Commentary: A primer on Central Conferences

The first week of General Conference made one thing clear: there will be no softening of the Book of Discipline’s language regarding human sexuality.


soft discipline

A quick recap here. Many United Methodists identify as centrists regarding their stance on theological and sexuality issues. Kind of a “live and let live approach,” that offers a wide tent. That means we read and interpret the Bible differently. And, when you extend this centrist thinking into human sexuality,  for example, it seems reasonable for clergy to decide whether or not they officiate same-sex marriages.

Current church rules prohibit this, but it’s much more complicated than that.

Those on the conservative end of the spectrum stand in staunch opposition to changing the BOD’s language regarding sexuality. While they are a small minority of US churches, perhaps 10%, they stand in solidarity with mostly all the delegates from the African conferences – which comprise about 35% of the voting body at General Conference. When they vote as a bloc, they stop any legislation that moves toward the center.

Some UMC structural information muddies the water even more: Churches outside the United States are members of Central Conferences. In a radical oversimplification, the Central Conferences have some freedom to modify parts of the Book of Discipline to fit their cultural contexts. U.S. churches, as well as churches in other Central Conferences, have neither voice nor vote on those matters. In other words, when it comes to polity, individual Central Conferences control their destinies in ways we don’t do in the U.S.

However, other Central Conferences can (and do) vote on matters that have particular application only to the U.S. church.

There are seven Central Conferences. Three in Africa (Africa, Congo, West Africa); three in Europe (Central/Southern Europe, Germany, and Northern Europe/Eurasia); and one in the Philippines.

Those who are following General Conference may be aware that we have reached a significant impasse in our ability to move forward.

One solution: create a U.S. Central Conference.

It makes sense. It means that much of the current business of the General Conference won’t be debated by a global body of delegates.  It would save time, money, and energy. It also means that delegates who don’t have a pony in the race won’t be able to vote on issues that don’t specifically relate to them.

A petition creating a U.S. Central Conference was not supported in legislative committee last week. Nonetheless, a minority report was written which will bring the legislative proposal to the floor for debate in the next few days.

Everyone here appreciates the power and rapid growth of the churches in the three African Central Conferences. Most know that the African Central Conferences are much more socially conservative – and they also interpret the Bible differently, as Dan Dick pointed out last week.

Some know that the US churches fund 99% of the overall church budget including the funds that provide support to churches in the seven General Conferences.

By the time the  2020 General Conference rolls around, the African Central Conferences will send enough delegates to win any vote, which means they will in effect make budgetary decisions for the denomination.

Detailed voting guides were provided to African delegates to instruct them as to how to vote on legislative items, including those unique to the U.S.

We’ve seen the results this week. We are in a stalemate when it comes to human sexuality in the United Methodist Church.

Delegates have one last chance to form a Central Conference in the United States when they (hopefully) vote this week on Petitions 391 and 392. Petition 392 is a proposed constitutional amendment and will require a two-thirds vote to pass. It would then go to Annual Conferences for ratification, again requiring a two-thirds majority to change our church constitution.

Thus endeth today’s primer on why the UMC is so stuck.

The text of the U.S. Central Conference petition can be found here.



I’m a retired Elder in the United Methodist Church, the place I finally discovered grace after a lifelong search. I love writing, gardening, reading, asking questions and making connections between political and religious practices.

My husband and I jointly claim eleven children (as he says, “mostly by mergers and acquisitions!”) and twelve grandchildren. In between our own travels, we love to have them and many others come and stay with us a bit. We see so much of the heavenly grace in the offering of earthly hospitality.

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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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James CLawrenceDavid WeberRichard F HicksDonald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist Recent comment authors
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Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist
Donald Haynes

Misrepresentation of facts does not enhance a spirit of reconciliation! What is Ms. Thomas’ source for stating that same sex marriage is opposed by “a small minority of churches, perhaps 10%”? Is there any documentation for such a figure? If not, what possible justification does Ms. Thomas have for here stats? I might me wrong in my own memory of the welcoming of African conferences into the UMC, but I believe their inclusion was welcomed as much by the progressives in the USAmerican ranks as by the conservatives. Being a global church has been applauded by our leadership and our… Read more »


You are in error, “Those on the far right of the spectrum stand in staunch opposition to changing the BOD’s language regarding sexuality. While they are a small minority of US churches, perhaps 10%.” Your percentages are wrong. Even if this is the case, the percentage does not matter. “They” -We are not a small minority. We are not on the “far right.” We are right, following God’s Holy Word, John Wesley and the historic (right) tradition of the church. Please stop bullying us to change. Go to another denomination and allow the United Methodist Church to Follow Jesus, Make… Read more »

David Weber
David Weber

Oh, you “bully.” You unpaid, retired pastor who would and did welcome any stranger of any political or spiritual stripe into your fellowship, who writes through tears about the denomination you call “home,” and who has visited more churches in the last year than I have visited in a lifetime while still maintaining your compassion and sanity.. oh, you bully.

James C
James C

Perhaps local congregations could vote to become members in one of the African Central Conferences?


I believe that it is condescending to African UMC members to imply that financial resources create the power of decision-making in the UMC. This goes contrary to the denomination’s traditional stands for economic justice and the renunciation of the concept that money talks more than people matter….

Richard F Hicks
Richard F Hicks

“Central conference” is another word for segregation. The Koreans have gotten along very nicely for decades without central conference segregation. Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC

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