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The Rev. Josephine Deere, a delegate from the Oklahoma Missionary Conference, applauds as the 2016 General Conference comes to an end.

Legislation expands local church options

Kathy Noble

For several decades, United Methodists have received a special offering on the fourth Sunday of Lent designated to support humanitarian efforts in the wake of natural and human-caused disasters. In recent years, the offering has supported the work of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

Beginning in 2017, the name and purpose of the special Sunday will match as General Conference 2016 changed the name of the One Great Hour of Sharing to UMCOR Sunday. Offerings given during the celebration will help support the administrative costs of UMCOR – allowing 100 percent of gifts to go to their designated purpose.

Adopting the new designation for UMCOR and authorizing two more special Sundays were among the General Conference actions directly affecting the ministry and operations of local congregations. Others included:

  • Adding doctrinal standards to the charge conference agenda,
  • Mandating insurance reviews and financial accountability,
  • Naming alternate forms of congregations,
  • Adopting a proposed constitutional amendment on inclusiveness,
  • Adding a new social principle on bullying and
  • Using resolutions to urge local churches to act.

The actions are effective on Jan. 1, 2017, and will be reflected in The Book of Discipline 2016 and The Book of Resolutions 2016.

UMCOR Sunday is one of three new observances authorized by General Conference 2016. The others are Volunteers in Mission Awareness (UMVIM) Sunday and Women's Ministry Sunday. Each annual conference will set the date for UMVIM to celebrate those who have served in short-term missions and may receive an offering. Each congregation may annually designate a Sunday to celebrate a variety of women's ministries, women's history and the contributions of women within and beyond the local church.

Promote doctrine

General Conference mandated the annual charge conference to "promote awareness of and concurrence with the Doctrinal Standards and the General Rules of The United Methodist Church." The charge conference's responsibility for promoting and concurring with socially responsible investment policies, the Social Principles and The Book of Resolutions continues.

Financial accountability, insurance

Pastors – in cooperation with the financial secretary – are now required to "have access to and responsibility for professional stewardship of congregational giving records" to ensure membership care, including meeting charitable giving documentation requirements and providing appropriate pastoral care.

Delegates also adopted legislation prohibiting immediate family members of appointed clergy from serving in any paid or unpaid position under the committee on finance of the church or charge to which the clergy is appointed. The restricted roles include treasurer, finance chair, financial secretary and counter. Family members may fill those roles in other settings.

While trustees have been charged with annually reviewing the church's insurance coverage, they now must compare it to the schedule published by the General Council on Finance and Administration and recommend to the annual charge conference changes needed to comply.

Where does a local church gather?

Recognizing a "one size fits all" approach to organizing a local church is less and less feasible, General Conferences have granted congregations increasing freedom in how they organize to pursue their mission in their community. General Conference 2016 recognized some of the forms a congregation that would require the charge conference, the district superintendent and the pastor to approach organization and administration differently. Examples of the "local church alternatively conceived" are "coffee house ministries, mall ministries, outdoor ministries, retirement home ministries, restaurant ministries, and other emergent ways in which people can gather in God's name to be the church."

No bullying

A new social principle encourages "churches to adopt a policy of zero tolerance for bullying, including cyber-bullying, within their spheres of influence; stand with persons being bullied; and take a leadership role in working with the schools and community to prevent bullying."

Expanding inclusiveness

A proposed amendment to the church's constitution expands the concept of inclusiveness in the church to include gender, ability and age and specifies "marital status" rather than status. The amendment – which was approved – adds these words to Division 1 – Article IV (Inclusiveness of the Church): "...nor shall any member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition." Delegates adopted it with 509 votes for and 242 against. However, to be ratified, at least two-thirds of the members voting on it during annual conference sessions in late 2016 and in 2017 must approve it. The results will be reported to the church by the Council of Bishops in late 2017 or early 2018.

Encouraging churches to act

A new resolution on women's ministry "encourages the local church to provide women's ministry programs that fit the unique needs of the women in the church and are consistent with our values, theology and Social Principles of The United Methodist Church." Words in the original petition indicated such programs would be supplemental and in addition to United Methodist Women. They were removed in the minority report from the legislative committee that the delegates adopted.

In support of the denominational focus on global health, another resolution encourages each local church to participate in at least one global health ministry each year to address emerging and on-going health issues and to develop ministries on health, healing and wholeness.

Delegates amended a resolution on local church support for young people to say, "Every church should be involved in ministry with young people in their congregation and community. This ministry focus provides an avenue to connect young people with God and empower them to be who they were created to be."

The Rev. Kathy Noble is editor of Interpreter and Interpreter OnLine, Vicki Wallace, director of InfoServ, the church's information ministry and a part of United Methodist Communications, contributed extensively to this report.