Delegates to decide on restructuring, other issues

General Conference 2012 won’t lack for issues or for proposals that would profoundly change the way the United Methodist Church operates, particularly at the agency level.

Here are the matters likely to preoccupy delegates during the 11-day gathering in Tampa, Fla.

 

Restructuring

 

Few would deny that what’s called the “general church” of the UMC, its boards and agencies, is a confusing thicket of acronyms and mission statements.

Some UM leaders believe simplifying the structure will lead to better coordination and more support for the goal of boosting the number of vital congregations.

Legislation drafted by a Call to Action committee would consolidate nine of 13 agencies into a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry, led by an executive. It would have a 15-member board led by an executive and overseen by a 45-member advisory panel called the General Council for Strategy and Oversight.

Within the center would be five offices, overseeing ministries now cared for by the nine agencies.

The Office of Shared Services would include functions of the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA), United Methodist Communications and the General Commission on Archives and History.

The Office of Congregational Vitality would do the same for the General Board of Discipleship, and the Office of Leadership Excellence would take on most work done by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

The Office of Missional Engagement would consolidate the General Board of Global Ministries and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, while the Office of Justice and Reconciliation would assume the work of the General Board of Church and Society, General Commission on Religion and Race, and General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.

The sweeping proposal would cut 524 board positions that go with the current agency structure and could set the stage—in combination with budget cuts—for further agency staff reductions.

(In response to the Call to Action report, agencies drafted proposals to reduce their boards by 266 directors. Agencies have been reducing staff annually. In 1971 there were 3,139 on staff in 11 agencies. In 2010 there were 1,384 staff members in 13 agencies.)

 

Opposition to this proposal started last summer, and has mounted. Ethnic caucuses worry that they’ll have far less input in the new, smaller board structure. Others, too, feel a 15-member board can’t reflect the diversity of a worldwide church.

Top executives of some agencies have complained that their work will get lost under the new structure, without their own board devoted to understanding their issues, personnel and budgeting.

Others have fretted about concentration of power, the potential for the Council of Bishops to dominate the board of the new center and particularly about lack of autonomy for GCFA.

The Methodist Federation for Social Action has introduced an alternative restructuring that would have a coordinating council with 43 voting members and 24 non-voting members, and four ministry centers (combining work of some current agencies), each with its own 33-member board, balanced for diversity and geography.

The Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops has suggested that each of the five offices proposed by Connectional Table be governed by 15-member boards and that three members of each board would be named to a 15-member coordinating body.

Others have offered proposals to preserve the independence of the General Council on Finance and Administration.

There are other restructuring ideas up for consideration, such as bringing the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns under the Council of Bishops, and letting the Women’s Division (United Methodist Women) separate from GBGM.

 

Clergy appointments

 

Another major reform proposal would change the Book of Discipline from saying that ordained elders in good standing “shall” be continued in appointment to saying they “may” be.

The Commission to Study the Ministry concluded that guaranteed appointment is a major contributor to ineffective congregational leadership, and that the current system has led to an oversupply of ordained clergy in some conferences.

But some critics say guaranteed appointment protects “prophetic” voices in the pulpit, helps provide opportunities for minorities and women, and compensates clergy for the demands of itinerancy.

Another argument is that mechanisms are already in place to weed out ineffective clergy, the problem being that annual conferences vary considerably in their willingness to deal with the problem.

There are ministry-related proposals before General Conference, including one that would streamline the ordination process, allowing candidates to be eligible as soon as they finish educational requirements.

 

Homosexuality

 

Since 1972, homosexuality has been an issue for intense debate, and often for protest, at General Conference.

Polls suggest ever increasing acceptance of homosexuality by the American public, and a growing number of states have, through legislative action, chosen to recognize gay marriage or civil unions.

But successive General Conferences, while embracing language of compassion, have continued to uphold the denomination’s position that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. Bans on ordaining gay clergy and allowing clergy to officiate at same-sex unions also have stood.

Conflict within the UMC on this issue was dramatically underscored this summer, when more than 900 clergy signed statements pledging to officiate at same-sex unions. That led to a counter-movement, with thousands of clergy and laity signing online petitions urging UM bishops to uphold the Book of Discipline against the former group.

Late in 2011, the bishops did issue a letter saying they would uphold the Discipline, while noting the church’s deep divisions on the issue.

This General Conference will see a range of petitions seeking to change where the church stands on homosexuality, and unofficial caucuses will be active on opposing sides.

Few insiders see a prospect for change, given that socially conservative African delegations are gaining in numbers. With like-minded U.S. delegates, they seem to constitute a reliable majority for the status quo.

The 2000, 2004 and 2008 General Conferences saw a protest by gay-rights advocates. This one likely will too.

 

‘Set-aside’ bishop

 

Currently, the president of the Council of Bishops serves two years while continuing to oversee a geographical area.

The bishops propose changing the church’s constitution to give the office of president a four-year term, free of (i.e., set aside from) conference or area overseeing. Any permanent plan to elect a bishop without a residential area would require a constitutional amendment. Action by two-thirds of the delegates would have to be ratified by two-thirds of voting members of all annual conferences.

The set-aside bishop would serve as president of the Council of Bishops and as the denomination’s chief ecumenical officer; help with strategy and alignment of resources toward the goal of increasing the number of vital congregations; and serve as a more identifiable public face of the denomination.

Bishop Larry Goodpaster, whose term as president ends at this General Conference, has described as “nearly impossible” the demands of overseeing a conference and trying to lead the bishops’ council.

The idea for a set-aside bishop leader has been pushed before, without success. There’s momentum this time, but also opposition to vesting more power in the episcopacy.

 

Budget

 

The shrinking of the UMC in the United States has reduced giving, and the recession hasn’t helped.

GCFA and the Connectional Table have put forward a $603 million general church budget for 2013-2016. That’s about a 6 percent drop from the previous four years, and represents the first time General Conference will be asked to approve a smaller budget than the one before.

Agencies’ budgets have increased previously, but income has not kept pace with inflation. That’s caused staff reductions and program realignments. The workforce of the general agencies has gone from 3,139 in 1971 to 1,384 in 2010.

The budget supports seven funds. Here they are, with the amount they would get under the recommended budget: World Service (funding most agencies), $311,600,000; Ministerial Education, $105,668,000; Black College Fund, $42,150,000; Africa University, $9,433,000; Episcopal Fund, $90,336,000; General Administration, $35,649,000; and Interdenominational Cooperation, $8,264,000.

Delegates will consider a proposal to amend the constitution to empower a body or bodies of the church to raise and distribute funds between General Conference sessions. As it stands, no entity can change allocated budgets after General Conference adjourns.

Delegates will also consider whether to allow the mid-quadrennium reallocation of up to $60 million in general church funds, with a focus on boosting theological education, offering leadership training to young adult laity and supporting other efforts to increase the number of vital congregations.

Some veterans of UMC budget debates believe delegates may be inclined to go a simpler route, reducing the recommended budget by $60 million, with the goal of providing apportionment relief for congregations. Such action would curtail or eliminate many programs now offered by general agencies.

 

Other issues

 

A range of other causes have surfaced in legislation, including divestment by general agencies from companies that assist in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories; pulling the UMC out of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; and calling for Congress to enact immigration reform.

 

Endgraf: This article draws on information in the 2012 General Conference Visitors’ Guide.

 

Sam Hodges, Managing Editor – shodges@umr.org

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