For the Cause of Unity   General Conference Concerns

For the Cause of Unity General Conference Concerns

On November 5, 2009, twelve representatives of renewal and reform groups within the United Methodist Church met with the Bishops’ Unity Task Force. The same task force had previously met with a group representing the Reconciling Movement and the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA).

The wide-ranging and forthright discussion focused on matters that threaten the unity of the United Methodist Church. In the March/April issue of Good News, we excerpted a segment of the statement dealing with unity and division within the United Methodist Church that was presented to the Bishops’ Unity Task Force by the renewal and reform group leaders. In this issue, we excerpt the specific concerns of the renewal group leaders surrounding the way General Conference activities are conducted.

Tension points at General Conference and suggestions for improvement
We as pastors, laity, delegates, and renewal and reform group leaders recognize that many administrative hours and great financial resources are required to plan and convene General Conference every four years. We also seek to be good stewards of all God’s resources and to help make this global assembly an efficient and effective time of substantive legislative action through holy conferencing, spiritual renewal, and vision casting for the future.

We present to you some areas of tension with the process of General Conference that we believe hinder the effectiveness, efficiency, and fruitfulness of this historic body.

A. Sufficient time for debate and legislative action.

While we understand that worship is a vital part of General Conference and that some speakers and reports are informative, paragraphs 15 and 16 of the Discipline state that the responsibilities of the Conference are primarily legislative. We believe that sufficient time for debate and action on all the legislation that delegates are charged to address should take precedent over other matters such as special reports, guests, and speeches. This was especially evident at the 2008 General Conference in light of the fact that the conference was shortened by one full day. Some examples of problems associated with time constraints included:

1. Near the end of the 2008 General Conference, many pieces of legislation that had been pulled from the consent calendar were placed back on the consent calendar without time for delegates to know which petitions were affected by this action. Much work goes into getting legislative pieces pulled from consent calendars in order for them to be discussed before the entire body. Suspending this important tool for delegates due to time constraints seems to violate the integrity of the legislative process.

2. Towards the end of the 2008 General Conference, the number of speeches and length of speeches allowed for legislation were shortened due to time constraints, leaving many important pieces of legislation, such as constitutional changes, without proper debate before voting. Only a few minutes of debate were given for important constitutional amendments.

B. Placement of “controversial votes” in the calendar agenda.
We believe that placement of controversial issues on the calendar agenda should be done with great care in order to maximize the number of delegates present at optimal times of the day for attentive and thorough debate.

1. While it is each delegate’s responsibility to be present for all business conducted, it is sometimes difficult for everyone to return on time. It appeared to some delegates and observers that many of the votes on controversial issues took place immediately after a break time or meal recess when the entire body of delegates had not returned to their seats. The intense daily attendance requirements (some 14-16 hours) over eleven continuous days is grueling for anyone, especially international delegates. Calendar placement to ensure maximum participation and attentiveness should be prioritized over celebrations, speeches, and non-essential matters.

2. Arrangements should allow international delegates to remain until the end of General Conference. Some important and controversial legislative issues were scheduled on the last day of conference when many international delegates had already left. Over 100 African delegates missed the votes during the final afternoon on the issue of the church’s continued participation with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice due to early travel departures. The African delegates, unlike the U.S. churches, could not afford the expense of sending alternates. All delegates should be required to stay for the entire duration of General Conference and special consideration should be given to international delegates to ensure their attendance.

C. Translation concerns for delegates who do not speak English.

1. Delegates who do not speak English should have an equal opportunity to review documents before the start of General Conference. This can only happen if General Conference materials are translated and provided to those delegates in advance, allowing for an adequate amount of time for review.

Financial resources must be provided to ensure accurate and timely translations. Improper translations don’t just create problems for non-English speaking delegates, but for all delegates. If we do not allow time for review of these documents, particularly those related to voting procedures and issues, our actions imply that the opinions and input of our international brothers and sisters is unimportant. It is in the best interest of the United Methodist Church to ensure that every delegate is voting based on a complete understanding and prayerful consideration of the issues presented as well as the procedures followed.

2. Providing translators at all legislative committees as well as general sessions should be a priority. In at least one case during General Conference 2008, one legislative committee had to wait two and a half hours for a translator to arrive.

3. In other cases, some translators were not fluent in the dialects spoken by our delegates. This caused confusion and misunderstanding when words in different dialects had different meanings. The use of double negatives when voting caused much confusion and should be avoided. In some languages, double negatives cancel themselves out, in others, they emphasize meaning, and in all, they are confusing.

4. Prior to voting, non-English speaking delegates should be given the opportunity to ask questions if clarification about issues and procedures is needed. In 2008, there were constant and consistent complaints about translations into certain languages while others went well.

5. Non-English speaking delegates should be equally informed. According to the 2009 Rules of Order, “The Commission shall take the necessary measures to assure full participation of all General Conference delegates including but not limited to providing accommodation for language and physical challenges.”

Protests and violations of the bar of General Conference.

Rule 11: Bar of Conference
“The bar of the conference shall provide for the integrity of the General Conference. It is for delegates, pages, and others who have been granted access to the area for General Conference business as provided through the Rules or through the suspension of the Rules.” Suspension of the rules requires a two-thirds vote of the delegates.

1. Because representatives of our total connection come together only at General Conference, what is done and what is allowed to occur at the conference presents a dramatic statement about the unity of the church—and how those presiding over the conference understand unity and holy conferencing. In the past, protests have been allowed on the floor of General Conference both in session and in recess and these actions have broken the rules and the spirit required for mutual trust and true unity. Allowing anyone on the conference floor without the prior consent of two-thirds of the voting delegates is in direct violation of the rules by which all General Conference delegates agree to abide.

2. When protests that violated General Conference rules were allowed, it gave the impression that those who allowed the protests condoned both the action and the message of the protest. And the message, intended or not, is that the presiding officers of the conference are no longer functioning as non-biased arbiters—but as part of an agenda belonging to a special interest group. The actions that occurred at the last several General Conferences appeared preferential to one group at the expense of the integrity of unity at General Conference.

3. The question remains of who and how the protest was allowed to take place. Certainly, this raises questions of unity, holy conferencing, integrity, and trust of the whole process. Those of us who wished to obey the rules were not offered an opportunity to present an opposing viewpoint.

4. If protests or demonstrations are to be allowed on the floor of General Conference, then the rules should be changed and other groups, including renewal groups, should be allowed equal opportunity to conduct their own “silent witness.” However, the renewal groups have no intention of staging a protest at present as we believe violating the rules of the General Conference are not conducive to holy conferencing. We also don’t desire to usurp the trust of our fellow delegates or desecrate the altar of God. We are asking that no protests be allowed on the conference floor without the authorization from the voting body of General Conference. Even “reserve delegates are to function within the Rules of Procedure of the General Conference (Rules 27 and 31)” and do not have access to the floor except as allowed by rule.

5. Order within the conference facility should be maintained at all times so observers are not distracting delegates from doing the work of General Conference. After the vote was passed to maintain the current language regarding homosexual practice, observers in the stands began singing and shouting so loudly that the delegates at the back of the conference floor couldn’t hear the comments or instructions of the presiding officer. When order cannot be maintained, the rules allow for: “The presiding officer [to] have the right to recess the session of the body at any time at the presiding officer’s discretion and to reconvene at such time as the presiding officer shall announce. Consistent with the spirit of ¶721 of The Book of Discipline, in rare circumstances the presiding officer shall also have the right to stipulate that the session shall reconvene in closed session with only delegates, authorized personnel, and authorized guests permitted to attend such a session following recess (Section VII.E.1.).” We believe the use of these rules would improve the integrity of the conference.

6. Another violation of the bar of the conference was the distribution of a list of endorsements for judicial council elections. The distribution of such materials was a clear breach of the rules of General Conference.

7. All efforts should be made by the presiding officers of General Conference to ensure that holy conferencing, unity, integrity, trust, and rules of order are followed to strengthen the entire legislative process of General Conference. This will help us to fulfill the mission of the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Leadership and comments of Bishops.
Part of our covenanting together for holy conferencing is to follow Robert’s Rules of Order, which calls for the presiding officer to remain unbiased and impartial when facilitating discussions. We very much appreciate the fine work that was done by the bishops who spoke to the conference to not “take sides” or use their position of influence to try to sway the body’s decisions.

However, there were exceptions. Comments that are condescending, scolding, or judgmental to the delegates who uphold the current language in the Discipline simply should not be made by our Episcopal leaders. Elders and deacons in the United Methodist Church are required to vow to God and the United Methodist Church that they “approve of our Church government and polity” and “will support and maintain them” (¶ 330.5d and ¶ 336). We deserve to be treated with the same respect as those who disagree with the church’s stated position.

Influence of some boards and agencies over General Conference.
Many delegates and observers have expressed frustration at how a few of the boards and agencies of the church (particularly the General Board of Church and Society, the General Board of Global Ministries, and the Women’s Division) seem to control much of the legislative process of General Conference, especially at the committee and sub-committee level. Several examples seem to bear this out.

• Women’s Division Orientation for female delegates.
While this orientation for female delegates should be an impartial time of fellowship and general information concerning the process of General Conference, it has been observed that the Women’s Division spends the majority of the time telling the delegates their positions on key votes and also coaching them on getting particular delegates in positions of leadership in committees and sub-committees. These practices are a clear violation of the spirit of holy conferencing, especially when only 15 percent of the women in the UM Church are involved in United Methodist Women (numbers from GCFA data are available). This puts women who are advocating for the establishment of alternative women’s ministries within the UM Church at a clear disadvantage right out of the starting gate of General Conference.

• Unlimited access of board and agency staff during committee meetings.
Many delegates and observers have reported that several staff persons of the boards and agencies routinely sit right at the periphery of committee and sub-committee groups and give unhindered input in legislative discussions. These persons are strategically placed throughout the legislative process, almost guaranteeing the endorsement of petitions authored by their respective board or agency, clearly an unfair advantage to other individuals and groups at General Conference.

• Time spent on the voluminous Book of Resolutions.
In 1960, The Book of Discipline carried only 6 resolutions. A separate Book of Resolutions has been published after every General Conference since the 1968 church merger. It has grown exponentially over the years and become the mouthpiece for political and social advocacy for a few of the boards and agencies of the UM Church. By 1980, there were 221 pages to this book. By 1984, it had doubled to 451 pages. By 2008, we were at 1009 pages! Countless hours are spent at General Conference on the political and social agendas of a few boards and agencies. Their success is staggering and warrants examination.

In the 2008 Book of Resolutions, out of 352 resolutions passed, the origin of these legislative pieces are the Board of Church and Society (31.5 percent), the General Board of Global Ministries (27.6 percent), and the Women’s Division (8.5 percent). These three groups work on many of these resolutions together, so together these three boards are responsible for 67.6 percent of the total Book of Resolutions. The policies, programs, and resolutions of these agencies tend to be politically partisan, theologically “progressive,” and socially liberal. When you add three other boards, which also work closely with these three agencies (General Commission on Christian Unity and Inter-Religious Concerns, the General Commission on Religion and Race, and the General Commission on the Status of Women), these six groups are responsible for 79.5 percent of the entire volume. Resolutions authored by individuals and conferences have a successful passage rate of only 7.4 percent each. There is only one resolution authored by a local church. (A complete report of this statistical analysis is available.)

Perhaps limiting the scope and influence of a few boards and agencies over the process of General Conference would enable the church to participate in the legislative outcomes of the conference in a more equitable fashion.

Finally, unity would be greatly helped by a moratorium on the issue of sexuality at General Conference. The renewal groups do not bring up this issue. We would be happy never to discuss it again. Our Discipline holds a gracious and biblical position. The only reason the church is divided on this issue is because various groups repeatedly and passionately try to change the church’s views.

If we bemoan the fact that our time at General Conference is consumed with this issue every four years and that we should “major on the majors” instead of the “minors” that divide us, let us ask those who force this issue upon us at every General Conference, not to insist on dividing us with the promotion of an agenda that the church has rejected for 40 years.

Bishops’ Unity Task Force
Sally Dyck, Chairperson (Minnesota)
Mike Lowry (Central Texas)
Minerva Carcaño (Desert Southwest)
Peter Weaver (New England)
Daniel Arichea (The Philippines)
Joao Machado (Mozambique)

Renewal delegation
William J. Abraham is the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Theology and Wesley Studies and Altshuler Distinquished Teaching Professor at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. He is widely known as a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of Methodism, most recently as co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies (Oxford University Press 2009).

Larry R. Baird is in his seventh year as District Superintendent for the Cornerstone District of the Western New York Conference. He has served on the General Board of Discipleship, the Northeastern Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee, and New ACT—the body responsible for enabling leaders in four Annual Conferences to create a new upstate New York Conference.

Eddie Fox is one of Methodism’s foremost evangelists. He has been the World Director of Evangelism for the World Methodist Council since 1987. A member of the Holston Annual Conference, Dr. Fox has served as a General Conference delegate on several occasions.

Tom Harrison is in his seventeenth year as the Senior Pastor of the 7,600-member Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Dr. Harrison has been a General Conference delegate and alternate. He currently serves as chairperson of the Oklahoma Annual Conference Council on Finance and Administration.

Liza Kittle is a member of Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church in Augusta, Georgia, and is the current President of the Renew Network, the women’s ministry program arm of Good News.

Tom Lambrecht is an ordained minister in the Wisconsin Annual Conference and former Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Good News. He served as the coordinator of the Renewal and Reform Coalition efforts at the 2008 General Conference.

Senator Patricia Miller has been the Executive Director of The Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church since 1997 and has served as a General Conference delegate from South Indiana five times. She became a State Senator in Indiana in 1983 and continues to serve in that capacity.

Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News and previously served as the Chairperson of The Confessing Movement Board of Directors. He is the Pastor of Adult Discipleship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, north of Houston, Texas.

Chuck Savage is the Senior Pastor at Kingswood United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, Georgia. He has been in full-time ministry for sixteen years and was elected as a delegate to the 2008 General Conference. He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the Board of Church and Society.

Steve Wende is the Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Houston, one of our denomination’s leading congregations. He is a member of the Texas Annual Conference and has served as a General Conference delegate five times.

Alice Wolfe has served as a pastor in the West Ohio Conference for twelve years and is currently serving as Senior Pastor of Anna United Methodist Church in Anna, Ohio. She served as a delegate to the 2008 General Conference and to the North Central Jurisdictional Conference in 2004 and 2008.

Steve Wood is the Senior Pastor of Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church, a 9,000-member congregation in the Atlanta area. He has served as a church planter, the pastor of a multi-ethnic church, and as a delegate to both General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference.

For the Cause of Unity   General Conference Concerns

The Masters: A view from Augusta

By Liza Kittle

The 2010 Masters Golf Tournament is over and provided a lot of drama as Phil Mickelson won his third green jacket, the coveted prize of the tournament. The Masters, considered by some to be the most prestigious tournament played on the most beautiful course in golf, is held in my hometown of Augusta, Georgia.

Preparation for the event is intense—not only for the Augusta National Golf Club but for the entire community. Everyone cleans up their homes, spruces up their yards, gets out their spring sportswear, and revels in the explosion of activity culminating in one very special week each year. Visitors from all over the world and media personnel converge on the “Garden City” to enjoy the festivities and cover every conceivable angle of the tournament.

This year offered even more attention because it was Tiger Woods’ return to tournament play after the very public incident in November that changed his life forever. A late night car crash, stories of multiple affairs with all the tawdry details, a shattered marriage, and a stay in rehab played out in tabloids and on televisions across the world. The private world of golf’s greatest player had become very public.

Many speculated that Woods chose the Masters for his return to competitive golf because of the tightly controlled security at the event. A Masters badge is one of the most coveted tickets in sports and entrance onto the grounds of the Augusta National is very restricted.

Woods held a press conference after his first practice round and for 40 minutes answered questions about the past five months of his life. Tiger was open and candid while explaining that he had “lost his center and balance,” digressed from the moral teachings of his parents, and felt entitled that somehow he had come to believe he “was above it all.”

Woods described the forgiving and polite response he had received from golf fans and colleagues that day, and promised to move forward with a new respect for the game and the fans. He said that family and faith would take precedence over winning golf championships. Noticeably absent from the crowd during the week was Tiger’s wife Elin and their two children. Tiger Woods would be making his very public debut without his family by his side.

Woods played well, but it was a different family story that ended in victory at the Masters this year. Phil Mickelson played an exceptional tournament, executing some incredible shots, and culminating in his triumphant victory in Augusta. His victory would come after a year of family trauma as both his wife Amy and mother battled breast cancer. Amy and their three children were in Augusta, and were waiting for him near the eighteenth green as Mickelson completed his final round with another birdie putt. Their emotional embrace and tears said it all, evidence of the strong marriage and family that has long characterized the Mickelsons.

The irony of this victory was not lost on the crowd or the press. All the early attention given to Tiger Woods, a great golfer whose poor moral choices led to the breakdown of his marriage and family, was now focused on Phil Mickelson, a great golfer whose devotion and love for his wife and family had led to the pinnacle moment of his career. Marriage and family had trumped infidelity and heartbreak.

Hopefully, we all learned a few lessons from the 2010 Masters. First, our behaviors and choices in life can have dramatic consequences on those around us. Second, true repentance takes time and guidance from the one true God who provides the only path for forgiveness and redemption. And third, marriage and family are gifts from God and are meant to be our anchor in times of suffering, our hope in times of doubt, and our blessings in times of joy. The relationships of marriage and family were beautifully designed by God to mirror the relationships of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and of the love of Christ for his church.

At Renew, we believe in helping women to have strong marriages and families. This has never been more important as it is in our culture today. Let’s pray that the message of love and devotion in the marriage and family of Phil and Amy Mickelson is seen as a far greater prize than any green jacket, and that troubled marriages can be healed and restored when we put our trust and faith in Jesus Christ, the true Master of our hearts and lives.

Liza Kittle is the President of the Renew Network (, P.O. Box 16055, Augusta, GA 30919; telephone: 706-364-0166.

For the Cause of Unity   General Conference Concerns

Straight Talk

Straight Talk
News, Views, and Uproars

Always missed, never forgotten: Jose Velasquez

Born in Mexico City, Jose Velasquez came with his family to the United States when he was a teenager. It was here he found the Lord and was called to the United Methodist ministry.

Jose was a long-serving and beloved member of the Good News board of directors from 1989-2002. At the Spiring meeting of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, Jose will be among the clergy remembered who has gone on to be with the Lord. He was 76 years old.

Jose received his B.A. degree from the college division of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago. After a year of study at Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, he transferred to Asbury Theological Seminary and earned the M.Div. degree in 1967. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity by Asbury Seminary in 1981.

Jose served pastorates in the Chicago area for a number of years, during which time he served two years as the National President of MARCHA, the official Hispanic caucus within the United Methodist Church. He went on loan from Northern Illinois Conference to do ministry in the Rio Grande Conference and retired there in 1996.

Though retired, Jose continued in ministry as a hospice chaplain in El Paso, Texas. According to his loving wife of 48 years, Ruth, those nine years included some of the greatest ministry experiences a pastor could have. “He saw many people come to know the Lord,” Ruth told me recently.

In addition to serving on the Good News board, Jose served as a member of the board of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1989 to 1999. Then, in 1999, he was elected to the Asbury College (now University) Board of Trustees and was still an active member at the time of his death.

Jose was burdened that so many Hispanic students did not have the finances to attend a private Christian college such as Asbury, where his two sons Jose and Pablo attended. As a result of this oft-expressed concern, an anonymous donor established the Jose Valesquez Scholarship Fund for Hispanic students at Asbury, evidence of the high esteem in which Jose and Ruth were held by the Asbury community.

Ruth recalls lovingly about Jose that “He was an evangelist, a pastor, and an apologist. As evangelist, he would talk to anyone, anywhere, about the Lord. As pastor, people’s concerns were his concerns. And as apologist, he would always respond graciously and lovingly to faith questions. He never angered people by his response.”

“Whenever they were in town, Jose and Ruth made it a point to come by and visit the Good News staff,” recalls my long-time colleague Steve Beard, editor of Good News. “Their presence never failed to brighten up our office. Jose’s smile and witness will always be missed, but never forgotten.”

I remember Jose as a dear friend and colleague both at Good News and on the Asbury University board. I still thank God for him. He was one of the most Christ-like, compassionate, and caring Christian brothers I have ever known. He was a man of prayer and of the Word—an authentic Wesleyan in every way.
Our prayers are with Ruth, a prayer warrior and faithful servant in her own right. She lives in Dallas near Pablo and his family, and continues serving on the Steering Committee of the Renew Network for Women.

By James V. Heidinger II, President and Publisher Emeritus of Good News.

United Methodist giving, membership decline in recession

The recession continues to affect giving to the United Methodist Church at a time when the denomination is experiencing its largest percentage decline in membership since 1974.

United Methodist churches in the 63 annual (regional) conferences of the U.S. contributed 84 percent of what the denomination budgeted to support ministries around the world in 2009. The total apportioned was $150.3 million; $126.3 million was collected.

Meanwhile, membership dropped 1.01 percent to 7,774,420 in 2008, according to the latest data from the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration. The council coordinates and administers finances for the denomination. Average worship attendance was down 1.83 percent.

What continued, amid sacrifices, was the work of the church, officials said.
“With the economic ups and downs of 2009, church leaders are reporting that ministry happened on tighter budgets, and the people of the United Methodist Church are still supporting the mission of the church,” said Moses Kumar, top executive of the council, and Bishop Lindsey Davis, president of the council.

Apportionments. Fourteen of the U.S. annual (regional) conferences contributed to the church’s global ministry funds at the 100 percent level. Fourteen conferences also increased their giving percentage over 2008. In 2008, 18 conferences paid 100 percent.

The conferences at the lowest end include Northwest Texas, 58 percent; Alabama West Florida, 59 percent; Memphis, 59 percent; and California-Nevada, 50 percent.

Those paying 100 percent are Alaska Missionary, Baltimore-Washington, Central Texas, East Ohio, Greater New Jersey, Illinois Great Rivers, Iowa, North Carolina, Oklahoma Indian Missionary, Peninsula Delaware, Red Bird Missionary, Rio Grande, New York and Wisconsin.

The conferences that increased their giving over 2008 are Holston, Kansas West, Louisiana, Missouri, North Texas, Northern Illinois, Rocky Mountain, South Georgia, Southwest Texas, Texas, West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Yellowstone.

Membership drops. Statistics reported by local churches and annual conferences indicate that professing membership in 2008 was down 1.01 percent over 2007, the largest percentage decline since 1974, when membership dropped 1.06 percent.

Membership was the highest, 10,789,624, when the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist churches merged in 1968. It has been declining since the mid-1960s.

There are signs of growth, however.

Eight conferences reported increases in membership, and seven reported increases in worship attendance, said Scott Brewer, executive with the council.
The number of constituents—persons who are not officially members of the church, but for whom the church assumes pastoral responsibility—increased 1 percent over 2007, with 36 conference reporting increases in this category.

“We assume that increasingly people getting active in churches today are more reluctant to officially become a member of the church,” Brewer said. “This indicates the picture may not be as bleak as the membership data alone indicates.”

Churches with memberships of 100 and less reported a decline in membership of 2.25 percent, while churches with 3,000 and more members increased membership by 1.9 percent.

By Kathy L. Gilbert, a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tennessee.

For the Cause of Unity   General Conference Concerns

Call to Action seeks to increase church vitality

By Rich Peck

Many United Methodists would agree there are gaps between where the church is and where it wants to be. A decline in membership in the United States and growing fiscal problems represent two of many such gaps.
The 12-member Call to Action Committee, meeting April 6-8 in Nashville, set plans to gather data from across the United States to help the church discover ways to bridge these gaps.

The committee is a successor to an earlier 18-member group appointed by the Council of Bishops to reorder the life of the church for greater effectiveness and vitality in “making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” and addressing the Four Areas of Focus endorsed by the denomination’s 2008 legislative assembly, the General Conference.

Led by Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the Council of Bishops, the group dreams of a church:
• with more grace and freedom and fewer rules—more accountability to gospel and less conformity to an outdated, bureaucratic system;
• more ministry with the poor and less reticence to link arms with the desperate, the sick and the hungry;
• more dreaming about what will be and less struggling to preserve what was;
• and more trust and less cynicism.

To start their work, the committee employed two consulting groups to gather data from which they can make final recommendations.

Mark Harrison, founder of Manhattan Beach, Calif.,-based Apex Healthcare Group, will conduct an “operational assessment” to provide three to five “doors” that may open pathways to improve decision-making and affordability. He is also asked to find ways to increase effectiveness in addressing the Four Areas of Focus.

Towers Watson, a New York-based organization with 14,000 employees around the world, will provide the committee with information about factors that contribute to church vitality. The agency interviewed bishops, pastors and laypeople to discover six indicators of church vitality. These interviews and responses to a Web survey resulted in the following indicators:
• Average worship attendance as percentage of membership;
• Total membership;
• Number of children, youth and young adults attending as percentage of membership;
• Number of professions of faith as percentage of attendance and membership;
• Actual giving per attendee; and
• Finance benevolence giving beyond the local church as a percentage of the church budget.

Towers Watson staff will mine existing data submitted by local churches and tabulated by the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA). The 33,850 churches will be grouped into churches with high, medium and low vitality; and 25-30 percent of churches from each group will be selected at random to determine factors that drive vitality. All individual church information will remain confidential; only the aggregate findings will be used.

The staff will survey all active U.S. bishops, all district superintendents, and pastors and laity in selected local churches. Others will be able to provide insights on a Web site to be announced by May 1.

Once the group identifies structures, policies and practices that encourage vitality, it may recommend ways in which these can be encouraged throughout the denomination. Towers Watson is expected to report its initial findings by late June.

Funded by a $500,000 grant from the Connectional Table, the Call to Action Committee will give a final report to the Council of Bishops in November. The committee will also report to the Connectional Table. Either of those groups could take recommendations to the 2012 General Conference.

Rich Peck is a retired clergy member of New York Annual Conference and a freelance writer in Nashville. Distributed by United Methodist News Service.

For the Cause of Unity   General Conference Concerns

United Methodism faces health care bill fallout

By Joseph Slife

In the wake of enactment of controversial health care legislation that will significantly broaden the federal government’s power over the U.S. health care system, United Methodist bishops and other church leaders are trying to mollify laity and clergy upset about the UM Church’s role in supporting the bill.

Following the bill’s March passage, bishops, district superintendents, and pastors issued letters and e-mails attempting to clarify the church’s position and explain the work of the General Board of Church and Society, the denominational agency that played a key role in pushing for federal mandates on insurance companies and other businesses, as well as for a larger federal role in the allocation of health care resources.

Moments before the bill passed the House of Representatives, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi singled out the United Methodist Church as a key supporter.
“[M]ore than 350 organizations, representing Americans of every age, every background, every part of the country, who have endorsed this legislation,” she said on the House floor. “Our coalition ranges from the AARP…to the United Methodist Church.”

The Speaker’s comments set off a firestorm of reaction from United Methodists unhappy with the legislation and the sharply partisan process by which it was adopted. (The bill, which according to polls was opposed by a majority of voters, failed to garner a single Republican vote in either the House or Senate; in addition 34 House Democrats voted against the bill, as did three Democratic senators on final passage.)

The morning after Speaker Pelosi’s remarks, pastors, bishops, and other church leaders began receiving calls and e-mails from concerned United Methodists demanding an explanation. Laity and some clergy also posted their concerns on various websites.

“I am so disgusted with our denomination,” one commenter wrote on the blog of the North Carolina Conference. “While I love my local church and the people in my community, I will not financially support a denomination that thinks [it] can speak for me [in] a political forum.”

A prominent United Methodist pastor noted that the speaker’s remarks about UM advocacy for the controversial bill could further harm the denomination’s attempts to reverse decades of membership losses.

“In my opinion, Speaker Pelosi’s comments give [many] Americans another reason not to be Methodist,” wrote Tim Stevens, executive pastor at Indiana’s Granger Community Church, on his Leading Smart blog.

“I do everything I can to help thousands of Methodist pastors and leaders every year…. It saddens me that the United Methodist Church is often known primarily for its political positions that have nothing to do with making disciples of Christ,” he wrote.

A clergy commenter responding to Mr. Stevens post was more circumspect, but echoed Mr. Stevens’ concerns. “I’m a UM pastor who has had to walk a fine line between having my own opinions and expressing them publicly. I fear that if I side with one or the other publicly I may damage possible opportunities to engage someone that doesn’t yet know Jesus,” he wrote. “I will say this though: The handling of this bill was shady at best and to attach the name of a denomination to it does no one any good.”

Not officially endorsed. Strictly speaking, the United Methodist Church did not officially “endorse” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a point made by bishops and others who responded to concerned church members.

However, the UM General Board of Church of Church and Society (GBCS), an official agency of the denomination, did play a lead role among religious organizations in pushing for increased federal government authority over health care. That emphasis was tantamount to lobbying for legislation likely to be embraced by Congressional liberals and opposed by those who preferred a free-market approach to addressing issues of health care availability and affordability.

In December 2009, GBCS orchestrated a letter-writing and telephone campaign aimed at persuading Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)—a United Methodist—to vote for the same controversial legislation that eventually passed the House. Days later, on Christmas Eve, the Senate passed the bill. Sen. Nelson—the final senator to make up his mind—voted “yes,” ensuring that the legislation would not die in the Senate.

(After suffering a strong political backlash for his vote, Sen. Nelson voted “no” when a slightly revised health bill came back before the Senate; this time his vote did not affect the outcome.)

On the House side, GBCS’ Faith in Action newsletter noted in early March that “[h]elp is needed in the next few weeks as Congress deliberates over final passage of critical health care protections.”

GBCS urged United Methodists to “contact your members of Congress” and “support health care reform.” In the context of the legislative process, GBCS—without actually endorsing the bill by name—was essentially endorsing the bill that had already passed the Senate and was about to come before the House.

Given the General Board of Church and Society’s clear attempt to sway members of Congress to “support health care reform” in the weeks leading up the March 21 House vote, it seems reasonable that Speaker Pelosi (who is not a United Methodist) would construe GBCS’ advocacy as an actual endorsement of the bill by the United Methodist Church, especially since GBCS is an official agency of the denomination.

Grassroots concern. In response to church member concerns about the role of the UM Church in passage of the legislation, Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the UM Council of Bishops, issued a letter that characterized the role of GBCS as simply one of “monitoring Congressional action” and “informing [Congressional leaders] of the church’s stance consistent with General Conference action.”

Likewise, Bishop D. Max Whitfield of the Northwest Texas Conference insisted that GBCS simply promoted principles, not specific legislation. “[T]he General Board of Church and Society has worked diligently to promote key principles of health care reform. Principles like access to health care, for all people, have been promoted by the UMC for many years, and it was behind these principles, not any specific legislation, that the GBCS put their endorsement,” Bishop Whitfield wrote in a message posted on the NW Texas Conference website.

“General Conference believed reform was essential, and in 2008, they did pass a Resolution urging reform of the health care system. However, that resolution did not advocate for any particular piece of legislation,” he wrote.
Other bishops issued similar letters, including Bishop Larry Goodpaster (Western North Carolina), Bishop Scott Jones (Kansas East/Kansas West), and Bishop Janice Riggle Huie (Texas).

No floor debate. It is true that the 2008 General Conference, meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, did pass legislation related to health care, as several bishops noted in their statements on the health bill. However, it is also true that there was no floor debate at the 2008 General Conference on any of the heath care-related resolutions. Instead, three such resolutions were hurriedly passed—in a single, omnibus vote—on the final night of the Conference as delegates rushed to complete action on nearly 50 legislative items.

Less than four minutes transpired between the time the health care resolutions were presented and the vote was taken. One of the resolutions consisted of nearly 6,000 words (stricken language and new language), or roughly nine pages of single-spaced type.

That lengthy resolution, “Health Care For All in the United States” (now Resolution #3201 in the 2008 edition of the UM Book of Resolutions), was authored by Jim Winkler, head of the General Board of Church and Society—the same agency that used the resolution as a basis for its involvement in advocating what became the controversial legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama.

Health care as a “right.” Language asserting that health care is a right—i.e., something to which all people are entitled—was first added to The Book of Discipline by the 1996 General Conference. That language was reaffirmed (and expanded) by the General Conference in 2008. However, in neither instance (1996 nor 2008) was the matter was actually discussed on the floor of the conference.

1996: Two years after the Clinton Administration’s health care plan failed to achieve congressional passage, the General Board of Church and Society submitted a petition asserting a “right to health care” to the 1996 General Conference. (In other words, GBCS authored the assertion it now quotes in support of its lobbying on the health care issue.) The petition did not define what was meant by “health care,” nor did it suggest how the cost of such an open-ended entitlement would be borne.

The GBCS petition was approved by the 1996 Church and Society legislative committee and sent to the full General Conference with a recommendation for “concurrence.”

The committee-approved petition did not come to the floor as a separate item, however. Instead, it was bundled with several unrelated items as part of a “consent calendar,” a parliamentary vehicle aimed at speeding the business of a legislative assembly by packaging several “noncontroversial” items as one and having them adopted in a single vote.

The GBCS language describing health care as a right was included as part of Consent Calendar A02, which included 109 disparate items. The Calendar was moved on the floor of the conference and approved with no discussion (or verbal description of the included items) on April 22, 1996.

At that point, or at least when the language was subsequently included in the 1996 Book of Discipline, the United Methodist Church officially endorsed the concept of a right to health care.

2008: Two years ago, the General Conference reaffirmed the “right” to health care, again without any floor debate. In a manner somewhat similar to 1996, the legislative petition was bundled with other items, although this time the bundled items—three in all—related to the same topic: health care.

In addition to the petition (submitted by GBCS) reasserting a right to health care (and further expanding the language in that section of the Discipline), the bundled items included a petition from GBCS General Secretary Jim Winkler strongly advocating a “single-payer” (i.e. government-managed) system for health care in the United States.

A third item—a petition from the Norway Annual Conference’s Board of Discipleship/Church and Society—simply declared: “We believe it is a governmental responsibility to provide all citizens with health care.” (Norway has a compulsory, tax-funded health care system.)

All three of these health care-related petitions came to the floor of the General Conference after 9 p.m. on the conference’s final night—May 2, 2008. Rushing to conclude legislative business (as noted earlier, approximately 50 items were on the legislative calendar for that evening), the conference dealt with all three health care items as one. As is common when legislative assemblies are up against a deadline, floor debate was in short supply that evening.

About a half-hour before the health items were presented, with 40 calendar items still remaining and the deadline for adjournment drawing nearer, a delegate from the Oklahoma Conference moved to “suspend the rules and limit debate” so that items could be dealt with even more quickly. With delegates keenly aware of the press of time, the motion to limit debate drew only minimal objection and was passed handily.

The presentation of the three health care items began at approximately 9:10 p.m. and the vote occurred less than four minutes later. With no debate, the General Conference approved the items—which, when taken together, called for creation of an open-ended entitlement to government-run health care worldwide—by a vote of 690-114.

As noted above, the 1996 petition asserting a right to heath care was submitted by the General Board of Church and Society, as were two of the three health care petitions passed in 2008.

Once such items are approved by the General Conference, GBCS is empowered to promote them as official church policy, even to the point of lobbying for specific congressional legislation that would seem to advance those policy aims.

Although competing solutions to particular societal problems may exist, GBCS often lobbies for a specific approach, hence its strong support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the legislation that has become known colloquially as “ObamaCare.”

Joseph Slife is a certified lay speaker in the North Georgia Annual Conference and an adjunct instructor in the Department of Communication at Georgia’s Emmanuel College. He blogs at