By Rich Peck, United Methodist News Service, and Lisa Diehl, Kansas Area communications director
United Methodists from five continents addressed a wide range of challenging issues, including church structure and human sexuality, and engaged in an Act of Repentance toward indigenous people during their 10-day legislative gathering.
|Members of the Kansas East Conference delegation at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla. (photo by Lisa Diehl)|
Structure ruled unconstitutional
Church restructuring received more attention from delegates than any other issue.
Rev. Adam Hamilton, Kansas East delegate and senior pastor at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, served on a team called together by the Council of Bishops and the denomination’s Connectional Table to work on legislation to strengthen our denomination's structures and to align them around the task of creating more vital congregations in the United Methodist Church.
This group, called the Interim Operations Team, submitted a restructuring proposal to the General Conference. The IOT’s restructure plan, a Plan B and another proposal from the Methodist Federation for Social Action failed to receive support in legislative committee during the first week of the session.
A revised restructure proposal was presented as a substitute motion and adopted on May 2. This proposal, dubbed Plan UMC, was struck down May 4 by the Judicial Council, the supreme court of the United Methodist Church.
The Judicial Council found several problems with the new structure. The nine-member court said that the plan called for the creation of a 45-member General Council on Strategy and Oversight that would have “authority for consolidation of administrative services to the extent practicable.”
“The Constitution authorizes the Council of Bishops to bear the responsibility for general oversight,” the court said.
Judicial Council members said they did not review the “tortured process” by which the plan had been approved “outside established legislative processes.” They did review the plan itself.
“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 broad delegation of legislative authority and the commingling of the role of oversight so inextricably permeate the plan as to render it constitutionally unsalvageable.”
Ultimately, the restructuring proposal was tabled. Delegates settled for adopting agency board reduction plans, reducing the boards by 266 directors or about half. The petitions reducing board membership had been pulled from the agenda when Plan UMC passed earlier in the week.
“We have four years to take inventory as to what really matters,” said Rev. Mark Holland, alternate clergy delegate and pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Kan.
Holland said four years ago the General Conference adopted a number of constitutional amendments that would have given space for restructuring. However, the annual conferences rejected them, and they failed. The conversation didn’t start with General Conference 2012, and it will continue as delegates turn toward General Conference 2016.
Some of the recommendations from the IOT were adopted during General Conference.
Those proposals included a sustained 10-year focus on creating and sustaining vital congregations, changing “shall” language to “may” in the Book of Discipline to give annual conferences more flexibility in organization, and setting aside funds focused on raising up 2,000 gifted young clergy over the next 12 years.
The assembly rejected an effort to add a statement to the Social Principles that urged unity and co-existence in spite of opposing views on homosexuality.
“The American delegates are divided on the issue, with a majority of the young delegates favoring change, while middle-aged and older adults tend to be more divided,” Hamilton said. “Delegates from Africa tend to be more conservative than U.S. and European delegates.
Hamilton wrote and presented a proposal aimed at recognizing this division and describing how the denomination might move forward as a church. The proposal was co-sponsored by Rev. Mike Slaughter, clergy delegate from the East Ohio Annual Conference.
The assembly retained the current stance saying the denomination considers all people are “individuals of sacred worth [however, the church] does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The conference did not address petitions calling for changes in the present policy of denying clergy the right to conduct services of union for people of the same gender or policies prohibiting the ordination and appointment of self-professed practicing homosexuals.
General Conference approved a quadrennial budget of $603.1 million for seven general-church funds during 2013 to 2016; that total is 6.03 percent less than the amount apportioned in the 2009 to 2012.
“These funds help start churches, send missionaries, fund theological education, provide for chaplains and make possible our shared ministries. Each of our churches around the world contributes a small portion of their giving to make these ministries happen,” Hamilton said.
Delegates approved two new line items in the World Service Fund. They created a $5 million fund for theological education in central conferences – church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines -- and $7 million to recruit and train young clergy in the United States.
Combined with earlier recommendations to reduce agency budgets by 6 percent, creation of these two funds means general agencies will receive nearly 10 percent less money in 2013-16 than they received in 2009-2012.
End to guaranteed appointments
Many delegates were surprised when the conference placed a proposal that would effectively end guaranteed appointment for clergy on the consent calendar, a device used to expedite legislation when there are fewer than 10 members of a legislative committee opposed to a proposal.
After a few delegates discovered what they had passed, an attempt to reconsider the issue was rejected by a margin of 564 to 373. On May 4, the final day of the gathering, the conference agreed to ask the Judicial Council for a ruling on whether the measure violates the Constitution. That ruling will come at the fall meeting of the Judicial Council.
Worldwide nature of the church
The international flavor of General Conference was impossible to overlook with 40 percent of the delegates coming from Central Conferences. Throughout the session, their presence was seen, felt and heard.
“Many of the African delegations sported clothing made of fabric with the cross and flame dominant in the design,” said Mary Brooks, alternate lay delegate from Lyndon UMC. “We should be so proud of our United Methodist affiliation.”
During worship experiences, delegates were encouraged to recite the Lord’s Prayer in their native language.
In addition, many international delegates spoke from the floor, provided leadership in legislative committees and presented legislation to the body.
The 2012 General Conference overwhelmingly adopted the two key proposals submitted by the Study Committee on the Worldwide Nature of The United Methodist Church.
A “Covenant for a Worldwide United Methodist Church” will be placed in the denomination’s upcoming new “Book of Discipline.” It includes a litany that can be used in gatherings to help build greater mutual respect and understanding among various geographic regions of the church.
The General Conference also approved a step towards a new global “Book of Discipline” by making clear which parts of the book of church law can be adapted by Central Conferences outside the United States and which are not open to adaptation.
The action lists the sections of the current “Book of Discipline” that cannot be adapted by Central Conferences. That makes these areas binding worldwide.
The list includes the first four parts of the Discipline, from the Constitution through the Social Principles.
“There is a wide variety of opinions on what is best for the church,” Brooks said. “It helped to remember that everyone there, at the heart of things, loves Jesus and wants what is best for the church they love. We all tend to think what we want things is the best way.”
General Conference addressed a wide range of topics. The delegates also: