TAMPA, Fla.—United Methodists gathered here for General Conference 2012 found much to celebrate, including overall growth of the denomination, its increasingly global character and success in its fight against malaria in Africa.
But exultation alternated with anxiety as the nearly 1,000 delegates were confronted with stark data about the church’s slide in the United States.
“At the current rate of decline . . . we have less than 50 years for the United Methodist Church in the United States,” said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, a leader of the Call to Action reform effort aimed at reversing declines.
The fate of specific proposals pushed by Mr. Hamilton and others—including consolidating general church agencies and ending guaranteed appointment—was far from certain at press time, as delegates met in 13 committees to begin working through more than 1,000 petitions.
There were deep divisions going in, particularly about agency restructuring. And early plenary sessions rubbed some delegates the wrong way, particularly the session in which the stage was largely given over to Mr. Hamilton and other backers of the Call to Action.
The Rev. Rebekah Miles, a Perkins School of Theology professor and Arkansas Conference delegate, criticized planners of the General Conference for not allowing more time to debate and possibly amend the rules under which decision-making would proceed.
“The level of suspicion and distrust is higher,” she said at the end of day two. “I agree with a lot of stuff they want to do, but it’s going to be harder now.”
General Conference is the quadrennial gathering in which delegates—half of them laity, half clergy, and none bishops—decide key matters of church law, social policy and finances.
In Tampa, the 987 delegates, joined by perhaps 2,000 others in a variety of roles, took over the Tampa Convention Center and a handful of downtown hotels.
This General Conference was not only notable for its long reform agenda, but also for nearly 40 percent of the delegates coming from Africa, Asia and Europe. Travel and translation costs for international delegates are the main reason this General Conference is projected to cost a record $8.8 million—$1.7 million more than the 2008 event in Fort Worth, Texas.
While decision-making dominates, General Conference never lacks for music and preaching.
“Hello church! We are here, and God is good!” Marcia McFee, General Conference music and worship leader, told a packed crowd assembled for the first of nightly worship services.
On Wednesday morning, second day of the gathering, a rousing Episcopal Address by Bishop Peter Weaver, titled “The Resurrection Revolution,” brought many delegates to their feet.
“It is not the decline in membership in some parts of our church that is most disturbing,” Bishop Weaver, leader of the New England Conference, said. “Rather it is the decline in deep discipleship: discipleship that dares—no, delights in sharing Christ with others and living the radical Christ-like life that draws others to Jesus, so they too become followers, disciples, engaged with God in transforming the world.”
But hours later, in the evening plenary, champions of the Call to Action reforms dwelled on the downward numbers in the U.S., including a 5.3 percent decline in membership over the last five years, and an 8.7 percent drop in worship attendance over that same interval.
Delegates heard as well that in the U.S. the average membership age is approaching 60, and only about 5 percent of clergy are under age 35.
While the church is growing rapidly in Africa—accounting for a much higher percentage of African delegates this time around—U.S. church members account for nearly all the apportionments that operate general church agencies.
“Our financial base is shrinking,” Moses Kumar, top executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration, told delegates.
He noted that his agency is recommending a $603 million general church budget—a first-ever decrease over the previous quadrennium.
Mr. Hamilton, pastor of the 18,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., hammered on the downward trajectory of the denomination during his part of the presentation. He noted dramatic declines in baptisms and confirmations, and showed a video about a venerable UM church that closed last year after a long decline in a changing neighborhood.
“This could be our future as a denomination in the United States,” he said. “But it doesn’t have to be.”
Mr. Hamilton pushed for a 10-year focus on boosting the number of vital congregations, allowing annual conferences more flexibility in organizing, consolidating most general church agencies under a single governing board led by an executive, and committing to recruiting and training 2,000 “next generation clergy.”
There are other controversial reforms up for consideration: namely creating a “set aside” (non-residential) bishop to lead the Council of Bishops and help coordinate reform efforts; and ending guaranteed appointment for ordained elders.
But Mr. Hamilton acknowledged that consolidating the agencies—each of which currently has its own board and top executive—had caused the most pushback.
While taking care not to criticize agency workers, Mr. Hamilton said the current structure discourages cooperation and pits agencies against one another in a struggle for scarce dollars. And it doesn’t, he went on, serve as well as it could to support local churches.
“Our current organizational structure is not sacred,” he said. “John Wesley did not design it.”
But opposition has been mounting for months to the main restructuring plans, with some complaining that a single, small governing board couldn’t reflect the diversity of the UMC, and others saying they feared a concentration of power. Two less sweeping plans have been put forward.
By Friday, April 27, one of those, dubbed “Plan B” by its proponents, had become the operative plan in the General Conference committee working through restructuring legislation. “Disappointed but open,” Mr. Hamilton said in a twitter message just after the vote.
The plenary presentation by Mr. Hamilton was clearly aimed at shoring up support for strong reform, but some young clergy weighed in immediately and negatively through social media, arguing that it amounted to fear-mongering and seemed too much about preserving the UMC as an institution.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Sky McCracken, a district superintendent and alternate delegate from Kentucky, took to his blog to defend Mr. Hamilton and urge greater civility in social media commentary.
During a break in committee work, Mr. McCracken said the struggle to change entrenched structures and practices in the denomination was wearing on delegates already. “It’s tense,” he said.
Lots of other issues, some controversial, some not, surfaced early at General Conference.
Delegates heard Bishop Thomas Bickerton’s report that United Methodists have raised more than $20 million for the fight against malaria, and have been a major part of helping to thwart that disease.
“We’ve cut the death rate in half in the last four years,” he said. “If we stay focused, we can get the job done.”
The first week of General Conference saw gay rights advocates out in force, wearing rainbow colored attire, passing out materials, and holding events aimed at generating support among delegates for changing the church’s official position that the practice of homosexuality goes against Christian teaching.
Growing support in the U.S. for gay rights, including same-sex marriage, would seem to bode well for that movement. But the church’s position has held for 40 years, and some say increased African representation at General Conference makes change unlikely, given conservative social attitudes on that continent.
“I’m supportive of a totally inclusive church,” said the Rev. Kent Millard, retired pastor of St. Luke’s UMC in Indianapolis, at a gay rights’ event early in General Conference. “And I surrender to God for the timing of when it happens.”
One obvious development at this gathering was the prevalence of smartphones, tablet computers and laptops.
Even bishops were blogging, and they too reflected the highs and lows.
“General Conference is a rollercoaster ride,” wrote Bishop Mike Lowry, of the Central Texas Conference. “Yet in it all is the presence of God.”