General Conference stays true to calling


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor


FORT WORTH, Texas -- United Methodists from around the world stayed true to God and his church in the actions taken during the 2008 General Conference, says a delegate from Mississippi.


"We had to make some tough decisions, but they were in keeping with what we're called to be," the Rev. Joe May said shortly after the 10-day event ended. "We are a diverse church, but we have to answer to what we are called to be as the body of Christ. We did that through much pain for some."


Some 992 delegates and more than twice that many observers and church leaders spent April 23-May 2 at the Fort Worth Convention Center deciding the policies, ministries and direction of the 11.5 million-member denomination for the next four years. The next General Conference, in 2012, is scheduled for Tampa.


Veteran lay delegate Bill Smallwood (left) of New Albany praised the work of his fellow delegates. "The greatest thing about this conference was the evangelical (Mississippi) delegates," he said. "These people give me real hope for the future. They take part and know what's happening."


Smallwood also praised the delegates from central conferences (those outside the United States) for taking a more active role in the conference, especially those from African conferences where the church has 3 million members (nearly 26 percent of the denomination's total).


While May and Smallwood came away with a good feeling from the conference, others had different perspectives.


The Rev. Ginger Holland of Pontotoc had attended the conference 20 years ago as a delegate and made her first return this year. "It was like night and day," she said in comparing the 1988 and 2008 conferences. "We have moved from a church believing in the biblical authority of scripture to one of ‘all means all.' We don't want to look at sin.


"There is a lot more disagreement than I saw 20 years ago. A lot of things seemed pre-planned. We spent a lot of time watching and little in true holy conferencing."


The Rev. Bryan Collier of Tupelo said the conference was a lesson in diversity. "I don't think I anticipated such broad diversity of interests," he said. "We experienced diversity of language and culture."


A global church
One of the key issues facing the conference was a proposal addressing the growing global nature of United Methodism. Part of that plan involved changing the term "central conferences" to "regional conferences." Twenty-three constitutional amendments were passed that begin the movement of making the United States a regional conference. The amendments needed a two-third approval vote by the General Conference and must also be ratified by a two-thirds vote of the aggregate number of voting annual conference members. Those votes will take place over the next couple of months as annual conferences meet. The Mississippi Annual Conference meets June 8-10 at Christ UMC in Jackson.


However, the plan to make the U.S. a regional conference will be studied for four more years and presented to the 2012 conference. Among those asked to take part in the study is Dr. Dora Washington of the Mississippi Conference. She served on the Connectional Table that helped develop the plan during the preceding four years.


While providing more funding for ministerial education in Africa, the conference rejected a request for more bishops in that part of the world. Although Africa is the denomination's fastest growing region, a plea for more episcopal leadership was turned down.


Another hot-button issue during the conference was homosexuality. Numerous proposals were offered that would provide for homosexual clergy, approval of gay marriages and other topics. Following intense debate, the General Conference voted to keep the current language of the Book of Discipline, the church's book of law, that states that the "United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."


The final action rejected a "majority report" from a legislative committee, which called for recognition that "faithful and thoughtful people who have grappled with this issue deeply disagree with one another; yet all seek a faithful witness." The assembly replaced the majority report by a 517-416 vote.


The committee had voted 39-27 to ask for United Methodists and others "to refrain from judgment regarding homosexual persons and practices as the Spirit leads us to new insights." Frederick Brewington, a layman in the New York Annual Conference who chaired the legislative committee, said the proposed statement would eliminate a sentence that has "caused festering sores among the body for three decades."


The Rev. Eddie Fox, director of world evangelism for the World Methodist Council, led the effort to retain the current language. "My integrity will not allow me to be silent," he said in introducing the "minority report" to keep the church's stance unchanged. He said the Social Principles must be faithful to biblical teaching, and he suggested that any change in the language would harm the global church.


In approving the minority report, the assembly affirmed that all persons are "individuals of sacred worth created in the image of God." Delegates also retained statements asking "families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends."


Following the vote, Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey, who was presiding, called a recess, and about 200 people wearing black entered the plenary floor and sang in protest to the vote. Statements were read about the issue. The demonstration lasted about 15 minutes, and as they left, the demonstrators placed black veils over the table in the center of the plenary floor. A similar protest was held at the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh.


In a related matter, General Conference let stand language in the Book of Discipline regarding pastoral authority over church membership.


Petitions were brought to the assembly after considerable controversy over a 2005 decision by the United Methodist Judicial Council supporting the Rev. Ed Johnson of Virginia who denied membership to a man who was in an openly homosexual relationship. The council reinstated Johnson after he had been placed on leave by the Virginia Annual Conference.


A majority report of a legislative committee asked the conference to make it clear that pastors and congregations "are to faithfully receive all persons who are willing to affirm our vows of membership."


The Rev. Ted Virts, a superintendent in Sacramento, Calif., argued for the majority report. He said his job is to be "an errand-runner for God" who tells people they are "invited to a banquet," not to be "a ticket-taker or a security guard."


A minority report urged delegates to declare that "pastors have the responsibility of discerning one's readiness to take the vows of membership."


The Rev. Bob Moon, a pastor in Macon, Ga., supported the minority report, saying pastors must be good shepherds who care for their flock. Allowing anyone to come into the community could have unintended consequences, he said.


The minority report was defeated 515-384, while the majority report was defeated by 51 percent of the delegates, leaving in place the Discipline's current language: "All people may attend its worship services, participate in the programs, receive the sacraments and become members in any local church in the connection.


In an effort to show that its budget reflects who members of the church are, the conference approved $642 million in spending for the next four years built around four areas of ministry and mission.


"(The budget) is our mission statement of what God is calling us as people of The United Methodist Church to be about in the world," said Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, a Mississippi native and president of the church's finance agency, in presenting the proposed budget on May 2.


With minimal discussion, the delegates approved the budget by a vote of 750-28 and later approved the "apportionment formula" by which it is funded through money requested of the church's 63 U.S. annual conferences and their local congregations. Less than 2 percent of the money placed in local church offering plates goes to fund denominational ministries and administration.


Hopkins said the budget was developed to strike a balance between the needs and ministries of congregations and annual conferences "with the calling that God is making to our denomination to be out in the world."


David Stotts (left), Mississippi Conference treasurer and a lay delegate, praised the budget. "We came out of General Conference with the same budget we went into it with," said Stotts, who served on the Finance and Administration legislative committee. "That proved to me that the General Conference had done its job of projecting what the apportionment dollars will be.

"The General Conference heard the local church saying enough is enough. You do ministry, and we will give what we can give," said Stotts, who was elected to the GCFA board.


The budget represents a 4.8 percent increase over the 2005-2008 spending plan of $612.5 million approved by the 2004 General Conference.


The $642 million budget translates into a 1.2 percent increase over each of the next four years. Church finance leaders acknowledge this does not keep pace with projections for inflation, but say the amount is sufficient.


For the first time, the budget was developed on an outcome-based model shaped around the denomination's four areas of focus for the immediate future:


• Developing principled Christian leaders;

• Creating new places for new people by starting new congregations and renewing existing ones;

• Engaging in ministries with the poor;

Improving global health, especially attacking the killer diseases of poverty.


"We have the opportunity to celebrate the abundance that God has poured out for mission into the world," Swenson said.


Committed to stay within the proposed $642 million bottom line, the GCFA and Connectional Table worked with the church's general agencies to accommodate almost $3.7 million in unbudgeted items approved by the General Conference in its earlier business.


Those items include $2 million to support theological education in Africa, where The United Methodist Church is experiencing its largest growth; $600,000 to study structural issues related to the church's increasingly global nature; $400,000 to help develop the African-American Methodist Heritage Center created by the 2004 General Conference; $290,000 for the committee on central conference affairs to address matters of the church outside of the United States; $300,000 for a new committee to study matters of faith, doctrinal teaching, order and discipline; $115,000 for the church's Judicial Council to have a part-time clerk and records maintenance; and $50,000 for the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Colorado.


Fewer U.S. bishops
Delegates approved a plan that will result in one fewer bishop in four of the five U.S. jurisdictions beginning in 2012. In an April 29 legislative session, delegates agreed that savings from those reductions will be used to fund new episcopal areas outside of the United States. 


The North Central, Northeastern, South Central and Western jurisdictions each will have one fewer bishop under a new formula. The action will not affect the Southeastern Jurisdiction, which already has one bishop fewer than the current formula allows. The Northeastern Jurisdiction likely will lose a bishop in 2008 under the current formula and a second one in 2012 under the new formula.


Other matters
• Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, 59, was unanimously elected April 19 to lead the Council of Bishops in two years. His tenure will begin in 2010 at the conclusion of the presidency of Iowa Bishop Gregory Palmer, who assumed the presidency from Bishop Janice Riggle Huie during the 2008 General Conference. Palmer was elected last November to a two-year term.

"I'm grateful to my colleagues, and I know that it is a lot of work, but we are going to pray and we will support each another and we will make it through," said Goodpaster, who was elected to the episcopacy from the Mississippi Conference in 2000.

Goodpaster was chosen by a discernment team of bishops from the five U.S. jurisdictions and from the central conferences.

"I am humbled," Goodpaster said. He added that he looks forward to continuing the collegial atmosphere that has permeated the council in recent years. 

Goodpaster equated his election as president-designate to when he was elected bishop during the 2000 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference.

"I have no why or how, but I depend on God's grace, and that redemptive and transformative love and mercy that keeps all of us where we need to be headed," he said. "I hope that by working together with the council, we find a way to build the kind of collaboration around these four areas and really focus the church and make it possible for everybody to be at the table." 


• The United Methodist Church will receive a $5 million grant to fight malaria and other diseases of poverty. The grant comes from the United Nations Foundation with help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Announcement of the grant came on World Malaria Day, April 25. In making the announcement, Bishop Thomas Bickerton said the church needs to have a "posture of expectation." Bickerton's roles include serving as a spokesperson for the Nothing But Nets campaign, which provides mosquito nets to protect African families from malaria-carrying insects.


United Methodist News Service contributed to this report.