GC vies with Judicial Council as 2012’s biggest news-maker

Summarizing a full year in the life of the sprawling, conflicted United Methodist Church is always a challenge. Every fourth year, it gets tougher. That’s because General Conference—the quadrennial gathering for setting church policy, law and finances—occurs and influences so much of church life.

Members of the Virginia Conference delegation huddled to discuss possible next steps after Judicial Council ruled agency restructuring legislation to be unconstitutional. The decision came on the afternoon of May 4, the last day of General Conference 2012 in Tampa, Fla., and led many to conclude the $9 million gathering had largely been a bust. UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE PHOTO BY MIKE DUBOSE

But the 2012 General Conference faced surprising competition as a news-maker. It came from the UMC’s Judicial Council, which overruled as unconstitutional two major pieces of legislation approved by General Conference delegates.

If you were to put a pop song lyric to how things unfolded, it might be: “I fought the law, and the law won.”

Elsewhere, two bishops found themselves under highly public scrutiny (with Judicial Council involvement in both cases); jurisdictions and central conferences elected a diverse and interesting group of new bishops; the United Methodist Publishing House made a momentous decision about its bookstores; and the denomination’s long struggle over gay rights continued.

Those are just some of the stories that made the front page of the Reporter in 2012. Acknowledging we’re on highly subjective ground, here’s our list of the year’s most important denominational developments:

General Conference vs. Judicial Council

Nearly 1,000 delegates—and a much larger supporting cast—occupied the Tampa Convention Center from April 24 to May 4 for General Conference.

Those favoring major change for the UMC came with a big “Call to Action” legislative agenda, including streamlining and refocusing general church agencies on supporting a 10-year “vital congregations” initiative; ending guaranteed appointment for ordained elders; and creating a “set-aside” president of the Council of Bishops. The Rev. Adam Hamilton gave an impassioned address, arguing that the UMC’s steady shrinking and aging in the United States made bold action imperative.

The set-aside bishop proposal failed, suggesting a lingering wariness over giving bishops more power. Agency restructuring stalled in committee, but a compromise—dubbed Plan UMC—came before the full body and passed. The measure to end guaranteed appointment, amended to provide safeguards against arbitrary dismissals, passed easily.

But in the last hours of General Conference, the Judicial Council ruled that the restructuring plan was “constitutionally unsalvageable,” because it shifted agency oversight away from the Council of Bishops to a new General Council on Strategy and Oversight. The move infuriated some, elated others, and led to a feckless scramble to come up with an alternative before adjournment.

And in October, the council overturned the legislation ending guaranteed appointment.

General Conference delegates did create a $5 million fund for theological education in the Central Conferences and approved $7 million to recruit and train young clergy in the United States. They also approved a $603 million quadrennial general church budget.

The Council of Bishops had urged major change in the UMC, issuing a letter titled “For the Sake of a New World, We See a New Church.”

Evidence was scant that General Conference 2012—which cost about $9 million—had left the UMC much different.

African influence

General Conference 2012 at least differed from past gatherings in the more obvious presence and influence of African delegates.

The Rev. Neelley Hicks assisted Nigerian delegate John Simon Jatutu in buying a laptop at the Tampa Convention Center, during General Conference 2012. With the UMC’s growth in Africa, African delegates increased in number and influence at General Conference. UMNS PHOTO BY KATHLEEN BARRY

They constituted nearly 40 percent, reflecting the church’s rapid growth on the continent. Some African delegates, such as Betty Spiwe Katiyo of Zimbabwe, emerged as legislative leaders.

While most celebrated the increasing worldwide nature of the UMC, there are obvious tensions that accompany the trend, related to positions on homosexuality and the fact that the shrinking U.S. portion of the church continues to fund nearly all general church costs.

What’s more, the growing expense of General Conference owes, in large measure, to flying in so many delegates from Africa and other continents, and to providing translators.

Cokesbury stores to go

For many United Methodists, the Grinch came well before Christmas with the UM Publishing House’s Nov. 5 announcement that it would close all its Cokesbury stores (38 regular retail outlets and 19 seminary stores) by next spring.

The move affects 185 full-time employees and another 100 part-time workers. Many United Methodists have a long history of buying at Cokesbury stores and are on a first-name basis with employees. The closure announcement brought an anguished outpouring from within the denomination. (One wag asked if the Judicial Council could overturn the decision.)

But Neil Alexander, president of UMPH, said the stores now serve under 40 percent of Cokesbury’s customers, and many of those also use the website or call center. Given the shift in book-buying habits—including the growing popularity of digital books—the self-sustaining publishing house had no choice but to end its bricks-and-mortar presence, he said.

The United Methodist Publishing House’s decision to close all Cokesbury stores brought an outpouring of emotion for United Methodists. UMR PHOTO BY MARY JACOBS

Mr. Alexander promised UMPH would expand its team of traveling sales reps who deal directly with churches and other institutions, and would also invest in boosting its website and call center.

Bishop controversy

For 2012 plot twists, there was no beating the saga of Bishop Earl Bledsoe of the North Texas Conference.

He made a surprise video announcement a few days before the conference’s annual gathering in early June, saying that he was retiring. But a few days later, at the very end of the conference’s meeting, he reversed himself, announcing he had been unfairly pushed to retire by the South Central Jurisdiction’s episcopacy committee, and had decided to fight to keep his job.

That led to the committee’s chairman, Don House, confirming that Bishop Bledsoe had fared poorly in its evaluation of administrative skills. Mr. House said that it appeared no conference, including North Texas—where he had been during the past four years—wanted him as leader.

The committee followed through, after an extensive hearing, by voting to retire Bishop Bledsoe involuntarily. No bishop had been subject to such an action before. Mr. House described it as an accountability move, saying the decline of the church in the United States required weeding out ineffective bishops. Though tears were shed during the debate, the South Central Jurisdiction delegates overwhelmingly voted to approve the committee’s decision.

Bishop Bledsoe appealed to the Judicial Council, which in a split decision in November sided with him, citing “numerous errors” of fair process by the committee. The council reinstated him to active status and ordered that he be given an episcopal area to oversee.

At press time, Bishop Bledsoe appeared likely to be assigned to oversee the New Mexico and Northwest Texas Conferences.

Slide continues in U.S.

The UMC continues to grow internationally, particularly in Africa. But in the United States, whose churches account for nearly all funding for the denomination’s general operations, the long downward trend continued.

Based on reports from annual conferences, United Methodist News Service estimated U.S. membership dropped by about 72,000 in 2011. (Official statistics will be released this spring.) A handful of U.S. conferences reported growth in one or more key metrics, but the vast majority saw modest reductions.

The UMC has shed 650,000 members in the U.S. and Europe since 2000, according to the “2012 State of the Church Report.” Worldwide, the church has roughly 12 million members, but in the United States the number has slipped below 7.6 million.

Other denominations have struggled along with the UMC, and the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life reported that Protestants have fallen below 50 percent of the population for the first time. The survey found increasing numbers of Americans have no religious affiliation, even though many profess to be spiritual.

Episcopacy elections

Summer saw the Jurisdictional Conferences in the United States elect 11 bishops, who promptly were assigned to oversee various annual conferences. The Southeastern Jurisdiction elected five of those, including, on the 29th ballot, the Rev. Young Jin Cho. “I learned there are many kinds of resurrection,” he joked afterward.

Election of bishops at annual conference gatherings was a highlight of the summer. Bishop Young Jin Cho washed the feet of Lucy Thompson, a fifth-grade student from Reveille UMC in Richmond, Va., during his installation service. PHOTO COURTESY NEILL CALDWELL

The South Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions each elected three bishops. The Western and North Central Jurisdictions had no episcopal elections, but saw their share of reassignments, including Bishop Minerva Carcaño moving from the Desert Southwest Conference to the California-Pacific Conference and Bishop Gregory Palmer moving from Illinois Great Rivers to West Ohio.

Some history was made in the elections and reassignments, with Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey becoming the first Hispanic woman to be a bishop in the South Central Jurisdiction and Bishop Debbie Steiner Ball the first woman to oversee the West Virginia Conference. Bishop James Swanson moved from the Holston to Mississippi Conference, and became the latter’s first African-American leader.

The Central Conferences (outside the U.S.) had episcopal elections into the fall and winter. Among those chosen: the Rev. Eduard Khegay as bishop of the Eurasia Episcopal Area. He’s the first episcopal leader elected from the former Soviet Union.

Homosexuality debate

The fight to change the church’s position that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching has gone on for decades. It failed again at the 2012 General Conference, leading to demonstrations. Two UM megachurch pastors—the Rev. Adam Hamilton and the Rev. Mike Slaughter—introduced an “agree to disagree” amendment, but that too failed.

Demonstrators demanding a more inclusive church took over the floor on May 3 at General Conference. They held Communion and sang, causing the presiding bishop to suspend the morning session. UMNS PHOTO BY PAUL JEFFREY

The consensus analysis was that the growing numbers of socially conservative African delegates, combined with a strong contingent of conservative U.S. delegates, made change in the Book of Discipline regarding homosexuality unlikely for the foreseeable future.

But at least 15 annual conferences went on record as rejecting the church’s position, and retired Bishop Melvin Talbert urged clergy to defy church law by officiating at same-sex unions. “There will be times when you will be called and challenged to choose between God and your church because your church does not always ‘do the right thing,’” he said in preaching the ordination service for the California-Pacific Conference.

A group of clergy and laity asked bishops to censure Bishop Talbert for encouraging clergy to go against the Book of Discipline, and Bishop Mike Coyner of the Indiana Conference wrote a blog post questioning the Western Jurisdiction’s “Statement of Gospel Obedience” that urged their clergy and congregations to “act as if Paragraph 161F (which states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching) does not exist.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Jack Jackson, a professor at Claremont School of Theology, wrote a much-discussed essay for the Reporter, arguing that divisions over homosexuality are so serious and so unlikely to be healed that the church should consider an amicable separation into two bodies.

East Africa questions

Bishop Daniel Wandabula of the East Africa Conference faced growing scrutiny in the latter part of 2012 over alleged failure to account for expenditure of church funds there.

Bishop Daniel Wandabula faced scrutiny about accounting in the East Africa Conference. UMNS PHOTO BY ANNETTE SPENCE

The last of three audits by the UMC’s General Board of Global Ministries found financial record keeping by the conference “to be lacking in virtually every area” and in August suspended funding to the conference through the Advance, the denomination’s designated-giving program.

In September, the General Council on Finance and Administration’s board advised all UMC bodies to withhold funds to the conference until audit questions are answered, and said it was filing a formal complaint against Bishop Wandabula. The agency said it would reduce his salary to $1,000 a month in 2013 until he provides a satisfactory explanation for expenditures.

Meanwhile, the Western Pennsylvania Conference asked the Judicial Council to review whether funds given to the East Africa Conference were used as intended by the donors, a requirement of the Book of Discipline.

Bishop Wandabula defended himself before the Judicial Council (which has yet to rule) and elsewhere accused the agencies of a campaign “of malice, mudslinging, character lynching and insurrection.”

Other stories

Hurricane Sandy’s hammering of the East Coast damaged UM churches and parsonages, and prompted major relief efforts by other UM churches and the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Imagine No Malaria, a high-profile UMC global health effort, passed the $26 million mark in fundraising.

UM-affiliated Saint Paul School of Theology, facing enrollment and financial challenges, announced it would leave its campus in Kansas City, Mo., and move to the nearby Church of the Resurrection, in Leawood, Kan. Lon Morris College, a venerable two year UM-affiliated school in Jacksonville, Texas that had been the gateway to higher education for many Texas UM pastors, filed for bankruptcy after years of deficit spending.

Meanwhile, annual conferences continued to shake up their organizational structures and to encourage church starts, many intended for ethnic constituencies. Bishop Scott Jones was among those who said necessary change would happen in the UMC, with or without General Conference.

And he provided the quote of the year, in the form of a Twitter message issued as General Conference came to its stumbling end.

“My summary: death throes of a dying 1970’s establishment church, birth pangs of a missional global 21st century church. It is messy.”


Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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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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