Communion service opens Conference


Important votes to come up early on busy agenda

By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

After a day and half of learning new ways to be in ministry to touch more lives for Christ, members of the Mississippi Annual Conference open their 2009 session Friday afternoon with the traditional singing of the Charles Wesley hymn And Are We Yet Alive.

The conference will waste little time getting down to business as one of the key action items on the agenda will come up in the first plenary session – voting on 32 proposed amendments to the constitutions of The United Methodist Church. The amendments were approved at the 2008 General Conference (the denomination’s governing body), but must be ratified by two-thirds of all voting members in all conferences. The bulk of the amendments deals with a plan to change the structure of the denomination.

Lay member Dale Yates of Utica Carpenter United Methodist Church said he’s glad the amendments appear early on the agenda. “Let’s go ahead and vote on them and get it out of the way,” he said.

First-time lay member Anne Flanagan of Greenwood St. John UMC agreed. “I think everybody is ready to vote pretty much,” she said.

The Rev. Steve Casteel said the placement of the vote was by design. “We wanted to make sure that we had all the time we need to pay attention to the amendments,” he said. “We did not want them delayed by other items stretching out. If they had been delayed, we would have attrition and not get the full vote, but the big issue would be the time constraints where people don’t feel they have the time to deal with the amendments the way they want.”

Other key events scheduled for today include the retirement service at 11:45 a.m. and the memorial worship service at 2 p.m.

While the first plenary session of the day began at 9:15 this morning, many of those attending will already have been active for a couple of hours. The sixth annual 5K fun run-walk began at 6:30 a.m. and wound its way through downtown Jackson. In addition, Society of St. Andrew and Stop Hunger Now had mission opportunities early today. SoSA had a potato and produce drop at 8 a.m., while Stop Hunger Now resumed its food packaging program. As of 4 p.m. Friday, volunteers at Annual Conference had packed 65,000 meals for the hungry worldwide, most of the meals headed for school feeding programs.

Although the conference officially opened Friday afternoon, many clergy and lay members arrived Thursday to participate in the first Trans4mation, a series of sessions with those taking a leading role in outreach ministry. Friday morning’s keynote speaker was Chris Lahr of Philadelphia, Pa., who works as a recruiter and academic director for Mission Year, which is a program that provides people ages 18 and older the opportunity to live in intentional community and serve in an urban center. Most of his work is with the homeless and those living on the streets.

“The poor don’t need a ministry for the poor, they need to be part of the community,” he said.

Casteel said response to Trans4mation has been positive. “We have had great feedback,” he said. “The speakers did an incredible job, the space was good and the energy was good. I can’t wait to see what it will be like next time.”

The amendments, proposed by the Task Force on the Worldwide Nature of the Church, are for the creation of regional conferences to establish a uniform denominational structure. The 62 U.S. annual conferences would belong to one or more “regional” conferences, while the country’s five jurisdictions would remain the same. Overseas, the seven central conferences would be renamed “regional” and could establish their own jurisdictions. 

All matters of doctrine, ordination and mission would still be decided at General Conference, but regional conferences would rule on issues that affect only them. The amendments that would restructure the church are IV, X, XIII, XXIII and XXVI. 

Amendment I would change Paragraph 4, Article IV, making “all persons” eligible for membership in any United Methodist church, “upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith and relationship in Jesus Christ.” The amendment was one of several petitions submitted after Judicial Council Decision 1032, a 2005 ruling that reversed the suspension of a Virginia Conference pastor who denied church membership to a practicing homosexual. 

“All persons” would abbreviate a sentence that ensures eligibility for “all persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition. . . .” 

Amendment II would add a new article after Paragraph 5, Article V, requiring all churches, groups and agencies within the denomination to “adopt ethics and conflict of interest policies, applicable to both members and employees, which embody and live out our Christian values.”

Amendment VI adds a sentence to Paragraph 15, Article III, allowing General Conference to set a transitional period for new annual, missionary or provisional conferences; for up to eight years, the conferences could be represented at general, jurisdictional and central conferences on less than a proportional basis. 

Amendment IX to Paragraph 23, Article I, would mandate at least 100 delegates at all jurisdictional conference sessions. This would ensure a “minimum basis of support” for the election of bishops, according to the amendment’s rationale. A related petition at the 2008 General Conference changed the formula for jurisdictional conference membership, to allow more delegates if needed to reach the minimum.

Paragraph 16, Article IV already forbids churches and church agencies to discriminate against members based on “race or status.” Amendment VIII would protect women’s rights by adding “gender” to the list. “Given our long-standing work in eliminating gender bias and sexual misconduct in the Church,” says the amendment’s rationale, “it is glaring that gender is not included with retirees (status) and race. . . .” 

Amendment XV would revise Paragraph 32, Article I, reducing to one year the time professing lay members must belong to the United Methodist Church before they can serve as delegates to annual conference. The amendment also drops a long definition of conference membership, already included outside the Constitution in the Discipline’s Paragraph 602. 

Amendment XVII, according to its rationale, would give laity “the right of voice and vote” on conference committees that investigate charges against clergy. Currently, only laity on boards of ordained ministry are elected to the committees. The 2004 General Conference ensured the right of all professing lay members to serve, but the Judicial Council ruled the action was unconstitutional; the amendment responds to that ruling with revisions to Paragraph 33, Article II. 

Amendment XIX would change Paragraph 35, Article IV to allow licensed local pastors, associate members and probationary members of annual conferences to help elect clergy delegates to general, jurisdictional or central conferences. The voters would first need to complete all educational requirements for their jobs and serve at least two years under appointment. 

Amendment XXII to Paragraph 37, Article I on jurisdictional boundaries would add the British territory of Bermuda to the Northeastern Jurisdiction.