What will serve as our guide during General Conference?

By Bishop Larry Goodpaster

Preparations for the 2012 General Conference began almost as soon as all the delegates departed from the previous General Conference in Fort Worth in May 2008. Many people have worked tirelessly in an effort to make our gathering in Tampa a place of hospitality and hope for our denomination. Now, delegates have been elected, travel plans have been made, themes have been established, and strategies devised.

Bishop Larry Goodpaster
Bishop Larry Goodpaster

Those who have participated in the past know that fatigue and frustration are often the results of yet another General Conference. Some see General Conference as a political-legislative assembly where parliamentary procedure reigns and voting for or against something is a sign of one’s loyalty. Some see General Conference as a convention where delegates gather for two weeks of a torturous agenda and where arguments are advanced, protests lodged, and money spent.

It does not have to be this way!

The opening hours are but a sign of how we view General Conference. Again this year, we will begin with inspiring worship as we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion where we claim our life and identity through the sacrificial love of God in Christ Jesus. Almost before the last chord fades, and the crumbs are swept from the floor, we will move to the business of establishing the rules that will govern the Conference.

It will be a telling sign if we expend more time, energy and passion on the rules than we do on the ritual that grounds our actions in the love of God. It will be a telling sign if the rules determine our life together for two weeks, more so than the sacrament.

One of the most important challenges facing the delegates in Tampa will be whether the mission of the church is paramount in our decision-making, or whether it will be an afterthought of nice words written and recited but not practiced or implemented. If the mission (making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world) really is everything—our purpose and our direction—then it must be the driving force behind every decision we will be called upon to make. The challenge for delegates and visitors alike will be to ask this question: How will this action, this item, or this decision move us toward accomplishing the mission?

This is a challenge for us because in the midst of hours upon hours of committee meetings and plenary sessions, it is easy for us to be distracted. To stay focused on the mission, we must ask: Will we listen for and discern the promptings of God’s Holy Spirit before any debate, discussion or disagreement? Can General Conference be a means of grace that is framed by prayer and worship rather than speeches for and against or majority and minority reports? Through our actions, will we claim our Wesleyan heritage to spread Scriptural holiness across the land and to reform the continent, starting with the Church?

At this 2012 General Conference there will be significant proposals with the potential of renewing the movement of Methodism around the world. The Call to Action, the Ministry Study, and the Worldwide Nature of the Church proposals are three among several recommendations that take seriously the mission and invite us to shape our church for the future not on institutional maintenance but on missional vitality.

In November 2010, I invited and challenged the Council of Bishops to engage in an 18-month period of preparation for General Conference through the disciplines of prayer and fasting. In the weeks that followed, I was encouraged by messages that I received from across the connection. Churches, classes and individuals wrote to say that they would join the bishops in this spiritual preparation. I can only hope that these first signs of commitment are now being practiced.

It is not too late for all of us in every corner of the world to undergird the gathering in Tampa with prayer, fasting and seeking the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit. This spiritual grounding can have a profound impact, not only on General Conference, but on the future of our denomination.

One thing is sure: we will not vote or legislate our way to fulfilling the mission. The church, as God’s mission strategy in the world, will faithfully and fruitfully move forward only by loving as we have been loved (Matthew 22:34-40 and 1 John 4:7-12). Even at General Conference!

 

Bishop Larry Goodpaster is president of the Council of Bishops and bishop of the Western North Carolina conference. This article first appeared in Circuit Rider (Feb/Mar/Apr 2012) and online at MinistryMatters.com. Follow General Conference coverage from Circuit Rider and Ministry Matters at www.ministrymatters.com/gc2012.

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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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