Every Sunday, all around the world, faithful United Methodists give their tithes and gifts to the church. But apparently it’s not enough to secure them a seat to observe the proceedings of one of the most important General Conferences in the church’s history.
Just a few months ago the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) was boasting that giving to the general church was setting new records, but now they’re pleading poverty. Apparently, funds are so tight the church must take the unprecedented step of charging United Methodists who want to observe their church at work $200 to $300 for the privilege. Previous General Conferences have charged less than one-tenth that amount for a conference three times longer.
A twenty minute review of the financial statements from the UM Church’s general boards and agencies (including GCFA’s) makes it amply clear there are plenty of reserves on hand to cover the $700,000 GCFA says it needs to help defray the expenses for the special General Conference scheduled for February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri.
But of course more than money is at play here. Since the 2000 General Conference demonstrators have either disrupted or attempted to disrupt the quadrennial gatherings. Our bishops, who preside at the conferences and so are charged with maintaining order, have frequently failed to do so. So some people think the bishops, or those planning the General Conference, may have hit on a strategy for stemming the disruptions: charge people to attend. That approach would absolve them of doing what they are supposed to do, and would have the added benefit of protecting the millions of dollars in reserves held by the general church’s boards and agencies.
This might be clever, but it sets a bad precedent and is harmful to reputations of church leaders who are already running a significant trust deficit. People all across the UM connection have critiqued the discernment process the Council of Bishops (COB) has been presiding over during the past two years as lacking transparency. Our episcopal leaders are not even willing to share the results of the critical balloting they took at their last meeting. Their poorly worded press release and follow-up “clarification” created confusion and competing reports of what actually transpired. Closing General Conference to everyone except those United Methodists who can afford to attend will only erode their credibility.
Ironically, the exorbitant registration fee for observers will not keep protesters away, since their commitment to their cause will easily enable them to raise the necessary funds. But it will deny United Methodists of modest means, who give sacrificially to the church, the opportunity to observe in person this historic conference precisely because they give sacrificially to the church.
An interesting side question involves the potential scenario where demonstrators are so disruptive that, in order to continue, the General Conference has to be closed to all observers. (Such a strategy was considered in Tampa in 2012.) In that case, even those innocent of causing problems could be excluded. Will their registration fee be refunded? I doubt it.
Even worse, the fee structure demonstrates a measure of unfairness. Spouses of delegates, for example, have to pay a fee, but bishops’ spouses do not. Persons who serve the church at General Conference, including members of the Judicial Council (who are required to attend) and the Commission on a Way Forward, are being charged a fee. Most egregious of all is that those covering General Conference for the press are being charged a fee. Will the New York Times, Washington Post, or Christianity Today be willing to pay to cover this historic meeting? What about United Methodist News Service? If not, how will our church ensure that the story of what happens be told accurately and with context and balance? And how does limiting press coverage increase transparency and trust?
When the proposal for a special called General Conference was put forward at the 2016 General Conference, delegates raised questions about whether adequate funding was available for the proposed Commission on a Way Forward and the special General Conference. Delegates were assured that adequate funds could be found to cover the anticipated costs. Now, it appears that is not the case. This is just another example of unkept promises generating further mistrust and even cynicism. Why should delegates (or the church at large) believe anything they are told when assurances prove to be unfounded?
The bishops should develop the political will to solve this problem and strongly encourage the GCFA to find the funds necessary to keep General Conference open to all United Methodists. If you agree, contact Bishop Ken Carter, president of the COB (email@example.com), and Mr. Moses Kumar, general secretary of the GCFA (firstname.lastname@example.org), politely appealing to them to make sure all United Methodists have the opportunity to observe all the General Conference proceedings in person and be part of this momentous event in the life of our church.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.