Briefing previews 2016 General Conference debates
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 it meets May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon.
The Rev. Steven Lewis, pastor of Gresham United Methodist Church in Portland, 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 General Conference attended the Jan. 20-22 briefing in Portland. United Methodist Communications sponsored the event, with involvement and support from other agencies and ministries of the church.
"Go, therefore" will be the theme for the May 10-20 assembly that will draw 864 delegates elected by annual conferences around the world and another 3,500 visitors, guests and staff to the Oregon Convention Center. Making decisions on church law, mission emphases and adopting a budget during its quadrennial session, General Conference is the only body that can speak as The United Methodist Church.
Many United Methodists expect the most passionate and difficult debate to deal with how the denomination ministers with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. (See page 60.)
Big changes proposed for bishops, clergy
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 church's constitution, those reforms would come slowly, even if approved.
Bishop Grant Hagiya, leader of the Greater Northwest Area and a member of the 2013-16 Ministry Study Commission, said the group 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 is proposing 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, a delegate from Alaska and 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 process 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 appointments 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.
A U.S. central conference?
One of the 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.
Briefing participants 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 the 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 the 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 church. Both plans also would require amendments to the denomination's constitution.
Frederick Brewington, a member of the Connectional Table and delegate from the New York Conference, 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 the discussions.
One of those proposals is "Plan UMC Revised." The Rev. Clayton Oliphint from North Texas explained that this plan removes provisions ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council after the 2012 General Conference adopted "Plan UMC," a compromise proposal for restructuring the church.
Under "Plan UMC Revised," the current General Commission on Religion and Race and General Commission on the Status and Role of Women would be merged into a committee on inclusiveness. The plans also folds the General 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.
The 2016 General Conference will consider legislation to amend more than 70 social justice petitions ranging from climate change to human trafficking.
Representatives from Discipleship Ministries' Division on Ministries with Young People, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, the General Board of Church and Society, the General Commission on General Conference, the Standing Commission on Central Conference Matters and the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits highlighted some of those resolutions.
Christine Flick, a delegate from the Germany South Conference, talked about a petition calling for a reduction of the denomination's carbon footprint with regard to travel related to 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 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.
Looking ahead to 2020
A draft of part of a new general, or global, Book of Discipline will be presented to General Conference for affirmation, said Central and Southern Europe 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 of the Mozambique South Conference, a member of the 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 General Board of Church and Society has been holding listening sessions around the world on the denomination's Social Principles. The agency is seeking guidance, clarity and diverse voices as it 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.
Delegates will consider authorizing a digitized, customizable United Methodist Hymnal. It 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 proposal to be submitted to the 2020 General Conference.
Contributing to this report were Vicki Brown, news editor, and Heather Hahn, Kathy Gilbert and Linda Bloom, reporters with United Methodist News Service, and Joey Butler, multimedia editor, United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee.