Still recovering from a fun-filled Sunday Area Night party and past-midnight sessions of legislative committees, weary delegates to the 2008 United Methodist General Conference assembled April 28 for a full day of legislation.
The 992 delegates had even more reasons to be tired at the end of a day when they wrestled with all proposals dealing with financial matters.
After proposals with price tags were approved, they were sent to the General Council on Finance and Administration and the Connectional Table for advice and final recommendations. These items are generally considered again on the final day of the 10-day gathering.
Delegates created a new fund for theological schools in Africa and launched two new study groups.
Noting that United Methodist churches in Africa are the fastest-growing components of the denomination, delegates approved a request for $2 million for United Methodist theological schools on that continent.
The $2 million request for African theological schools would help seminaries across the continent train additional pastors for the growing church.
Tshibang Kasap Owan, a professor of the Mulungwishi Theological School in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told delegates that the school receives 500 applicants each year, but because of budget constraint the school can only accept 10 to 20 students. The request for $2 million would help several African seminaries struggling in a similar manner.
Study of the world-wide church
A Task Force on the Global Nature of the Church, authorized by the 2004 General Conference, asserted that General Conference is too "U.S.-centric." The six-member group proposed the possibility of making the United States a central conference similar to other conferences outside the United States.
The task group submitted 23 petitions that would amend the constitution to allow for the creation of a regional conference for the United States and change the name "central conference" to "regional conference."
The group said it prefers the word "worldwide" rather than "global" since global might be associated with the "homogenization and dominance of Western economy and culture."
In response to the proposals, delegates asked the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table to create a 20-member committee to consider recommendations of the study group and suggested that the six members of the earlier study be included in the new committee. The new group will also consider the financial implications of proposed changes in structure and report back to the 2012 General Conference.
Arthur Jones, a lay delegate from North Texas Conference who introduced the recommendation, said the establishment of a study committee does not require the creation of a U.S. regional conference; however, if the U.S. church were to become a central conference, it would probably convene after General Conference.
New Faith and Order Committee
Delegates created a new 24-member standing committee on Faith and Order to help bishops and the church reflect on matters of faith, doctrinal teaching, order and discipline. The group will also provide study materials upon the request of the bishops, the Connectional Table or General Conference. The cost of the committee is estimated to be $287,000 to be funded through existing funds within the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns and the Board of Higher Education of Ministry.
The Rev. James Harnish, a delegate from Florida, argued against establishing another committee, saying it just adds to the church's bureaucracy. "God loved the world so much that he didn't create a committee," he said.
The Rev. Gregory Stover, a West Ohio delegate and a member of the commission, said the committee does not add to the bureaucracy; it provides an opportunity for the denomination to "draw upon the well springs of the church." He noted that the church creates study committees every quadrennium and this standing committee might make some of those studies unnecessary.
Bishop Lyght sermon
The morning began as usual with a worship service. The April 28 sermon was delivered by West Virginia Bishop Ernest S. Lyght.
The church always must be aware of the needs of people and be ready to meet those needs with the "fresh bread" of faith, hope and love, said Lyght.
Preaching on Jesus' parable of the man who knocks on a neighbor's door at midnight asking for bread, Lyght said people facing their "midnight hour" are waiting at church doors for a helping hand.
The bishop listed some of the world's problems including war, poverty and disease, and said, "Wake up, church! Get up, church! When men, women and children knock on the doors of the church, they are looking for fresh bread. They want to encounter a vibrant faith. They want to embrace hope for tomorrow. They want to experience extravagant love that includes them."
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. portrayed the church as having three loaves of bread the bread of faith, the bread of hope and the bread of love, said the bishop.
Lyght said the church can keep "the bread fresh" by participating in a devout prayer life, regular Bible study, worship, small groups and Christian education.
After a careful check of keypads and the electronic voting system, delegates voted for members of the Judicial Council and the University Senate.
Judicial Council serves as the supreme court of the denomination. It has been at the center of considerable controversy after ruling that a pastor had the right to deny membership to a gay man. Lay persons elected to eight-year terms on the council are Angela Brown (California-Nevada) and Ruben Reyes (Philippines). Clergy elected are the Revs. Kathi Austin-Mahle (Minnesota); F. Belton Joyner (North Carolina); and William B. Lawrence (North Texas). Council members Jon Gray, Beth Capen, the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe and the Rev. Dennis Blackwell were elected in 2004 to eight-year terms.
The University Senate is a group of 25 higher education professionals which determines which schools, colleges, universities and seminaries meet the criteria to be listed as affiliate institutions of the denomination. Persons elected to four-year terms on the senate are Maxine Clark Beach, dean, Drew Theological School; David L. Beckley, president, Rust College; Charlene Black, retired president, Georgia Southern University; and the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, former president, Asbury Seminary.
In other action, the assembly raised the retirement age of bishops. Currently bishops are required to retire if they reach age 66 on or before July 1 in a year when jurisdictional conferences are held. The assembly raised that age to 68 effective upon the adjournment of the 2008 General Conference.
Delegates learned that church members raised $3 million for the restoration of churches damaged by Hurricane Katrina. More than $60 million was given through the United Methodist Committee on Relief for humanitarian aid in the Gulf Coast. However, Bishop William Oden, chairman of the Council of Bishops' Katrina Recovery Appeal, said "Katrina fatigue has set in." He called for a recommitment to the rebuilding and reconstruction of the area. Elizabeth Cumbest, a teenaged church member from Ocean Springs, Miss., performed a song that she wrote to help raise funds for the Mississippi Conference's Seashore United Methodist Assembly. About $45,000 has been raised so far.
If delegates started getting sleepy in the late afternoon, a 23-member choir of children from Uganda woke them up. South Georgia Area Bishop Michael Watson said that after hearing the children sing, his conference wanted to bring the Hope for Africa Children's Choir to General Conference.
Delegates declined an opportunity to create a permanent site for the Judicial Council, but they did agree to provide an office for a part-time clerk who would work no more than 20 hours a week. The proposed cost of a permanent site would have added $25,000 a year to the denominational budget. It is not clear what the cost of a clerk's office might be, but the cost is to be paid out of Council on Finance and Administration funds.
Justa Mamani came from her home in Bolivia to thank delegates for the support her community receives through the Advance. Her expressions of gratitude were part of a celebration of the 60th anniversary of that second-mile giving program of the denomination.
Delegates created a Socially Responsible Investment Task Force to establish, implement and promote a common standard for determining prohibited investments. The task force is also asked to attempt to engage in holy conferencing with identified companies.
The April 27 evening "area night" included a concert by the internationally acclaimed Texas Boys Choir, followed by food, music and fellowship in a nearby courtyard. Delegates and visitors were treated to Texas delicacies, including empanadas, quail eggs and Blue Bell ice cream.
*Currently attending his 11th General Conference, Peck is a four-time editor of the Daily Christian Advocate now serving as an editor for United Methodist News Service during General Conference
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