Thoughts on General Conference from a non-delegate

High Hopes and Great Expectations
The 2012 General Conference of the (worldwide) United Methodist Church wrapped up Friday.  Many had hoped that the GC2012 would put aside divisive arguments over sexual morality and make sweeping changes to the way the church organizes itself, spends money, and gives oversight to our connectional ministries (those boards, agencies, and programs that are shared by and representative of the whole church).  There was much talk going into the Conference about "reforming the church to increase congregational vitality."

I had high hopes that at least some structural reforms would be made that would make better use of our resources, but I did not expect (as others seemed to) that reforms made to General Boards and Agencies would have some direct effect on vitality and mission at the local level.  That, it seems to me, depends directly on local leadership and is almost completely unconnected to what the General Boards are doing.

Coming into the General Conference leaders such as the Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table and several church-vitality consultants had issued the "Call To Action."  The Call to Action laid out a plan for reform and restructuring that included reducing the size and the number of General Boards and Agencies and creating more accountability for them, ending "guaranteed appointments" for clergy who are deemed ineffective (so that "job performance" will now matter), creating a set-aside Presiding Bishop for the United Methodist Church who would have no local churches to oversee but would lead ecumenical efforts and function as a spokesman for the whole Church.

Some were wary that the Call to Action Plan seemed to concentrate more power in the hands of the bishops without creating additonal accountability for the bishops.  Many worried that the Board and Agency cuts were either too deep or insufficient.  Many are unsure what the end to "guaranteed appointments" will mean in practice.

Two alternative restructure plans - one from the liberal/revisionist MFSA and another called "Plan B" (a less sweeping restructure than the Call to Action proposal) - were also discussed.  The committee charged with bringing a restructure proposal to the floor of GC 2012 debated all of these plans well after their adjournment deadline (Sat. the 28th), but failed to endorse one.  Many were quite distressed at this point.

Plan UMC: Hope gives way to Debacle
At the beginning of the week a compromise called "Plan UMC" incorporating elements from all three plans was cobbled together for consideration on Monday.  After due debate Plan UMC was passed and we all said, "Well, they really did something to streamline the Boards and create more accountability.  Hurrah!" 
But then the Plan UMC debacle began.  In the final hours of General Conference, the Judicial Council (the Church's "Supreme Court") ruled that the plan violated our church's constitution, and is therefore null and void.  Whoops!

So, delegates scrambled in the closing hours and minutes to pass some legislation, any legislation, that would at least reduce the size and cost of some of our General Boards and agencies.

The proposal for a set-aside full-time President of the Council of Bishops (already being called the Methodist 'presiding bishop' or 'archbishop') also failed.  It received a majority of votes, but as it was a constitutional amendment, it required a 2/3 majority to pass.  Apparently many delegates were confused or uneasy with this idea, which I tentatively supported as a potential move back towards our Anglican heritage and the historic and ecumenical consensus.

OK, So what did happen?
One of the only bits of reform proposed by the Call To Action team that DID pass was the end of "guaranteed" appointments for ordained presbyters (decons have never had such a guarantee).  In the old days any Elder who did not break church law was guaranteed an appointment as a pastor.  Elders (presbyters) must now show fruits and signs of "effectiveness" in order to be appointed by the bishop as pastor to a church.  On the flip side, new checks and balances have been put in place so that the bishop cannot simply "un-appoint" someone for personal reasons.  The bishop must explain the "missional reasoning" and get approval from the Board of Ministry to "un-appoint" a pastor.  What difference will this make?  I think it remains to be seen.  I hope and pray that it will indeed be an effective tool for encouraging clergy excellence.
The General Conference, not surprisingly, upheld the United Methodst Church's traditional understanding of marriage and sexual morality, despite very visible and vocal protests from some liberal/revisionist groups.  Though most of the historic/liturgical/mainline Protestant denominations in the US have drifted to the left on this issue, the UMC has held firm to Biblical teaching in large part because we are a world-wide church and our gathering features delegates from  Europe, Asia and the Philippines, Russia, and perhaps most notably, Africa.  If anything, recent years have seen The United Methodist Church take a couple of small steps to the right (moving back toward the center in my view) on this issue.  Since the fastest growing parts of our church are overseas and in more conservative regions of the US, and the fastest shrinking parts of the church are in more liberal parts of the US, it is likely that future General Conferences will continue to uphold the traditional (and increasingly counter-cultrual) Christian views on sexual morality.

My own systematic theology professor from seminary, William J. Abraham (a spirited reformer himself), was elected to the University Senate, which approves which seminaries our clergy may attend.  This is perhaps the smartest thing the GC actually did.

Considering the high hopes that many had for sweeping reform at GC 2012, it comes as no surprise that much of the reaction I have read has been quite negative.  Some joked on twitter that we should stick "2012" stickers on the covers or our 2008 Books of Discipline since, apparently, almost nothing has changed.  There certainly was no serious restructure.  In fact "nothing" was the word many used to describe what this General Conference accomplished (at the cost of millions of dollars).  Many petitions were not even considered by the full body because time simply ran out.  Having watched much (too much) of the ponderous proceedings online I share the frustration of many.

I do however think it is worth asking the question at this point: Is legislation and changing the Disicpline really THE reason for holding General Conference?  What if the delegates simply got together, worshipped, prayed, shared testimonies, and then declared that everything in the Discipline was just fine, so no legislation was needed?  Would such a General Conference be said to have accomplished nothing?  Or would it rather be cause for great celebration?

Unfortunately, this was not the case at GC 2012, which clearly agreed on the urgent need for many course corrections for the church but proved unable to enact them.  Perhaps my impessions were shaped too much by the many cynical facebook and twitter comments on the GC homepage, but our much-celebrated diversity seemed at times to paralyze the delegates in a sea of mis-understanding and indeed mis-trust.  There were so many people, coming from different places with different languages, different perspectives, and different agendas - it seemed that delegates often simply did not understand one another; and things had to proceed slowly to allow for translations and clarifications.  It may be that such is simply the burden of a world-wide church (and always has been), but I can see how some people were left with the feeling that General Conference is "broken."

Suggestions for the Future:
I believe there are some practical things that General Conference can do to address at least some of these issues in the future:

1. Schedule more time!!! 
If we keep doing what we have been doing, then the work of a General Conference is clearly going to take more time than we have typically scheduled.  Future General Conferences should schedule a free day (or two) at the end of conference to allow unfinished business to be addressed.  If all business has been completed, such time could be profitably used for (apparently much needed) relationship-building, prayer, and conversation.

2. Address controversial and complex issues first, then move to easier stuff
Controversial and complex issues (such as sexuality reports and restructuring) will clearly require more discussion time and should not be put off until the end of Conference.

3. Address Book of Discipline legislation before addressing ANY Resolutions
The Book of Discipline is our book of canon law that is binding on us all.  The Book of Resolutions represents official "guidance" or "suggestions" from the Church, but has no binding character or canonical force.  I watched a debate about a Resolution for the divesting of the church from Israeli companies drag on and on, yet when all was said and done, no one was technically "bound" by what it said if the Resolution passed (and it failed).  What if these precious minutes and hours had been used addressing restructuring instead?  Might we have accomplished much more?

4. We need to do some real soul-searching about the point of "holy conferencing"
Is "producing legislation" really the reason that we gather?  From the way people use the phrase "holy conferencing" among Methodists, one gets the impression that, the more parliamentary maneuvers are made and rules invoked, the "holier" our conferencing becomes.

5. Find less costly venues
Why do we spend millions on convention centers when we have so many Methodist colleges and large churches (and perhaps some larger retreat centers too) that could house this event at a fraction of the cost?

6. Reconsider how online conversation is handled
From what I saw on the facebook and twitter feed, the vast majority of comments were negative, cynical, or combative.  I tried to point out then that we can not realistically expect twitter/facebook feeds to be suitable platforms for discussing complex moral and theological issues and that they rather lend themselves more easily to name-calling.  Cynical, fearful, and more interested in name-calling than in real discussion may (or may not!) be a good snapshot of our (especially younger) membership, but it seems we could find better ways to allow online conversation around the GC.  I wonder if much of the negative commentary was perhaps simply the vented frustration of people whose favored legislation did not pass.

7. Get complex legislation in the hands of delegates well in advance
On the Restructuring proposals, it would have been great if questions and proposals could have been explored and addressed by delegates before they even arrived, saving more time for well-informed and constructive debate.

These are my early-formed thoughts.  What are yours?

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Blogger Methodist Monk said...

Excellent summation. In fact I wondered aloud what it would look like if we gathered for GC 2016 and did nothing but pray together, eat together, converse together, and work together. No petitions, no legislation, no structure changes, no speeches.

How would it impact our conference if we just gathered for two weeks of worship and work? The advice I offered was Benedict's "Ora Et Labora" I think this would have a far more lasting impact than anything that may have happened in Tampa.

3:47 PM, May 07, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could it be that the lesson we most need to learn is that the root of our denominational difficulties is not so much structural -- it is spiritual?

11:48 AM, May 08, 2012  
Blogger Chris McLain said...

Thank you for the summation and insights. I echo most of your sentiments in regards to real issues Early and supportive issues later. Part of me really feels as though we have a solid hold on the morality issue, even if many do not care for our stance, but the streamlining of agencies and local effectiveness.

12:08 PM, May 08, 2012  

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