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Briefing focuses on key General Conference issues Sam Hodges, Jan 20, 2012
Bishop Larry Goodpaster
By Sam Hodges Managing Editor
TAMPA, Fla.—The United Methodist Church’s General Conference is still three months away, but issues likely to dominate debate—such as consolidating general agencies and ending guaranteed appointment for clergy—are getting a dress rehearsal at a briefing here this week.
They’re getting plenty of pushback too.
For example, Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the Phoneix Area voiced concern about what she saw as the “disregard” for general agencies in the reform proposals, and for how a combination of reorganization and budget cutting could leave them much weakened.
“We may lay unreasonable expectations on our agencies, crippling their efforts and in the process we may lose some critical functions in ministry that serve the connection and its work,” Bishop Carcaño said.
The Pre-General Conference Briefing, a United Methodist Communications event, allows delegates (many of them chairs of delegations) and Annual Conference communicators a chance to hear about key proposals in some depth.
The briefing runs through Saturday at the Tampa Convention Center, where the General Conference—the quadrennial gathering that settles questions of church law, policy and budget—will occur April 24-May 4.
Then nearly 1,000 delegates will gather. Here the crowd is about 300.
But the briefing has included serious discussion and pointed questions about proposals intended to help arrest the UMC’s decline in membership and other key categories in the United States.
Clergy members of the Study of Ministry Commission presented on guaranteed appointment, with the Rev. Amy Gearhart of Columbia, Mo., arguing for change.
“We need to be nimble and creative, and as long as we are locked into the commands and demands of the guaranteed appointment, that makes it impossible for us to put the mission before the structure, instead of the structure before the mission,” she said.
The Rev. Tom Choi, district superintendent for Hawaii and another Study of Ministry Commission member, agreed.
“At this time, we need to focus, not on security of appointment, but on securing the future of the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ,” he said. But the Rev. We Hyun Chang, pastor of Belmont UMC in Belmont, Mass., and a New England Conference delegate, pressed the panel during a question-and-answer period.
“Guaranteed appointment gave me the freedom to speak truth,” he said, speaking of cross-cultural church appointments he has had. “It gave me the room to be prophetic. . . . I think that’s missional.”
One briefing session focused on the episcopacy, namely the proposal for creating a “set aside” Council of Bishops president who would be able to focus on executive leadership and not have to oversee an Annual Conference.
Bishop Larry Goodpaster, current Council of Bishops president, said at the session that he found it “nearly impossible” to meet the demands from around the UMC while still tending to the needs of his conference in North Carolina.
But some delegates took the microphone to suggest that creating the set-aside bishop position, combined with proposals to end guaranteed appointment and consolidate general church agencies, amounted to a power shift in favor of the episcopacy.
Bishop Goodpaster said he and his colleagues are focused on their stated goal of boosting the number of vital congregations in the UMC, and that proposed reforms would actually reduce the bishops’ participation on general church boards and allow them to focus more on the local churches in their conferences.
He noted that at the upcoming General Conference, as at all such gatherings, bishops would have no vote.
“I don’t think those balances of power change at all,” he said. “I don’t think any of us [bishops] saw it that way. We understand who we are. We are United Methodists, and our system is that the General Conference speaks for the United Methodist Church.”
A lengthy Friday morning session focused on church restructuring. The proposal that came out of the Call to Action reform initiative would move nine agencies into a Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry governed by a 15-person board. That new organization would be overseen by a 45–member board.
The session on restructuring generated lots of questions, including about whether the General Council of Finance Administration would lose its independence, and whether program and finance tasks would be merged in violation of traditional UMC polity.
Don House, a veteran General Conference lay delegate from Texas, used a question-and-answer period to voice his concerns about GCFA losing autonomy. During a break, he said he thought the proposal could easily be amended to keep GCFA outside the new structure.
Mr. House is among those who favor major change for the denomination. But he said the current reform proposals may be too many and too complex for General Conference to consider, amend and pass in the few days allotted for legislative committee work.
“It worries me,” he said.
Other sessions in the briefing included one titled “The Trail of Repentance and Healing,” led by the Rev. Anita Phillips, executive director of the UMC’s Native American Comprehensive Plan, and the Rev. Stephen Sidorak, general secretary of the denomination’s General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. They discussed a planned service for General Conference acknowledging complicity in genocide and other crimes against Native Americans.