Some basic facts about how General Conference works


By J. Richard Peck
United Methodist News Service

The United Methodist Church's top legislative assembly, the General Conference, sets 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 (13 million if including baptized children who have not become members).

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 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.

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.

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.

About $1.6 million of the total $6.6 million will pay delegate travel, and $1.4 million will fund 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 that may vote to adopt, reject or refer.

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."

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

What will be the major speeches?
Daily sessions begin with worship, and in the opening week there will be three speeches: an Episcopal address, Laity Address and a first-ever Young People's Address.

The Episcopal Address will be given by Illinois Area Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher on behalf of the Council of Bishops, which will approve the address before delivery.

The Laity Address will be delivered by Lyn Powell, lay leader of the North Georgia Conference and president of the Southeastern Jurisdiction's lay leader association. The title of her speech as approved by Annual Conference Lay Leaders will be "Hope for the Future: Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for a Transformed World." The address will be part of conference theme "A Future with Hope."

For the first time, the Division on Ministries with Young People will make a presentation. It is scheduled for April 24.

How are seating assignments made?
Delegations seated in the back half of the assembly hall in 2004 will be in the front half in Fort Worth. The Commission on General Conference places the names of 2004 delegations seated in the back half in a hat; commission members pull the names, with those first drawn gaining a seat on the front row. The delegation from Nigeria will be in the first row at the 2008 gathering.