In a gathering that repeatedly stressed church unity despite passionately held differences, United Methodists received a preview of some issues the 2016 General Conference will debate when the denomination’s top lawmaking body meets this spring.
The Rev. Steven Lewis, Gresham United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon, urged delegates to remember who they are as they debate issues and resolutions at General Conference 2016
“Few will read what we write, but millions will watch what we do,” Lewis said during his sermon at opening worship during the pre-General Conference briefing.
More than 400 delegates, communicators and other United Methodists who will be part of the 2016 General Conference attended the Jan. 20-22 event at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. Most will return for the denomination’s legislative assembly May 10-20.
United Methodist Communications sponsored the event, with involvement and support from other agencies and ministries of the church.
Many United Methodists expect the most passionate and difficult debate at the 2016 General Conference to deal with how the denomination ministers with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. At the briefing, participants got a preview of the emotional stakes in the debate as well as a chance to try out an alternative process for discussing legislation on tough issues.
This is a brief look at some of the issues explored:
Big changes proposed for bishops, clergy
Bishops would no longer be elected for life, ordination of United Methodist elders and deacons would be faster and the first step would be taken to allow doing away with guaranteed appointment under legislation being proposed to the 2016 General Conference.
Clergy, Bishops Legislation
Read the full Ministry Study Commission report and view all the legislation at ministrystudy.org.
Legislation proposed by the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders.
However, since term limits and guaranteed appointment would require changes to the denomination’s constitution, those reforms would come slowly, even if approved.
Bishop Grant Hagiya, Greater Northwest Episcopal Area, a member of the 2013-2016 Ministry Study Commission, said the commission wanted to give conferences “maximum flexibility.”
“The most important factor that we have to consider is leadership, leadership, leadership. Leadership is one of the key ingredients in vitality,” Hagiya said.
Hagiya said the commission proposed ordination when a candidate is approved for provisional membership, although conference membership would come only after the provisional period was completed. Other proposed changes would allow a bachelor’s degree to fulfill requirements for Course of Study for local pastors and eliminate commissioning.
Lonnie Brooks, chair of the legislative committee of the Association of Annual Conference Lay leaders, gave the highlights of the association’s package of 15 pieces of legislation.
“We think there is nothing in the church outside the responsibility of lay people, since we pay for what the church does,” Brooks said.
The lay leaders proposed seven points of reform for bishops, including term limits, which Brooks said would increase accountability. Under the term-limit proposal, a bishop would be elected for eight years and could run again for another eight-year term. The terms would be the same worldwide.
The legislation on guaranteed appointment, or security of appointment, would remove the constitutional barrier identified by the Judicial Council after the 2012 General Conference approved legislation that would have allowed bishops to give elders less than full-time appointment and added steps for discontinuing elders and associate members from receiving an appointment.
A proposal to reform the episcopal complaint process provides that if the jurisdictional College of Bishops cannot process the complaint to completion within 180 days, the complaint moves to the full Council of Bishops.
As the U.S. economy has recovered from the 2008 crash, the denomination as a whole has seen its financial health improve.
Moses Kumar, the top executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration, reported that a record 26 conferences paid 100 percent to the general church apportionments in 2015 ─ the highest number in at least 16 years. At the general church level, the money supports bishops, United Methodist ministerial education, most general agencies and denomination-wide efforts such as the Black College Fund, ecumenical work and Africa University in Zimbabwe.
The General Council on Finance and Administration's board and the Connectional Table are proposing a budget of $611 million for general church funds in 2017-2020. That’s about a 1.3 percent increase above the $603.1 million general church budget approved at the 2012 General Conference. With projected inflation, that budget actually represents a 7.2 percent spending decrease in real dollars, Kumar said.
The finance agency’s board also is proposing that for the first time United Methodist churches in Africa, Asia and Europe would have a set formula to support the denomination’s global ministries. Under the proposal, central conference apportionments would contribute to two of the seven general church funds — the Episcopal and General Administration funds.
“When we are generous in our giving, when we are committed in ministry around the world, we dedicate our resources so we can fulfill what God wants us to do,” Kumar said.
A U.S. central conference?
One of the frequent complaints about General Conference is that delegates spend much of the 10-day global meeting on issues that strictly focus on the U.S.
Participants at this month’s preview heard about two plans to address this concern by creating a central conference or similar body to encompass the entire United States. Currently, the denomination has seven central conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. Each has the authority under the denomination’s constitution to make “such changes and adaptations” to the Book of Discipline as missional needs and differing legal contexts require.
Members of the Central Texas and North Texas conferences are bringing legislation to create a U.S. Central Conference that would meet in conjunction with General Conference. “We believe this proposal keeps it simple,” said Tim Crouch, a General Conference delegate from North Texas.
A task force appointed by the Northeastern Jurisdiction is bringing “A Global Connection Plan,” that is more complicated but also, according to its proponents, more comprehensive.
The plan would rename General Conference as the Global Connectional Conference, restrict its work to church matters that are global in nature and add continent-wide bodies called connections, including a North American connection. The plan also would replace U.S. jurisdictions and central conferences with bodies called regions.
“We believe it is important to have equivalent structures across the church,” said Tracy Merrick, a member of Northeastern Jurisdiction task force.
Under both the Texas and Northeastern Jurisdiction plans, the denomination’s global legislative meeting would be shorter but would remain the only body that can speak for the whole denomination. Both plans also would require amendments to the denomination’s constitution.
Frederick Brewington, a member of the Connectional Table, pointed out that a number of formal and informal proposals regarding the denomination’s structure and connection will come before the General Conference. “The Connectional Table neither adopts nor endorses any of the proposals that currently exist,” he said, but he outlined some basic principles to follow in these discussions.
One of those proposals is “Plan UMC Revised.” The Rev. Clayton Oliphint explained that this plan removes provisions ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council after the 2012 General Conference adopted “Plan UMC,” a compromise proposal. Many involved in the restructuring work were frustrated by the top court’s last-minute ruling, he said.
Under Plan UMC Revised, the current Commission on Religion and Race and Commission on the Status and Role of Women would be merged into a committee on inclusiveness. The plans also folds the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History into the denomination’s finance agency. Erin Hawkins, top executive for Religion and Race, expressed concern that the vital programs of her agency would be lost. The church needs “greater clarity and alignment around its identity and mission,” she added.
The 2016 General Conference will consider amendments to more than 70 social justice petitions ranging from climate change to human trafficking.
Representatives from the Division on Ministries with Young People, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, Board of Church and Society, Commission on General Conference and Standing Commission on Central Conference Matters and the Board of Pension and Health Benefits highlighted some of those resolutions.
Christine Flick, a delegate from Germany South Conference, talked about a petition calling for a reduction of carbon footprint with regard to travel related to the denomination’s church meetings.
“The whole earth is God’s good creation,” she said. “We are aware of how the constant use of energy threatens the environment.”
The United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits recognizes its responsibility to protect and promote human rights and the environment, said Kirsty Jenkinson, calling climate change “the most severe economic threat to the world.” She is managing director, Sustainable Investment Strategies, Wespath Investment Management Division of the pension board.
In 2015, the board and Wespath implemented a human rights investment guideline that identified 11 high-risk countries and 39 companies with significant investments in those places, Jenkinson said.
“Christian conferencing is what General Conference is all about,” said Judi Kenaston, chair of the Commission on General Conference, as she outlined an alternative group discernment process that General Conference could approve for use on “challenging” conversations.
The proposal, nicknamed Rule 44 because it follows General Conference's Rule 43, could be used with legislation on human sexuality if the rule is adopted.
“We are a connectional church with many varied cultures and opinions,” Kenaston said. “A unified church can accomplish so much more in the world by pooling resources. Because of our size, we are able to do so much more.”
Praying for General Conference
The Rev. Tom Albin, dean of The Upper Room Chapel, will again help lead a prayer community to support delegates and the entire denomination during General Conference.
“Prayer is like oxygen for your soul,” Albin told attendees.
The General Conference Prayer Ministry designed a “60 Days of Prayer” daily prayer book that runs March 31–May 29 so church members an connect through the same Scripture, meditation and prayer for each day.
Looking ahead to 2020
A draft of a new general, or global, Book of Discipline will be presented to General Conference for affirmation, said Bishop Patrick Streiff, chairperson of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, “so that we know we can work on to finalize it for the 2020 General Conference.” The goal is to have feedback on the draft from every annual conference by the end of 2017.
Benedita Penicela Nhambiu, a member of the denomination’s Connectional Table, said there will be an effort to re-align that body to make it more representative, both in terms of geography and age groups.
A petition for a comprehensive collaborative plan for Africa would increase the episcopal areas in that region from 13 to 18 if the final report is approved by the 2020 General Conference, she said.
The United Methodist Board of Church and Society has been holding listening sessions on the denomination’s Social Principles around the world. The agency is seeking guidance, clarity and diverse voices as the agency prepares to revise the document for the 2020 General Conference.
The 2016 General Conference will be asked to continue and fund those conversations for four more years, said the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, top executive of the social justice agency.
A proposal for a digitized, customizable United Methodist Hymnal would include a core section of required music and Wesleyan liturgical resources and a cloud-based library allowing congregations to create what they need for their own ministry setting. If passed, work would begin Jan. 1, 2017, on a finalized proposal to be approved by the 2020 General Conference.
Contributing to this report were Heather Hahn, Kathy Gilbert, Linda Bloom, Vicki Brown and Joey Butler. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]