Archive: Now is the Time to Begin!

The first in a continuing series of articles intended to help United Methodists make a positive impact on the 1980 General Conference of our church.

by Rev. Dr. Robert W. Sprinkle, Good News Political Strategy Chairman and Director, UM District Urban Ministries, St. Petersburg, Florida

General Conference of 1980 is only 1½ years away. This means that it is time for evangelicals to gear up the political machinery that we can use to give our faithful witness to the direction we see Christ leading His Church.

Why so much lead time? One reason is that the next meeting of your annual conference (most of them will meet in May or June of 1979) will elect the delegates who will represent you at General Conference in Indianapolis in the spring of 1980. To be prepared for those delegate elections from annual conferences, evangelicals will need to begin soon to organize efforts in your annual conference to elect the best possible delegates. (Electing these delegates will be the subject of this column in the next issue of Good News).

So we need to elect delegates who preferably represent, or at least are sympathetic to, the concerns of evangelicals. This, in turn, implies that we need to be able to state clearly what those concerns are. There is no one “Good News position,” or official evangelical position, on a great many issues. But it is possible to reflect here some of the concerns that surface repeatedly when evangelicals within the UMC discuss the state and future of our denomination.

These concerns, modified and applied to your local situation, can form the basis of discussion with persons who are likely candidates to be elected as General Conference delegates. So here are some sample questions that might be grist for a questionnaire to prospective delegates (in no particular order):

1. Membership Decline:
The UMC has lost over a million members in the last decade.

A. What are the causes of this membership decline?

B. Are there any theological factors in this loss?

C. What should be done to change this trend?

D. Would you favor the development of a separate Board of Evangelism and Church Extension?

2. Missions Retrenchment
The UMC’s total number of missionaries serving overseas has declined from 1,500 to under 700 in recent years.

A. What are the causes of this decline?

B. What theological factors are at work?

C. What should be done to change this trend?

D. Should the Board of Global Ministries retain the prerogative to decide which UM agencies may work overseas?

E. Should alternate, voluntary missionary societies be permitted within the UMC, in addition to BGM?

3. Abortion:
At least one UM board is a member of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, and RCAR operates from an office in the UM Building in Washington, D.C.

A. Should the UMC and/or its boards participate in RCAR?

B. Should the UMC and/or its boards participate in “pro-life” groups?

C. Should the UMC and/or its boards not join coalitions on this issue?

D. Is there some other position the UMC should take regarding abortion?

4. Superintendency:
Proposals will probably be submitted again regarding “term episcopacy” and elected district superintendency. (There is no evangelical consensus on these issues at present.)

A. Do you favor or oppose “term episcopacy?”

B. If you favor it, would you wish to see 8- or 12-year terms?

C. Would you support or oppose a proposal to change the Discipline to allow for the election of district superintendents by all the members of an annual conference (as the EUB’s formerly did)?

5. Exemplary Behavior of Ministers:
An avowed, practicing homosexual has been reappointed to the pastorate of Washington Square UMC in New York City. The case was made by non-evangelicals that the Social Principles Statement, which speaks to this issue, is intended only as a set of guidelines and not as binding church law on the subject.

A. Would you favor or oppose adding specific language to the Discipline that would prohibit any practicing homosexual from being appointed as pastor of a UM congregation? From continuing under episcopal appointment?

B. Are there other forms of behavior which should be specified in the Discipline as contradictory to receiving an appointment?

C. Should the Social Principles Statement be kept or changed? If changed, what do you suggest?

6. Itinerancy / Appointive System (whereby pastors are appointed annually by the bishop):
A study report is soon due on the status and future of the itinerant ministry.

A. What changes, if any, would you like to see in the appointive/itinerant system?

B. Should local pastors have voting rights at annual conference?

C. Should an ordination and conference membership procedure be reinstituted that provided an alternative to eventually attending seminary?

D. What initiatives and prerogatives should local churches have in the appointment-making process?

7. Church Structures:
Several proposals are already being discussed that would affect church structure, and perhaps evangelicals too:

A. Should there be quotas for ethnic minorities and women on general boards and agencies?

B. Should UM Women’s units be optional or mandatory in the local church?

C. Would you favor one general program journal, the Interpreter, to cover the programs of all work areas? If so, would you favor ending subsidies to other special interest official periodicals such as response, engage/social action, New World Outlook, etc.?

8. Priorities:
In addition to the three existing missional priorities, there is talk of adding priorities on worship, family life, UM higher education, and perhaps others.

A. Do you favor designating some causes for church-wide emphasis over the next four years?

B. If there are officially designated priorities, how many can be practically pursued?

C. Are priorities permanent? If not, how would you de-prioritize a cause?

D. Which items would you name as missional priorities for the next quadrennium?

E. What “mix” of apportionment (required) and Advance Special (optional) giving should be used to fund missional priorities?

9. “Sexist” Language:
A concern has emerged that the UMC eliminate “sexist” language from liturgy, curriculum, and printed program resources.

A. Do you consider use of terms such as “men” in reference to people generally to be “sexist”?

B. Do you consider use of “Father” in reference to God, or to Jesus as His Son, to be “sexist”?

C. If a decision is reached to make some changes to avoid “sexist” language, would you favor it affecting only newly-produced materials or should there be a revision of traditional resources (creeds, hymns, etc.) as well?

10. Curriculum:
Church school curriculum income reported by the UM Publishing House have fallen 6.8% and 3.3% in the last two years, respectively. Several suggestions have been made to change this trend:

A. Would you favor or oppose a specifically evangelical “track” of literature for all age groups published by our church?

B. Would you favor or oppose a process whereby materials produced by other publishers could be reviewed by the UM Curriculum Review Committee for consistency with Wesleyan doctrine; and if consistent, materials could be sold through Cokesbury as approved curriculum?

C. Do you favor or oppose the present policy under which UM congregations are limited to using UM curriculum?

D. Are there other suggestions that you have for improving UM curriculum?

11. Doctrine:
The UMC, under the doctrinal statement added to the Discipline in 1972, operates in a pluralistic context. A matter for clarification is how pluralism relates to doctrine, and particularly to the Wesleyan concept of “a core of doctrine.” This core, which for Wesley was composed of beliefs necessary to salvation and full Christian faith, is left undefined in the 1972 doctrinal statement. There will be efforts in 1980 to specify some beliefs as belonging to the core of doctrine.

A. Do you think that beliefs belonging to the core of doctrine can be specified?

B. If so, what are some elements that you would identify as being essential within the core?

C. Would you favor or oppose dropping the 1972 doctrinal statement (Paragraphs 67 and 69) from the Discipline?

D. Would you favor or oppose naming at least one basic doctrine, for example the necessity of Christ’s atoning death on the Cross for our salvation, as belonging to the essential core of doctrine?

12. Stewardship:
Each General Conference decides on priorities for church funding, apportioned and Advance Special categories, and the overall financial plan for the coming quadrennium. Some likely issues include:

A. Should the overall level of apportionments be increased, kept where it is, or decreased; and by about what percentage?

B. Are there items now a part of apportionments which you believe should not be under apportionment?

C. Are there additional items or causes which should be apportioned?

13. Other Topics
This is a good sample of possible questions to raise in interviews or questionnaires with prospective delegates. Some evangelicals are considering joining with other caucuses to do joint questionnaires.

Other topics could be easily added, regarding the ethics of boycotting, the quality of seminary education, etc. And although this article lists some of the basic questions, these questions merit some reflection as to what answers evangelicals want to hear. We hope that this list will spur our thinking about the issues likely to face the 1980 General Conference, and that your thinking will lead to action in making an evangelical witness felt in the political arenas of our denomination.

Thoughtful church members need to reflect on these questions and come together to discuss them. In so doing you will be strengthening the UM Church by thoughtful participation in the democratic process which our church wisely provides.

Why not form one or more study/discussion groups to explore these and other significant issues? We would like to hear what is happening in your church. – The Editors


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