy conferencing”), Watson noted that he used it in his important discussion about the various “means of grace.”

Unfortunately, Wesley did not fully define what he meant by Christian conferencing so scholars are left to tease out a definition and its context as well. According to Watson, Wesley would have believed that a “Christian Conference was honest, direct, piercing conversation with other Christians that was intended to help the participants grow in holiness. These conversations were most obviously situated within the weekly class meetings and band meetings.”

The above point makes problematic the commission’s incessant and obsessive reference to General Conference as a time of Christian conferencing.

There is nothing in our Book of Discipline or in the section on the duties and responsibilities of the commission, mandating that GC be conceived as a time of holy or Christian conferencing. Neither concept is even mentioned. Whether we like it or not, General Conference is largely a legislative conference where good, but imperfect, people come to discern God’s will for the people called Methodists.

Requiring or thinking it is even possible for 864 delegates, many who are strangers to one another, to engage in something intended for small, intimate groups of people who see one another regularly is simply unrealistic.

The Commission on General Conference is on a slippery slope to trying to define the conference and manufacture desired outcomes, neither of which are its tasks. It needs to assume the best of the delegates and those who elected them, and therefore dispense with telling delegates how they ought to act and speak under the rubrics of Christian or holy conferencing.

The commission best serves the delegates when it most closely adheres to its main task, to organize and efficiently run a conference that allows the delegates to freely and openly consider and discharge important matters before the church.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and analyst for Good News.

Comments

  1. For when “good but imperfect, people come to discern God’s will,” Christian or Holy Conferencing can aid in their discernment if they follow guidelines outlined by others:
    1. Every person is a child of God
    2. Listen before speaking
    3. Strive to understand from another’s point of view
    4. Strive to reflect accurately the views of others
    5. Disagree without being disagreeable
    6. Speak about issues; do not defame people
    7. Pray, in silence or aloud, before decisions
    8. Let prayer interrupt your busy-ness

    These guidelines apply to “small, intimate groups of people,” as well as General Conferences and Annual Conferences. Unfortunately, they seem to be seldom followed. And we’ve seen and heard the results!

    • Every person is a CREATION of God…but according to the Gospel of John, not every person is a CHILD of God. When will we get this politically correct definition BIBLICALLY right?

  2. View from the pew: Good understanding of what General Conference should be! I have come to the conclusion that the problem of lack of trust–which has been clearly identified as a problem within the UMC–has its roots in people no longer trust that God is at work in its designated processes. For me, the biblical parallel is when the apostle’s chose the replacement for Judas: they narrowed the choice down to two then rolled the dice, accepted the answer that appeared and moved on. Why shouldn’t the same be true of General Conference. It is a group of radical, progressive/liberal, fundamentalists who are constantly stirring the pot re the sexuality issue–keeping it at a boiling point–and are destroying the integrity of General Conference so that their own agenda can be met.

  3. The Rev. R. David ("Pastor Dave") Reynolds says

    I am a retired, evangelical, orthodox, Holiness United Methodist elder in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, and I would agree totally with this editorial by Brother Walter Fenton. For 13 years I served on the Annual Conference Sessions Committee in our Conference including one of our predecessor Conferences the former Southern Illinois Conference, seven years as the chairperson and three as the vice chairperson. Our ministry was similar to that of the General Conference Commission. Actually, in our Conference STANDING RULES it is stated that our purpose is “to assist the Area Bishop in planning Annual Conference each year.” Therefore, I have some similar experience along this line. AMEN and BRAVO to everything Brother Fenton says here.

  4. Sounds as if the talking points have been distributed, and the fix is in for using non-Methodist doctrine at GC.

    Sadly, my days as a Methodist, baptised as an adult 20-ish years ago, are about over. My congregation has a new, more liberal, pastor whose main point is that theology is less important as increasing membership (oh, those pesky commandments). I live in a very liberal area and the chances of finding a conservative congregation (especially with enough members to be in existence in 10 years) are small. And, frankly, I’m just weary of the constant fight over SSM. It simply won’t end until SSM is allowed by the US conferences by rule or practice, there are too many advocates in the hierarchy now. Then GC will be about the UMC breaking apart. I’d rather be a member of a living church, than a dying one.

  5. I have been a Methodist all my life and have promoted my Church and our beliefs. I can no longer promote a Denomination that thinks SSM is ok.. If it was the Bible would speak of it. If GC decides this is a part of our Church then I cannot be a part of it, It saddens me that this is even on the table. I am not the only one who wlil go somewhere else.

  6. Steve, this seems like a very good piece explaining a traditional viewpoint on “holy conferencing” or “Christian conferencing.” May I have permission to republish this in United Methodist Insight, (with links of course!)?

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