In a gathering that repeatedly stressed church unity despite passionately held differences, United Methodists received a preview of some issues the 2016 General Conference will debate when the denomination’s top lawmaking body meets this spring.
The Rev. Steven Lewis, Gresham United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon, urged delegates to remember who they are as they debate issues and resolutions at General Conference 2016
“Few will read what we write, but millions will watch what we do,” Lewis said during his sermon at opening worship during the pre-General Conference briefing.
More than 400 delegates, communicators and other United Methodists who will be part of the 2016 General Conference attended the Jan. 20-22 event at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. Most will return for the denomination’s legislative assembly May 10-20. Great Plains delegates the Rev. Amy Lippoldt and conference Lay Leader Courtney Fowler represented the Great Plains Conference at the briefing.
United Methodist Communications sponsored the event, with involvement and support from other agencies and ministries of the church.
Many United Methodists expect the most passionate and difficult debate at the 2016 General Conference to deal with how the denomination ministers with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and if self-avowed, practicing homosexuals will be allowed to serve as pastors in United Methodist churches. At the briefing, participants got a preview of the emotional stakes in the debate as well as a chance to try out an alternative process for discussing legislation on tough issues.
This is a brief look at some of the issues explored:
Perhaps the most anticipated session came Friday morning. Titled "A Conversation about Topics Related to Human Sexuality," the panel consisted of the Rev. Dr. Bill Arnold, a North Kentucky Conference delegate and professor at Asbury Theological Seminary; Dr. Dorothee Benz, a New York Conference delegate and national representative of Methodists in New Directions; the Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, a member of the Connectional Table and a district superintendent in the Lansing, Michigan, area; and Stanislas Kassongo, a delegate from the Central Congo Episcopal Area and a member of the Commission on General Conference. The Rev. Stephanie Hixon, executive director of the JustPeace Center and teaching time leader during the 2015 Great Plains Annual Conference session, served as moderator for the cordial discussion.
Arnold started the conversation by stating he, as the church's discipline states, respects all people but that he tends to take a stance against ordination of homosexuals and the practice in general. He said he wanted it to be clear that he wasn't trying to be hateful but he believes there is room in a worldwide denomination to agree to disagree on the issue.
“I consider institutional unity a minimum,” he said.
Benz countered during her presentation time that she believed the church's stance against homosexuality harms people seeking God's love, sometimes to the point of suicide.
She said the debate is about “whether and how The United Methodist Church will continue to discriminate.”
The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s book of law, since 1972 has proclaimed that all people are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The denomination bans the performance of same-sex unions and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.
Bigham-Tsai said she would continue to pray for the Connectional Table's study team on the subject to find a compromise, which she called a "third way." She noted that the study team thus far has articulated values that people on all sides of the human sexuality debate hold in common: unity in the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ, our identity as Christians through baptism and the grace that is available to all people.
Kassongo's statement, through an interpreter for English, provided an explanation of why delegates from many African nations are either not interested in the mostly U.S.-based debate or shy away from discussion.
"In my tradition, the subject of sexuality is taboo," he told the assembly. He went on to explain that his culture forbids such discussion except between couples and that it is difficult to discuss such a matter with strangers from around the world when he cannot have that kind of discussion with his own children.
Lippoldt, who serves Basehor United Methodist Church in the Kansas City District, said she was glad to see the panelists be so careful with their words and tone.
"In a debate that carries so much passion and such high consequences, we need to be gentle with one another," Lippoldt said. "The diverse voices on the panel, though none of them said anything particularly new, did reveal the wide chasm between positions around sexuality."
Read more about the human sexuality issue and how it relates to General Conference.
“Christian conferencing is what General Conference is all about,” said Judi Kenaston, chair of the Commission on General Conference, as she outlined an alternative group discernment process that General Conference could approve for use on “challenging” conversations.
The proposal, nicknamed Rule 44 because it follows General Conference's Rule 43, could be used with legislation on human sexuality if the rule is adopted.
“We are a connectional church with many varied cultures and opinions,” Kenaston said. “A unified church can accomplish so much more in the world by pooling resources. Because of our size, we are able to do so much more.
To go forward with the alternative discussion process, delegates will need to approve rule changes. Participants at the pre-General Conference briefing were given a chance to try out the system using a “mock” piece of legislation. Sitting at round tables, small groups were presented guidelines for conversation aimed at respectful listening and language. They received the legislation and a small group process sheet. The goal was to give everyone at the table a voice in a respectful atmosphere, with a "monitor" keeping track of language and tone to help maintain an non-threatening atmosphere. During General Conference, if the rule is approved, the monitors will not be delegates so there will be no conflicts of interest.
Bishop Christian Alsted, who leads the Nordic and Baltic Area, explained how the process was designed using words from John and Charles Wesley and Scripture.
“Christian conferencing is a means of grace,” he said. “God is always present and conveys his grace when we practice.”
John Wesley asked, “Do we not converse too long? Is not an hour enough?”
“Imagine if we only had one hour to settle our business. What priorities would be made?” Alsted asked.
Lippoldt said she found the experiment at an alternative discussion process interesting.
"I am unsure if it can work in the context of General Conference, as it seems to me the first ingredient for a discernment group is trust -- the one thing most sorely lacking at General Conference," said Lippoldt, who has served as a General Conference delegate before. "But our current method of dealing with the most controversial legislation is not working."
The Rev. Tom Albin, dean of The Upper Room Chapel, will again help lead a prayer community to support delegates and the entire denomination during General Conference.
“Prayer is like oxygen for your soul,” Albin told attendees.
The General Conference Prayer Ministry designed a “60 Days of Prayer” daily prayer book that runs March 31–May 29 so church members an connect through the same Scripture, meditation and prayer for each day.
Bishops would no longer be elected for life, ordination of United Methodist elders and deacons would be faster and the first step would be taken to allow doing away with guaranteed appointment under legislation being proposed to the 2016 General Conference.
However, since term limits and guaranteed appointment would require changes to the denomination’s constitution, those reforms would come slowly, even if approved.
Bishop Grant Hagiya, Greater Northwest Episcopal Area, a member of the 2013-2016 Ministry Study Commission, said the commission wanted to give conferences “maximum flexibility.”
“The most important factor that we have to consider is leadership, leadership, leadership. Leadership is one of the key ingredients in vitality,” Hagiya said.
Hagiya said the commission proposed ordination when a candidate is approved for provisional membership, although conference membership would come only after the provisional period was completed. Other proposed changes would allow a bachelor’s degree to fulfill requirements for Course of Study for local pastors and eliminate commissioning.
Lonnie Brooks, chair of the legislative committee of the Association of Annual Conference Lay leaders, gave the highlights of the association’s package of 15 pieces of legislation.
“We think there is nothing in the church outside the responsibility of lay people, since we pay for what the church does,” Brooks said.
The lay leaders proposed seven points of reform for bishops, including term limits, which Brooks said would increase accountability. Under the term-limit proposal, a bishop would be elected for eight years and could run again for another eight-year term. The terms would be the same worldwide.
The legislation on guaranteed appointment, or security of appointment, would remove the constitutional barrier identified by the Judicial Council after the 2012 General Conference approved legislation that would have allowed bishops to give elders less than full-time appointment and added steps for discontinuing elders and associate members from receiving an appointment.
A proposal to reform the episcopal complaint process provides that if the jurisdictional College of Bishops cannot process the complaint to completion within 180 days, the complaint moves to the full Council of Bishops.
As the U.S. economy has recovered from the 2008 crash, the denomination as a whole has seen its financial health improve.
Moses Kumar, the top executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration, reported that 26 conferences paid 100 percent to the general church apportionments in 2015 - the highest number in at least 16 years. At the general church level, the money supports bishops, United Methodist ministerial education, most general agencies and denomination-wide efforts such as the Black College Fund, ecumenical work and Africa University in Zimbabwe.
The General Council on Finance and Administration's board and the Connectional Table are proposing a budget of $611.4 million for general church funds in 2017-2020. That’s about a 1.4 percent increase above the $603.1 million general church budget approved at the 2012 General Conference. With projected inflation, that budget actually represents a 7.2 percent spending decrease in real dollars, Kumar said.
The finance agency’s board also is proposing that for the first time United Methodist churches in Africa, Asia and Europe would have a set formula to support the denomination’s global ministries.Under the proposal, central conference apportionments would contribute to two of the seven general church funds — the Episcopal and General Administration funds.
“When we are generous in our giving, when we are committed in ministry around the world, we dedicate our resources so we can fulfill what God wants us to do,” Kumar said.
One of the most frequent complaints about General Conference is that delegates spend much of the 10-day global meeting on issues that strictly focus on the United States.
Participants at this month’s preview heard about two plans to address this concern by creating a central conference or similar body to encompass the entire United States. Currently, the denomination has seven central conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. Each has the authority under the denomination’s constitution to make “such changes and adaptations” to the Book of Discipline as missional needs and differing legal contexts require.
Members of the Central Texas and North Texas conferences are bringing legislation to create a U.S. Central Conference that would meet in conjunction with General Conference. “We believe this proposal keeps it simple,” said Tim Crouch, a General Conference delegate from North Texas.
A task force appointed by the Northeastern Jurisdiction is bringing “A Global Connection Plan,” that is more complicated but also, according to its proponents, more comprehensive.
The plan would rename General Conference as the Global Connectional Conference, restrict its work to church matters that are global in nature and add continent-wide bodies called connections, including a North American connection. The plan also would replace U.S. jurisdictions and central conferences with bodies called regions.
“We believe it is important to have equivalent structures across the church,” said Tracy Merrick, a member of Northeastern Jurisdiction task force.
Under both the Texas and Northeastern Jurisdiction plans, the denomination’s global legislative meeting would be shorter but would remain the only body that can speak for the whole denomination. Both plans also would require amendments to the denomination’s constitution.
Frederick Brewington, a member of the Connectional Table, pointed out that a number of formal and informal proposals regarding the denomination’s structure and connection will come before the General Conference. “The Connectional Table neither adopts nor endorses any of the proposals that currently exist,” he said, but he outlined some basic principles to follow in these discussions.
One of those proposals is “Plan UMC Revised.” The Rev. Clayton Oliphant explained that this plan removes provisions ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council after the 2012 General Conference adopted “Plan UMC,” a compromise proposal. Many involved in the restructuring work were frustrated by the top court’s last-minute ruling, he said.
Under Plan UMC Revised, the current Commission on Religion and Race and Commission on the Status and Role of Women would be merged into a committee on inclusiveness. The plans also folds the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History into the denomination’s finance agency. Erin Hawkins, top executive for Religion and Race, expressed concern that the vital programs of her agency would be lost. The church needs “greater clarity and alignment around its identity and mission,” she added.
Fowler, whose home church is in Manhattan, Kansas, said the restructuring discussions are important.
"Two other significant issues will be the consideration of the U.S. church as a central conference and the opportunity to revisit a revised proposal to restructure the church," she said. "We as a delegation must be prepared to engage with others in regard to these matters. I'm really excited!"
The 2016 General Conference will consider amendments to more than 70 social justice petitions ranging from climate change to human trafficking.
Representatives from the Division on Ministries with Young People, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, Board of Church and Society, Commission on General Conference and Standing Commission on Central Conference Matters and the Board of Pension and Health Benefits highlighted some of those resolutions.
Christine Flick, a delegate from Germany South Conference, talked about a petition calling for a reduction of carbon footprint with regard to travel related to the denomination's church meetings.
“The whole earth is God’s good creation,” she said. “We are aware of how the constant use of energy threatens the environment.”
The United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits recognizes its responsibility to protect and promote human rights and the environment, said Kirsty Jenkinson, calling climate change “the most severe economic threat to the world.” She is managing director, Sustainable Investment Strategies, Wespath Investment Management Division of the pension board.
In 2015, the board and Wespath implemented a human rights investment guideline that identified 11 high-risk countries and 39 companies with significant investments in those places, Jenkinson said.Kirsty Jenkinson, calling climate change “the most severe economic threat to the world.” She is managing director, Sustainable Investment Strategies, Wespath Investment Management Division of the pension board.
Fowler said the a key question for her heading into General Conference is how to make United Methodist social principles relevant on a global scale.
"All of the issues before us, including the discussion on human sexuality, must take this into consideration," Fowler said. "I love being reminded of the nature of our global church and the difference we are making in helping people, with health care, clean water and access to medical facilities."
Looking ahead to 2020
A draft of a new general, or global, Book of Discipline will be presented to General Conference for affirmation, said Bishop Patrick Streiff, chairperson of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, “so that we know we can work on to finalize it for the 2020 General Conference.” The goal is to have feedback on the draft from every annual conference by the end of 2017.
Benedita Penicela Nhambiu, a member of the denomination’s Connectional Table, said there will be an effort to re-align that body to make it more representative, both in terms of geography and age groups.
A petition for a comprehensive collaborative plan for Africa would increase the episcopal areas in that region from 13 to 18 if the final report is approved by the 2020 General Conference, she said.
The United Methodist Board of Church and Society has been holding listening sessions on the denomination’s Social Principles around the world. The agency is seeking guidance, clarity and diverse voices as the agency prepares to revise the document for the 2020 General Conference.
The 2016 General Conference will be asked to continue and fund those conversations for four more years, said the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, top executive of the social justice agency.
A proposal for a digitized, customizable United Methodist Hymnal would include a core section of required music and Wesleyan liturgical resources and a cloud-based library allowing congregations to create what they need for their own ministry setting. If passed, work would begin Jan. 1, 2017, on a finalized proposal to be approved by the 2020 General Conference.
"It was surprising to hear many parts of the briefing say they are in progress and will have legislation to bring, not to 2016 but to the 2020 General Conference," Lippoldt said. "The Global Social Principles, the Global Book of Discipline and the new hymnal were just someof hte things that we won't see action on for another four years."
Contributing to this report were Heather Hahn, Kathy Gilbert, Linda Bloom, Vicki Brown and Joey Butler from United Methodist News Service and Todd Seifert of the Great Plains Conference.