Break with the past? Proposals for major change at GC 2012

With proposals for agency restructuring and other major change, this could be the most important General Conference in decades. “And it could all fizzle,” said veteran delegate the Rev. Don Underwood.

Expectations run high before every General Conference, but this time even a seasoned hand like the Rev. Don Underwood feels there’s a strong prospect for major change in the United Methodist Church.

Mr. Underwood, pastor of Christ UMC in Plano, Texas, attended his first General Conference in 1976. The one set for April 24 to May 4 in Tampa, Fla., under the theme “Make Disciples of Jesus Christ to Transform the World,” will be his fifth as a delegate.

Eager to shake up a denomination that has long seen numerical declines in the United States, he favors restructuring the UMC’s general agencies, ending guaranteed appointment for clergy and reallocating millions in general church funds to help congregations thrive.

As General Conference looms, he’s balancing hope and realism.

“This has the potential to be the most important General Conference since 1968,” Mr. Underwood said, referring to the one that created the United Methodist Church through a denominational merger. “And it could all fizzle.”

Every four years, the United Methodist Church gathers about a thousand delegates from around the world. They constitute the General Conference—the only body that can speak for the UMC.

Delegates are chosen by their geographical conferences, and according to church law half must be clergy and half laity. Bishops preside, but don’t vote.

During the first week, delegates will meet in 13 legislative committees and one central conference committee to consider 1,200 petitions from individuals, churches and agencies. Recommendations from these committees will be debated in plenary sessions. Delegates will decide on the quadrennial budget for the general church; consider revisions to the Book of Discipline, the UMC law book; and pass, amend or reject proposed resolutions addressing social issues.

Delegates and visitors will also gather regularly for worship, and may get to hear a high-profile speaker. (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia and a United Methodist, spoke in 2008. President Obama has been invited this time, though there’s no indication he’ll accept.) They will also try to keep emotions in check amid debate and protest over a persistently problematic issue—homosexuality.


Much of the planning for, and on-the-fly decision making during, the gathering falls to the Rev. Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist II, secretary of General Conference.

“Sometimes people offer me sympathy, and sometimes I need sympathy,” he said at the Pre-General Conference Briefing in January. “But we’re a wonderful church. It’s a wonderful thing to see the delegates gather from around the world.”

This General Conference—to be held in the Tampa Convention Center—will underscore how international the denomination has become.

Of the 988 delegates, those from outside the United States will constitute 38 percent, an 8 percent rise from 2008. In 2004, non-U.S. delegates accounted for 20 percent.

Membership is crucial to the formula for allotting delegates, and African membership in the UMC grew from 3.5 million to 4.4 million between 2005 and 2009. In the United States, the church declined from nearly 8 million to 7.6 million members during that period.

So a General Conference power shift has resulted, with the U.S. losing delegates and Africa gaining them. The two largest delegations this time are African—North Katanga, with 52 and Cote d’Ivoire with 40.

Having a worldwide church makes for an even more expensive General Conference. In 2008, the cost was $7.1 million, up from $5.3 million in 2004.

The Rev. Alan Morrison, business manager for General Conference, projects the cost this time at $8.5 million. Much of that owes to transporting more international delegates. Another rising cost is for translators to accommodate those delegates.

“If we want to be a global church, that’s the price we pay,” said Mr. Reist.

‘A new church’

Church operations worldwide are largely underwritten by congregations in the United States, and the long, slow decline of membership here has had a financial effect.

The UMC’s General Council on Finance and Administration and the Connectional Table are recommending that General Conference approve a $603 million budget for general church operations during 2013-2016. That’s about 6 percent lower than expenditures for the quadrennium that’s ending, and marks the first time a smaller budget has been put forward.

Within the United States, the average age of UMC members is 57, leading to warnings by the Rev. Lovett Weems, a church growth expert, of a looming “death tsunami” that could jeopardize the denomination’s future.

Reform efforts have been stirring for years, and quickened with the last General Conference and the ensuing recession.

The Council of Bishops and Connectional Table commissioned a Call to Action Steering Team that in 2010 issued a report, drawing on two outside studies of the church. That in turn has led to a range of reform proposals before General Conference, endorsed by the bishops in a public letter that begins, “For the sake of a new world, we see a new church.”

One proposal would consolidate nine of 13 general agencies into a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry, governed by a 15-member board, with oversight from a 45-member advisory panel. The new structure would eliminate 524 board positions allotted to agencies.

Another proposal would create a “set-side” Council of Bishops president who would devote full time to the job—as it stands, the president continues to oversee a geographic area.   The proposed non-residential bishop would preside over the 45-member advisory panel and assume the role of ecumenical officer for the UMC. The proposed structure would also move the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns to the Council of Bishops.

Group Prays

UMNS FILE PHOTO BY MAILE BRADFIELD -- Delegates pray prior to a vote on issues related to homosexuality at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. -- UMNS file photo by Maile Bradfield

Yet another high-profile reform measure, aimed at minimizing the problem of ineffective clergy, would end guaranteed appointment for ordained elders. Then there’s the proposal to redirect $60 million in general church funds toward boosting the number of vital congregations.

The 2008 General Conference approved “Four Areas of Focus” for the UMC: improving global health; engaging in ministry with the poor; creating new places for new people and revitalizing existing congregations; and developing principled Christian leaders.

Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Conference hopes this General Conference will enact more extensive change.

“It’s a critical conference,” he said. “Not that we’re going to settle everything or get it all right, but I think we’re going to set a direction of whether we’re going to seriously engage all these things in the years to come, or whether we’re going to continue to evade and ignore.”

Mary Brooke Casad, top executive of the Connectional Table, is another who’s challenging delegates to be bold. “The plan before us is innovative, forward-thinking and hope-filled,” she said.


But opposition has formed already to the restructuring plan, with critics saying the 15-member board will fail to reflect the diversity of the church and struggle to understand the detailed work the various agencies do. They doubt a 45-member advisory panel meeting once a year would offer adequate oversight.

“There’s a lot of blowback from the agencies,” said Mr. Underwood. “They don’t mind their boards being downsized, but they don’t want any major restructuring.”

The Rev. Tim McClendon, a district superintendent in South Carolina, has written and spoken about what he sees as an alarming shift of power to the episcopacy in the proposals.

Bishop Gregory Palmer, a leader in the reform effort, disagrees with that interpretation.

“I absolutely reject it,” he said. “There are no new explicit powers going to the Council of Bishops. . . . The whole non-residential bishop thing—I do not see that’s a power hoarding or a power grab. I see it as a way of focusing leadership.”

Left to find their way are delegates such as the Rev. Steve Zekoff of the Wisconsin Conference.

He’s still working through the issues, though he considers the main restructuring proposal to be “radical,” and favors a compromise offered by the Methodist Federation for Social Action.

But he definitely wants change.

“We’ve been knowing for years about the aging population of the U.S. church,” he said. “So we’re dealing with that reality of needing to revitalize.”

Lingering issue

One key issue where change seems unlikely is homosexuality.

As U.S. society at large has become accepting, some mainline Protestant denominations have moved toward full inclusion of gay people, including as clergy and even (in the case of the Episcopal Church) bishops. But the position of the UMC remains that while all persons have sacred worth, the church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.

General Conferences have become the arena for contentious and fairly close votes for changing the church’s position on homosexuality. Demonstrations before and after the votes have been covered by the religious and secular media.

The year leading up to this General Conference saw more than 900 clergy pledging in writing to officiate at same-sex unions in spite of church law, followed by a larger counter-movement calling on bishops to enforce the Book of Discipline.

At the Pre-General Conference Briefing, the Rev. Bruce Robbins, a leader of the pledge effort, and the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, who supports church law on this issue and serves as vice president of the unofficial conservative caucus Good News, agreed that the impasse will likely continue.

Delegates from African have traditionally favored the present statement on homosexuality found in the UMC’s Social Principles.

“The perception generally is that the larger the number of delegates from the Central Conferences in Africa, the more conservative votes there will be on social issues,” said the Rev. William Lawrence, dean of the Perkins School of Theology.

This General Conference has set aside time for “holy conversation” on sexuality issues; but Mr. Morrison also expects another demonstration from gay rights advocates, should they fail again legislatively.

Others are sure emotions will run high as delegates deal with this issue and others during 11 days crammed with long, intense committee meetings and plenary sessions.

“While we desire, I believe with our hearts, to do holy conferencing, General Conference is not necessarily structured to bring that about,” said Erin Hawkins, top executive of the UMC’s General Commission on Religion and Race, at the Pre-General Conference Briefing.

She got a laugh from the crowd by adding: “Maybe we need to structure more time for the beverage-of-choice meetings.”

Signs of renewal

This General Conference is in fact planned to allow for more down time. Unlike four years ago, there will be no work on the Sunday that falls mid-way through, and the schedule calls for following work sessions with evening worship that wraps up by 9:30.

“Humans are not necessarily made to be working 14 to 18 hours a day,” Mr. Morrison said. “I’m not necessarily sure you get to your best decision-making when you’re working those kinds of hours.”

One keenly interested observer will be Bishop Will Willimon, who retires in July as leader of the North Alabama Conference. He co-wrote a book 16 years ago that called for major reform in the denomination.

He considers the serious talk of change to be a sign that renewal is finally underway.

“I’m accustomed to the Lord taking time for the Holy Spirit to breathe among us,” he said. “I think the momentum forward is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and I give thanks.”

Sam Hodges, Managing Editor

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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