Big meeting, small change – GC2012 leaves many with blues

There’s country blues, Piedmont blues, Chicago blues and rhythm & blues.

Bishop Max Whitfield presides at final session of General Conference 2012.

And then there’s General Conference 2012 blues, which may be the most mournful of all.

United Methodists are lamenting that a 10-day gathering costing $8.8 million could result in so much conflict and distrust over agency restructuring and homosexuality—and so little change for a denomination clearly in trouble.

The Rev. Tim McClendon, a district superintendent from the South Carolina Conference and a General Conference delegate, offered this summary judgment on his blog: “We may have just witnessed a historic tipping point of our denomination into the morass of failed enterprises.”

Maria Dixon Hall, an associate professor of communication studies at Southern Methodist University, attended General Conference as an academic observer and faithful United Methodist.

“If we continue the way we’re going, it’s a split,” she said.

The Rev. Brian Milford, who led the Iowa delegation, offered his own grim assessment.

“Besides the physical and emotional exhaustion, there seems to be a spiritual pall that has fallen over those of us who attended General Conference,” he said. “Personally, I continue to feel a deep sense of grief over the fact that many were wounded by the interactions that transpired.”

Every four years, General Conference brings together roughly 1,000 delegates—half of them clergy, and half laity—to decide matters of church law, social policy and finances.

Some veteran delegates predicted the General Conference in Tampa, Fla., held April 24-May 4, would be the most important since 1968, when the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren denominations merged to become the United Methodist Church.

Clearly the stakes this time were high. While the UMC is growing in Africa, it’s been on a decades-long membership slide in the United States. And the U.S. churches foot the bills for denominational work.

Soon after the 2008 General Conference, the Council of Bishops kicked off the Call to Action initiative, to try to arrest the UMC’s decline in the United States. And that led to a long reform agenda for General Conference 2012.

But trouble was foreshadowed in the first work session.

“We spent a significant amount of time wrangling over the rules by which we would order our conversation and debate,” said Mr. Milford. “From my perspective, special interest groups were solidified early on.”

The centerpiece reform legislation coming out of Call to Action would have consolidated nine general church agencies under a single, 15-member governing board, with a top executive. The idea was to improve general church coordination and focus, in support of a 10-year goal to increase the number of “vital” UM congregations.

Well before General Conference, church agency executives began to attack the plan. Others joined in, saying such a structure represented a dangerous concentration of power and couldn’t reflect the diversity of a worldwide church.

The General Conference committee assigned to handle restructuring legislation had to work through the Call to Action plan and two less-sweeping alternatives. At a chaotic final meeting, the committee failed to recommend to the full General Conference any plan.

Restructuring looked dead, but representatives of two of the three plans worked through the weekend to produce a compromise called “Plan UMC.”

That plan immediately came under attack as a backroom effort, and when it reached the floor, one delegate moved to require its authors to stand, so their race and gender could be identified.

Plan UMC passed in amended form, but in the last hours of General Conference was struck down by the Judicial Council as violating the church constitution. The announcement led to gasps around the hall, then to cheers by restructuring opponents. Reformers scrambled to find a way to keep their proposal alive, and debate during that failed effort led to still more plenary disruption.

“Anyone watching the show (and that’s what it was) on Friday can tell you that when you have United Methodists standing on tables, shouting down the presiding officer, and engaging in personal attacks on and off the floor of the plenary session, we have more than walked away from reason. We have run from it,” Dr. Dixon Hall wrote on her blog.

The UMC’s divisions on homosexuality were at least as obvious.

Those favoring an end to the church’s official position that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching lost decisively in committee. (As the church has grown in Africa, so have the number of General Conference delegates coming from that continent. They now form a solid bloc, with conservatives from the U.S., against changing the church’s position on homosexuality.)

Gay rights activists staged demonstrations, proving disruptive enough that Bishop Mike Coyner, who was presiding, cut short a morning plenary session and threatened to close the afternoon session to all but delegates.

That was avoided, but an “agree to disagree” statement on homosexuality introduced by the Revs. Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter—pastors of two of the largest UMC churches—failed to get majority support.

One debate included an African delegate comparing homosexual conduct to bestiality. Even the planned “holy conversation” about sexuality proved fractious, with openly gay delegate Mark Miller asserting that some gays and lesbians were bullied in the group discussions.

General Conference got some of its toughest reviews from pastors of churches that are welcoming and affirming to gay people. The Rev. Sandy Brown, pastor of First UMC in Seattle, wrote that the decision not to change the church’s position on homosexuality was “wrong, stupid and evil.”

The Rev. Eric Folkerth leads Northaven UMC in Dallas, another welcoming and affirming church. He said attendance dropped 10 to 15 percent on the Sunday after General Conference.

“I’ve heard from around five couples, both gay and straight, who have questioned whether they can continue in the United Methodist Church,” he said. “It would be dishonest to say that people, especially gay and lesbian people, don’t have very good reason to leave.”

As president of Good News, an unofficial conservative caucus of the UMC, the Rev. Rob Renfroe said changing the church’s position on homosexuality would guarantee a split.

“Millions of us, including many of our largest congregations, will not stay in a denomination that goes against the clear teaching of Scripture, not because we are homophobic but because we can’t stay in a denomination that does not affirm what the Bible teaches,” he said.

But Mr. Renfroe had his own complaints about General Conference, specifically that a petition to withdraw the UMC from the pro-abortion rights Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice passed committee but failed to come up for a floor vote.

“We make room to discuss other emotional, contentious issues but not this one,” he said.

As far apart as Mr. Folkerth and Mr. Renfroe are on some issues, they agreed on General Conference. Mr. Renfroe, who observed in person, called it “dysfunctional.” Mr. Folkerth, who watched via live-streaming, described it as a “deeply broken process.”

Some reforms did pass, notably downsizing most agency boards and ending guaranteed appointment for ordained elders.

Don House, a veteran lay delegate from Texas, was cheered that General Conference designated $7 million for clergy training in the U.S. He cautioned against drawing too negative a conclusion from General Conference as a whole.

“The collective actions of annual conferences, districts and local churches will have a greater impact upon vital congregations,” he said.

But some others who witnessed General Conference 2012 seemed traumatized. Brandon Lazarus, a Perkins School of Theology student, was present from start to finish, serving as a page.

“I’m sure I will continue searching for answers,” he wrote on his blog, “but for now I have come to the conclusion that I have no hope for the United Methodist Church as it is today.”

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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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One does begin to wonder about the stewardship of funding this dysfunctional mess. This seems to be the post GC spin: 'Well, after all, ministry happens in the local church.' So why are we sending our money to these failed General Boards and agencies?


There’s country blues, Piedmont blues, Chicago blues and rhythm & blues, and then there are The Methodist Blues thanks to Garrison Keillor click there for music and here for lyrics… . As a liberal Methodist in a Northeast Church I am disappointed that we again have failed to become a more inclusive church but what I wrote on my church facebook page ( the day before our chicken BBQ) after viewing much of the live streaming of General Conference was "General Conference 2012 is adjourned as of 10:35 Friday night we are not a perfect church, but I for… Read more »

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