News briefing offers glimpse into assembly changes


By Marta W. Aldrich
United Methodist News Service


FORT WORTH, Texas — When United Methodists convene this spring for their worldwide assembly, they can expect wider international representation, a denominational budget built around four new areas of focus and carefully choreographed opening sessions aimed at fostering unity through common ministry instead of gridlock over divisive social issues.


The 2008 General Conference will meet for 10 days — two fewer than the 2004 gathering in Pittsburgh and with no break — but still must sort through more than 1,500 petitions, which is about the same amount of business conducted at the previous assembly. In addition to hearing opening addresses from a United Methodist bishop and lay person, delegates will hear the first-ever Young People’s Address — delivered jointly by six teens and young adults who promise a presentation “different from anything that’s ever been presented to General Conference before.”


The new approaches are among a bevy of changes outlined during the United Methodist Pre-General Conference News Briefing, an informational session attended by more than 200 delegation representatives and church journalists. The Jan. 24-26 briefing, sponsored by United Methodist Communications, was held near the Fort Worth Convention Center, where General Conference will open on April 23.


“This is going to be an historic event,” said Mary Brooke Casad of this year’s opening sessions.

“We’ve never done it this way before. It’s not going to be just business as usual,” said Casad, executive secretary of the Connectional Table — itself a new entity formed by the last General Conference to coordinate mission, ministries and resources for The United Methodist Church.


Weary of decades of the church’s top legislative meeting being consumed by debate over homosexuality and other hot-button issues, the Council of Bishops and other denominational leaders have shaped a new churchwide agenda with the overarching purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The agenda includes four areas of focus: developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world; creating “new places for new generations” by starting new churches and renewing existing ones; engaging in ministry with the poor; and fighting the killer diseases of poverty such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

Church leaders believe this approach will help United Methodists unite to address the world’s core needs, reclaim the church’s Wesleyan heritage, start a movement and, as a bonus, reverse decades of declining membership trends.


“This is about alignment — with the Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table, what’s happening in annual conferences — and saying we’re going to coalesce (and) combine to make a difference,” said the Rev. Jerome Del Pino, chief executive of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, which will oversee the church leadership initiative.


Delegates at the briefing said it’s time for Jesus Christ to “do a new thing with our church.”

“I’m not hearing as much about the more controversial issues so far,” said the Rev. Henry Frueh, a second-time delegate from the Troy Annual Conference in New York. “There’s more talk about the church positioning itself to be more effective in the world. I think there’s a sense that if we don’t change the way we do church, we’re going to lose the opportunity,” he said.


The briefing featured a session on the $642 million, four-year spending plan for the denomination beginning in 2009 — and the new processes and criteria for developing the budget proposal. For the first time, the plan was built on an “outcome-based” model that much of the business world already follows. Church agencies were asked to shape their funding requests around the four new areas of focus. Also for the first time, the General Council on Finance and Administration shared the budget-building process with the Connectional Table.


“We’re trying to do something different,” said Bishop Lindsey Davis of the North Georgia Area, a member of the council’s board. “We’re trying to do something in a more collaborative fashion together.”


The $642 million plan represents a 1.2 percent annual increase for a total increase of 4.8 percent over four years. “All of us know inflation is more than that,” Davis said. “In terms of real dollars, it represents less money for all our boards and agencies and less money for the general church at large.”


He also emphasized that the budget represents only 1 percent of the net spending of the entire denomination and cautioned against skimping on mission and ministry done at the denominational level. “Ninety-nine percent of all the resources of our denomination are spent at the local, annual conference and jurisdictional level,” he said.


With United Methodist membership shrinking in the United States and growing in Africa and the Philippines, the makeup of General Conference delegates will reflect those trends. Central conferences (those in annual conferences outside the United States) will have 278 delegates, 100 more than in 2004. Annual conferences in U.S. jurisdictions have elected 714 delegates.


The Rev. Gere Reist, secretary of the General Conference, urged delegates to carefully read proposed rule changes that will be voted on at the beginning of the assembly. “There are significant changes this time around,” he said. He cited proposals to elect all subcommittee chairs by ballot, merging the Commission on General Conference with the Committee on Rules, and using parliamentarians in all legislative committees.


The proposed rules also prohibit talking on cell phones and using laptop computers on the convention floor.


The Rev. Gary Graves, petitions secretary, reported that more than a quarter of the 1,564 petitions filed are related to the Board of Church and Society, the church’s social action agency.