UMR Interview: A view from the chair…one bishop’s perspective

Bishop Minerva Carcaño prepares to preside at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, OR. UMR photo by Jay Voorhees

Bishop Minerva Carcaño prepares to preside at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, OR.

The 2004 United Methodist General Conference meeting in Pittsburgh was in turmoil. The conference had seen protests over issues around human sexuality, and the rumors of an impending church split were rampant. Leaders from the conservative and progressive sides of the debate were talking past one another, and there were meetings in hotel rooms in the middle of the night about what schism might look like. Then, in the midst of it all, a group arose to bring forth a statement affirming the unity of the church, calling United Methodists to work together in the face of difference.

In the midst of the floor conversation on that statement, a delegate from the Mississippi Annual Conference rose to speak for remaining together:

“The faithful United Methodists who are not represented or identified with any coalition group, those of us who are neither on the right or on the left, must be included at the table. More often than not, we are silent, and perhaps that’s our sin. But we fear that if we speak, we will be labeled as ‘the opposition.’ If those of us in the middle can contain those on either side, maybe we can find the unity we seek.”

As the LA Times would report at the time, “His remarks were greeted with loud applause. Moments later, delegates joined hands and prayed before casting their votes. Some wept.”

Bishop William McAlilly (middle) with the other bishops elected at the 2012 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference.

Bishop William McAlilly (middle) with the other bishops elected at the 2012 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference.

Eight years later, that delegate would be elected by the Southeastern Jurisdiction as a bishop in the United Methodist Church. William McAlilly was sent to lead the Nashville Episcopal Area in Tennessee, which includes both the Memphis and Tennessee Annual Conferences. 

It’s been a busy four years since his election, and McAlilly has offered leadership to two annual conferences, leading them to embrace new efforts around congregational excellence and renewal.

Yesterday McAlilly may have been dealt the most difficult task of his episcopacy.

He was called to preside at the afternoon session of the 2016 United Methodist General Conference, as debate began on the UM Council of Bishops “Way Forward” proposal. The document outlined steps for the church to deal with issues of human sexuality and the continuing divide about the place of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church.

The Council of Bishops had been asked earlier in the week to offer leadership to the church and discern a means by which the continuing struggle around these issues could be handled outside the normal legislative process of the General Conference. Just as in Pittsburgh, rumors had been swirling around the conference and the bishops were asked to determine the correct means forward.

The Council of Bishops came back the next day (yesterday) with a plan titled “An Offering for a Way Forward.” The proposal called for referring all legislation on human sexuality to a special commission to be created by the Council for consideration, and the development of a plan for how the church could find a new way of dealing with the issues which threaten to divide the church. The commission would bring a plan back to a special “called” General Conference before the scheduled 2020 General Conference.

During the second morning session, the presentation by Bishop Bruce Ough was followed by a motion from the Rev. Adam Hamilton to adopt portions of the plan. That debate, chaired by Bishop Gregory Palmer, continued through the rest of the session and had not been voted on when the lunch recess was called. McAlilly, who had already been named to preside at the first afternoon session, would be asked to bring the conference back together mid-stream after the conference had a lunch break. This allowed time for  proponents and opponents of the legislation to strategize about how to address the Hamilton motion.

Throughout the course of the General Conference’s business, various bishops have struggled to maintain order and manage the debate. Observers have noted that the addition of a new system that electronically signals the presiding officer about persons wishing to speak has seemed difficult to manage. Presiding bishops have received many challenges to their rulings on parliamentary procedure.

When McAlilly called the conference to order, it was clear that the tension in the room, already great, had been heightened by the lunch break. A contentious floor debate ensued, and McAlilly found himself struggling under the weight of amendments and repeated points of order.

As the tension rose, a delegate accused McAlilly of “telegraphing” delegates on how to vote through the use of hand signals, something that McAlilly denied. Another delegate then “called the question” and repeated challenges ensued until a vote was taken and the Hamilton motion was defeated. After several more challenges to the ruling of the chair, Jennifer Ihlo of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference was recognized and said that she believed that the bishop had “…singlehandedly undone everything begun this morning with the Council of Bishops…” by the way he had presided and asked Bishop McAlilly to remove himself from the chair so that another “…moderate, fair bishop” could preside.

After a ten minute recess to check with conference officials, McAlilly reconvened the conference by calling Bishop Sally Dyck to the podium to for prayer:

“When we answer your call to serve in any way, we become a part of your holy church. We ask that your Holy Spirit come into our midst, calm our minds, give us clarity of thought, calm our hearts, that we may be open to your Spirit, your nudging, and the commitment to see the good around us and in one another. Help us to listen, As it says in the Hebrew Scriptures, “Dig out our ears.” Open our ears that we may hear you. We need your Spirit to help us to be as one, even as we disagree. As we continue to do our work, guide us, strengthen us, and help us to have a witness, not only to one another, but to the world around us. My, my, my. Look at those United Methodists. They don’t agree, but they will love one another…”

The Rev. Judy Zabel, chair of the Committee on Presiding Officers, speaks following a request from a delegate that Bishop William T. McAlilly, Nashville Episcopal Area, step down from the chair during the afternoon plenary session of the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, OR.

Judy Zabel, chair of the conference’s Committee on Presiding Officers then reported that the committee unanimously believed that the conference should continue its work with McAlilly in the chair. With that, McAlilly continued the debate, leading to another motion on the bishops’ proposal to be made, which was ultimately adopted by the General Conference.

In the wake of that session, McAlilly received an outpouring of support from those who believe that he had been poorly treated during the debate.  “It was very unnecessary and hurtful,” said members of the Tennessee Annual Conference delegation. “Some disagreed with the way Bishop McAlilly handled a parliamentary process; we have a simple process to appeal a ruling by the chair, which has been used many times today without fanfare.  But in this case, the person who disagreed with his handling of the matter attributed his actions to some sort of intentional bias.  After the short break, the Committee on Presiding Officers concluded what we all know: he is a man of integrity.  The accusation that he was trying to push votes in favor of one group was totally without merit.”

Bishop Bill McAlilly speaks with a member the Grace Place UMC, a church for women prisoners at Mark H. Luttrell Correctional Center (MLCC) in Memphis.

Bishop William McAlilly sat down this morning with The United Methodist Reporter to talk about yesterday’s experience in the chair:

UMR: Can you say a bit about what it’s like to preside at General Conference? I’ve heard some of your colleagues say that there is really no way to prepare for the task until you’ve been there. 

McAlilly: It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done in my life. In particular, in this context, with multiple languages . . . with a system of voting that’s different . . . it’s difficult. The first time that any of us saw the IPad voting system [the speaker signaling system] was the Friday before General Conference started. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to learn how to maneuver in the chair with the system and it was a little bit tricky.

It’s an incredibly humbling experience when you realize in that moment that you have responsibility for guiding the church. There are multiple competing values in the body at all times,  and you are trying to be fair and balanced and responsive, so that you are not calling on one part of the body all the time and offering opportunities for others across the room to speak. It can get a little confusing at times.

UMR: You aren’t the only bishop who has wrestled in the chair presiding. Has the new queuing system made things more difficult?

McAlilly: In some ways it’s better because you can see the names and call on the name of the person that you are referring to, directing them to the appropriate microphone. It’s unfortunate in so many ways that the training of the system was not lengthy. It was difficult to get accustomed to how that ought to work.

In the old days with the placards many times people would have placards in the air and never be called on. But because a person is registered in the system and they know they are in the queue, they have an expectation that their name will be called. They have no idea of how many other people are in the queue and are trying to speak as well. There is, in my understanding, there some discretion that the presiding officer has in determining the flow . . . just as there was when they used the placards . . . but there is a disconnect in my opinion between how the two systems function differently. In my prior experience, as a delegate in the many General Conferences I’ve attended, I’ve been called on to speak only once . . . and I’ve had my card up many more times. Now, we seem to have multiple people that want to speak multiple times and the queue allows them to do that more easily.

UMR: It seems like there are more points of order.

McAlilly: I’m not sure that there are more, it’s just in the past we didn’t know what they wanted when their placard was in the air.

UMR: You were asked to take on a difficult task in that you were asked to pick up a debate already in process. Obviously, you knew that was going to be hard going in?

McAlilly: What would have been more helpful, in my opinion, is if we had extended the morning session by 15 minutes to see if we could complete the motion that was on the floor, and then we could have started fresh in the afternoon session, but that was not the case.

UMR: This was obviously the most contentious debate of the day. There was obviously a lot of emotion, which made this more difficult. I know that the original plan was for sexuality issues to be completed in the morning. How surprised were you when you realized that you were going to have to pick up that debate?

McAlilly: I had been following the flow of the conference and I knew it was coming up to be on my plate. I went to the agenda committee meeting at lunch and we had some conversation about what was coming.

It was clear to me that the agenda committee wanted to be sure that the body knew that we had some petitions with financial implications that had to be dealt with before 6:30 p.m. Part of the tension that I was feeling was having in the back of my mind the knowledge that we had to get through this particular segment of legislation so that we had time to fulfill what the body had adopted as their agenda for the morning session.

UMR: Some accusations were made about your performance in the chair. Do you wish to speak to that at all?

McAlilly: If people will remember, throughout the entire conference, numerous points of order have been called on the chair. What was happening yesterday afternoon was that the tension surrounding this particular piece of legislation escalated the paranoia in the room. My sense was that this wasn’t really about me . . . this was about something bigger . . . it was a moment in time that we’ve seldom experienced at our General Conference. I can’t speak to the motivations of the people who challenged me.

UMR: Of course there was the recess to consider what to do. What were your feelings about coming back after that recess?

McAlilly: We met with the Committee on Presiding Officers and they all affirmed my remaining in the chair. So, with the confidence of the committee I resumed. Had there not been the unanimous support of the committee I would have gladly stepped aside and followed the will of the church.

It was clearly a difficult moment. I think the recess gave us space to breathe again . . . for everybody to take a deep breath and gather themselves and we came back with a different body.

I really had a sense that the Spirit in the house prior to the recess what not of God. However, during the space to breathe, with the African delegates singing, God’s Spirit returned.

UMR: What are your thoughts on the Way Forward plan?

McAlilly: I feel good about it. I think it offers a strategic opportunity for a different conversation than what we’ve been having. What we have now isn’t working, so this offers the opportunity for something different.


Jay Voorhees, Former Executive Editor

The Rev. Jay Voorhees is the Executive Editor of The United Methodist Reporter and the Chief Creative Officer for CircuitWriter Media LLC which operates this site and Jay is an ordained elder in the Tennessee Annual Conference. Jay has written on life and the practice of faith in The United Methodist Church at Only Wonder Understands since 2003.

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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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Pat Stroman

I was there in Pittsburgh. The sane voice on the floor was that of Bill McAlilly. He voiced the concerns of the moderate segment of the UMC that were basically being ignored. The radical left and right were the squeaky wheels. I’m glad the Southest Jurisdiction had the wisdom to elect him bishop. In my attendance at many General Conferences(8), There have been some real leaders in the chair and there have been many inept bullies. Even though, I’m not in Portland, this time, there is no doubt that Bill McAlilly was one of the “real” ones. 1KRL


As much as a Bishop should be respected, this Bishop seemed to have either been totally confused with what was going on, or was deliberate in trying to throw off the whole cause of voting for the very difficult question of LGBT persons in the church. It was hard to watch. I do not blame the delegate for her anger though. The subject has been put off for 44 years since 1972.

God is a great God. I pray by 2018, the Bishops finally get God’s true revelation on this issue.

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