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.