Guide tries to answer questions about 2008 General Conference

7/17/2007

By J. Richard Peck

United Methodist News Service

The United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly, the General Conference, will meet in 2008 to set direction for the denomination for the following four years. This guide provides an overview of the gathering, how it works and its significance in the life of the church.

 

What is General Conference?

As the top policy-making body of the international United Methodist Church, General Conference is the only body that officially speaks for the 11.5-million member denomination.

 

During the nine-day session, 992 delegates will revise the Book of Discipline, which regulates the manner in which local churches, annual conferences and general agencies are organized. The book also sets policies regarding church membership, ordination, administration, property and judicial procedures. The assembly may modify most disciplinary paragraphs by majority vote, but the Constitution can only be amended by a two-thirds affirmative vote, followed by a two-thirds affirmative vote of the aggregate number of members voting in annual conference session. Delegates may not revoke or change the Articles of Religion or the Confession of Faith unless two-thirds of the delegates agree to change this provision and three-fourths of the annual conference members also agree.

 

Delegates also revise the Book of Resolutions, a volume declaring the church’s stance on a wide variety of social justice issues. The book contains more than 300 resolutions that are considered instructive and persuasive, but are not binding on members.

 

Where does the conference meet?

Meeting sites rotate among the church’s five geographic U.S. jurisdictions. The 2008 conference will be in Fort Worth, Texas (South Central Jurisdiction). The 2012 gathering is scheduled for Tampa, Fla. (Southeastern Jurisdiction). There is nothing prohibiting future General Conferences from being scheduled outside the United States.

 

When will the gathering be held?

The assembly meets once every four years in the months of April or May unless a special session to deal with a particular issue is called by the Council of Bishops or General Conference.

 

The next session will be April 23-May 2, 2008. The nine-day session is two fewer than in the preceding quadrennium, reducing the cost of the assembly by $163,000. Normally, delegates have a free day on Sunday, but delegates to the 2008 session will worship together in the morning and be back in legislative sessions or plenary for the remainder of the day.

 

Who are the delegates?

The 992 delegates to the 2008 gathering are United Methodists elected by their annual conferences. Annual conferences consist of ordained clergypersons and an equal number of laypersons elected by their local churches.

Once every four years, annual conferences elect equal numbers of lay and clergy members to represent them at General Conference. Lay members vote for lay delegates and clergy for clergy delegates. The number of delegates from each conference is based on the number of clergy members and the number of lay members. However, even conferences with few lay and clergy members are guaranteed one clergy and one lay delegate The Constitution permits General Conference to be composed of at least 600 and no more than 1,000 delegates.

Churches in the Southeastern Jurisdiction will have the largest number of delegates from the United States. However, because of membership increases in central conferences (outside the United States), that jurisdiction will have only 252 delegates, down from 278 at the 2004 gathering. The central conferences will have 278 delegates, up 100 from the 2004 assembly and up 136 from the gathering in 2000. Africa will be represented by 186 of the central conference delegates, up 94 from 2004.  

 

What does the assembly cost?

The projected cost of the 2008 session is $6.6 million, compared with $4.1 million for the 2000 conference and $5.3 million for the 2004 session. Three percent of the cost is for committee functions and Commission on General Conference expenses; 9 percent covers the cost of the offices of the business manager, treasurer and the secretary of the General Conference; 24 percent is for operations; 18 percent for language services; and 46 percent for delegate expenses.

 

About $1.6 million of the total $6.6 million will pay delegate travel, and $1.4 million will fund the cost of housing and food (each delegate will be given $118 per diem). The Daily Christian Advocate will cost $265,000 and the computer-tracking system will be $230,000. Renting the convention center is expected to total $99,000.

 

How does the legislative process work?

At General Conference, petitions will be considered first by one of 13 legislative committees (up from 11 in 2004) that may vote to adopt, reject or refer. The Committee on Plan of Organization and Rules of Order is proposing to eliminate language of “concurrence or non-concurrence or concurrence as amended.”

 

Most of the first four days is spent considering proposals in committees. During the second week, the entire gathering considers legislation proposed by the committees. A proposal coming from a committee is called a “calendar item.”

 

Rules of General Conference are approved by delegates prior to any legislative actions. Rules proposed by the Committee on Plan of Organization and Rules of Order will call for legislative committee calendar items with fewer than 10 negative votes to be placed on a “consent calendar.” If an item is not removed by a written request of 20 delegates, and if it does not involve funding or a constitutional amendment, the entire consent calendar is approved with a single vote.

 

General Conference may change the specific rules related to the consent calendar, but the process enables the assembly to quickly deal with hundreds of legislative proposals.

 

If a calendar item with financial implications is passed by a majority of delegates, it is referred to the General Council on Finance and Administration.

 

Members of that agency return the legislation to a plenary session with a recommendation as to how the project or program is to be funded. Only after delegates approve or amend that recommendation is the legislation finally approved.

 

Plenary sessions are translated into German, French, Portuguese, Swahili, Spanish, Russian and Korean.

A computer-tracking system enables delegates and visitors to determine the status of any petition or calendar item.

 

The Commission on General Conference will suggest that, in the future, individuals must submit their petitions through local church charge conferences or other denominational organizations.

 

A similar request was defeated by the 2004 gathering. The United Methodist Church is the only denomination allowing individuals to petition their legislative assembly.

 

How does the petition process work?

Any United Methodist individual or organization may petition General Conference. Each petition should only address one paragraph in the Book of Discipline or one subject in the Book of Resolutions. The petition should include a suggested topic, clear indication of the additions and deletions and whether financial costs are involved. Petitions may be sent by e-mail to petitions@umpublishing.org.

 

Petitions may be sent by mail to Petitions Secretary Gary W. Graves, United Methodist General Conference, P.O. Box 188, Beaver Dam, KY 42320-0187. All petitions must be sent by Oct. 26. A hand-printed or typed petition that must be keyed into the DCA must be received by Sept. 1. For detailed information on submitting petitions, visit www.GC2008.umc.org.

 

Petitioners may include a 50-word maximum rationale for disciplinary petitions. The rationale will be placed only on the General Conference Web site.

 

What is the proposal for making the U.S. church a regional body?

United Methodist churches in the United States may become part of a regional body, similar to church units in Africa, Europe and Asia if the 2008 General Conference approves four constitutional amendments striking out language that says central conferences are only for areas of the church outside the United States.

 

If those amendments are approved by two-thirds of the delegates to General Conference and two-thirds of the aggregate number of members attending annual conferences, the way would be cleared for the 2012 General Conference to introduce legislation creating a central conference for U.S. churches.

 

The proposal, presented by a task force examining the global nature of the denomination, would allow central conferences to form or continue jurisdictions.

 

The proposal acknowledges the fact that 30 percent of United Methodist members now live outside the United States and legislation that could be proposed to the 2012 General Conference would eliminate U.S.-specific concerns from General Conference.

 

Those concerns would become the business of a U.S. Central Conference.

 

The 2008 General Conference will be asked to allow the task force and the Connectional Table to jointly continue their study of the church’s worldwide nature and report to the 2012 legislative assembly on the church’s characteristics and how the United States could become a regional conference while retaining its five jurisdictions where bishops are elected.