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GC2012: Big meeting, small change - Reforms struggle at General Conference 2012 Sam Hodges, May 11, 2012
UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE PHOTO BY KATHLEEN BARRY
John Denmark, a delegate from Florida, seeks recognition to address the rules regarding debate on majority and minority reports during a plenary at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla.
By Sam Hodges Managing Editor
TAMPA, Fla.—A General Conference that began with great expectations for institutional reform ended with only modest change. Compromise legislation to restructure general church agencies passed, only to be struck down in the last hours by the Judicial Council. Thus, after a 10-day meeting involving nearly 1,000 delegates from around the world, at a projected cost of $8.8 million, the United Methodist Church will look about the same, despite near consensus that change is needed due to steady membership and worship declines in the United States.
The sometimes raucous, often confused atmosphere at the end of General Conference added to the head-shaking by veteran participants.
“It’s beyond surreal,” said the Rev. Rebekah Miles, an Arkansas Conference delegate, as she stood on the plenary floor during a break as the gathering wound down.
This General Conference did end guaranteed appointment for ordained elders, something reformers said was needed to address the problem of ineffective clergy. Most agency boards were significantly downsized.
Delegates approved a $603 million quadrennial general church budget (the first smaller budget in the UMC’s history). They designated $7 million for a Young Clergy Initiative in the United States, and $5 million for theological training in the non-U.S. central conferences. But the Judicial Council is reviewing the guaranteed appointment legislation, and the money for clergy development was all that survived of a $60 million plan to redirect general church funds toward work more directly supportive of local congregations.
“I’ve learned to expect change to be very difficult,” said the Rev. Jim Harnish, pastor of Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, and a leading advocate of reform.
General Conference saw the expected struggle over homosexuality, but no change in the church’s position that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. (See page 3.)
General Conference is the quadrennial gathering in which lay and clergy delegates decide matters of church law, policy and finances. The long lead-up to this General Conference was dominated by the “Call to Action,” a research-based reform initiative of the Council of Bishops, created in response to the shrinking and graying of UMC membership in the United States.
Legislation that came out of Call to Action was crafted by a small group called the Interim Operations Team, and introduced by the Connectional Table. The CT/IOT plan called for consolidating nine general church agencies under a single 15-member board and a top executive, and refocusing agencies on the “adaptive challenge” of boosting the number of vital congregations.
But the months just before General Conference saw agency heads fighting the change. Others warned of a concentration of power and lack of diversity on a small board governing so much of a 12-million member church.
The stage was set for struggle at General Conference, and the low point came on Saturday night, April 28. The committee handling the legislation held a chaotic final meeting, going a half hour beyond the required adjournment time and still failing to approve the CT/IOT plan or one of two less-sweeping proposals.
Over the weekend, backers of CT/IOT and the alternative known as “Plan B” worked on a compromise, and drew others, including delegates from the central conferences, into negotiations.
By Monday, “Plan UMC” emerged, calling for a new General Council for Strategy and Oversight, with 34 voting members and a top executive.
The new plan allowed the Boards of Discipleship, Global Ministries, Church & Society, and Higher Education & Ministry to have executives and boards of directors. But the boards were significantly downsized, and the executives would have to report to the council and its leader, answering on what they were doing to support the vital congregations effort.
Most other agencies were essentially left alone by Plan UMC; but it called for combining the General Commission on Religion & Race and General Commission on the Status & Role of Women into a Committee on Inclusiveness, reporting to the council.
Plan UMC prompted intense debate, and was amended to boost council representation from the central conferences, but finally passed on Wednesday, May 2, in a 567 to 384 vote.
But a delegate’s motion to have Plan UMC reviewed by the Judicial Council received the necessary vote. And on Friday afternoon, May 4, delegates heard the Judicial Council decision read from the plenary chair, turning electric what had been mundane wrap-up proceedings. “Just the collective gasp in the group, hearing that—it was interesting to be on the floor,” said the Rev. Mark Calhoun, a delegate from the Yellowstone Conference.
The Judicial Council ruled that General Conference did have the power to create plans for the structure and operations of the church, but violated the church constitution by giving to the new panel oversight responsibility that belongs with the Council of Bishops. The ruling also said the plan was unconstitutional in giving the General Council for Strategy and Oversight power to direct the withholding of funds from agencies.
“We have reviewed the plan to determine whether any part, portion, or all of Plan UMC can be saved and conclude that it cannot,” the council said.
There were scrambling efforts late Friday to refer Plan UMC to the Council of Bishops for correction of constitutional problems and possibly for consideration before 2016 by a special General Conference. Those failed.
The last hours saw presiding bishops having to call delegates to order, due to noise and movement on the floor.
Bishop Scott Jones used Twitter to comment, “Some see the Judicial Council decision as Holy Spirit showing up. Others who want change saw it as humans blocking the Spirit.”
Ending guaranteed appointment proved less of a struggle, especially after an amendment in committee boosted accountability requirements for bishops as they make appointments.
The proposal passed the full General Conference on a consent calendar—a list of non-controversial petitions—before opponents realized what had happened.
They sought to bring the measure back up, and that effort provided for floor debate. Opponents said guaranteed appointment helped protect opportunities for women and minority clergy, and for prophetic voices.
But the Rev. Ken Carter, a delegate and district superintendent from the Western North Carolina Conference, and a member of the Study of Ministry group that recommended the change, argued that a church in decline in the U.S. could not indulge ineffective clergy. The motion to reconsider the legislation was easily defeated.
Another Call to Action proposal was to direct $60 million in general church funds toward supporting local churches in a variety of ways. All that got through was the $7 million for young clergy development in the U.S., and $5 million for theological education in the central conferences.
“The single most important thing we have to do is help raise up a generation of outstanding young leaders,” said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, a delegate from the Kansas East Conference.
Other proposed reforms failed outright, notably the plan for a “set-side” Council of Bishops president who wouldn’t have a conference to oversee and could focus full time on council and general church leadership.
That proposal got majority support but fell short of the two-thirds vote needed in a church constitutional matter.
Efforts to alter the church’s position on social and political matters also fell short. Along with maintaining the status quo on homosexuality, delegates defeated legislation to have the UMC divest of stocks in three companies said to benefit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
Long days, nights
This General Conference saw social media become a force, as well as new prominence for central conference delegates, specifically Africans, whose delegate numbers have grown as the UMC has grown on their continent.
But the main impression for many was of long days and nights spent wrangling over legislation, with little to show for it.
“Death throes of a dying 1970s establishment church, birth pangs of a missional global 21st-century church,” Bishop Jones said in another Twitter post. “It is messy.”