General Conference 2016: A Primer
- Christian conferencing imbuing the event.
- Significant numbers of delegates carrying small tablets rather than several large books.
- All delegates wearing headphones.
- Secret balloting in legislative committees.
Those are among the changes delegates, volunteers and guests will witness during the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon. The 864 delegates elected by their annual conferences to attend the quadrennial meeting of the denomination's top legislative body will be among some 4,000 people expected to attend the session with the theme "Therefore, Go," based on Matthew 28:19-20.
Keeping up with GC2016
The official website for General Conference is gc2016.umc.org. Offered there now are news stories about General Conference, Pre-General Conference Briefing videos and a wealth of other information. It is updated frequently. Anyone with access to the Internet will be able to watch live streaming of worship services and plenary sessions during General Conference.
A mobile app is available for both Android and iOS devices. The iOS app is available on the iTunes store and will work on all Apple devices running iOS 7.1 and above. The Android app is available on the Google Play store and works on all Android devices running Android 2.3.3 or above. These apps will include maps, schedules and petition tracking options. Final update is scheduled for April.
Judi Kenaston of Beckley, West Virginia, is chair of the Commission on General Conference, which plans the event. During the Pre-General Conference Briefing in Portland in January, she said those changes and others grew out of principles the group adopted to create and nurture a General Conference where:
- "The grace of God may be experienced in mutual hospitality;
- "All may engage in Christian conferencing to discern God's call to The United Methodist Church ...;
- "All voices are heard and honored as a shared United Methodist identity is shaped and experienced in response to God's vision for us;
- "The people, time and financial resources God has brought together are wisely and effectively engaged;
- "Decisions made are aligned with the worldwide nature of The United Methodist Church connection;
- "Legislative work and all other tasks are connected to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."
General Conference is the only body that can speak as The United Methodist Church.
Christian conferencing throughout
To the delegates – at least one clergy and one layperson elected by each annual conference – lie the tasks of acting on 1,044 petitions to change The Book of Discipline and The Book of Resolutions, setting the denominational budget and approving constitutional amendments to send to the annual conferences for ratification. Watch for more details on proposed legislation in the March-April issue of Interpreter.
Kenaston and others pray that the work will be done in a spirit of Christian conferencing – "a way of being church in the world shaped by Scripture and growing together in worship, prayer and conversation. It is a commitment to listen, discern and grow together."
"We need Christian conferencing to be who we are, what General Conference is all about," she says.
General Conference's status as a worldwide event will be visible in the delegates themselves – and in some of the technology to be used. While annual conferences in the United States continue to elect the largest percentage of delegates, 58.3 percent this year, more are coming from the central conferences. Annual conferences in Africa are sending 30 percent, the Philippines 5.8 percent and Europe 4.6 percent. The largest delegations are from North Katanga with 48 and Côte d'Ivoire, 34. The North Georgia and Virginia delegations are the largest from the United States with 22 each.
In past years, delegates who did not speak English were readily identifiable as they wore headphones to hear simultaneous translation. In 2016, all delegates will be using headphones. An app will allow guests and observers to hear the translations with their smartphones.
Central conference delegates will have tablets preloaded with the multi-volume Daily Christian Advocate (DCA) – the books that contain all the reports and proposals to General Conference – in French, Portuguese, Kiswahili and English as well as The Book of Discipline 2012 and The Book of Resolutions. The DCA is now downloadable in English and will be available as an e-publication on which readers can make notes.
Each day will include a full agenda of legislative tasks, including legislative committee work, primarily during the first week, and plenary debate and votes. Active and retired bishops attend General Conference and preside, but they may not speak in plenary sessions without permission from the assembly.
Electronic voting, which has been used in plenary sessions for several quadrennia, will now also be used in legislative committees after some delegates reported feeling intimidated when their votes could be seen by observers. Sub-committees will be encouraged also to vote by secret ballot.
Abundant worship, celebrations
Worship and Holy Communion beginning at 2 p.m. PDT, Tuesday, May 10, will officially open General Conference. Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., president of the Council of Bishops and episcopal leader of the San Francisco Area, will preach. Worship at 8 a.m., May 11-14 and May 16-20 will include the preaching of United Methodist bishops and a variety of choirs. Preaching for closing worship on May 20 will be Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce Ough, incoming president of the Council of Bishops.
The first of several special presentations, celebrations and reports will come on Wednesday, May 11, when Ohio West Bishop Gregory Palmer delivers the Episcopal Address on behalf of the Council of Bishops. Scott Johnson of the Upper New York Conference will be the lead presenter for the Laity Address on Friday, May 13. Joining him will be five other conference lay leaders: Courtney Fowler, Great Plains; Brian Hammons, Missouri; Warren Harper, Virginia; Simon Mafunda, East Zimbabwe; and Holly Neal, Tennessee;
Delivering the Young People's address on Saturday, May 14, will be Peter Cibuabua, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Chelsea Spyres of Detroit, Michigan.
Celebrations throughout the conference will mark the 200th anniversary of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, completion of the Imagine No Malaria campaign and the 30th anniversary of DISCIPLE Bible Study.
Scheduled for May 18 is a report on the Sand Creek Massacre, which Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky of the Mountain Sky Area calls, "the most thoroughly documented atrocity against Native Americans in United States history." The study deals with the reality that the leader of the Colorado Territory militia was a Methodist preacher.
The Rev. Joan G. LaBarr is a freelance writer and retired elder living in Carrolton, Texas. The Rev. Kathy Noble is editor of Interpreter and Interpreter OnLine.