General Conference Notebook


Mississippi Leaders

Mississippians have been selected by the General Conference for leadership roles on the general church level.

The Rev. Joe May, pastor of Anderson UMC in Jackson and a Mississippi clergy delegate to General Conference, was elected as the first alternate to the Judicial Council. The council decides questions of church law and is the church's top judicial body. The council meets twice a year, and May will likely be involved in making decisions, because it is common for members to be unable to attend meetings. May was nominated by the Council of Bishops.

Dr. David Beckley, president of Rust College in Holly Springs and a lay delegate, was elected to the University Senate. That group determines which schools, colleges, universities, and seminaries meet the criteria to be listed as United Methodist-related institutions. Beckley was nominated for the post by the Council of Bishops. Also elected to the board was the Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam, a Mississippi native and former president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward was chosen to represent the Southeastern Jurisdiction on the General Board of Global Ministries. Just before General Conference, Bishop Larry Goodpaster was unanimously chosen by the Council of Bishops as its president-elect. Goodpaster served as a pastor and district superintendent in Mississippi prior to his election as bishop. He serves the Alabama-West Florida Conference.

Four Areas of Focus

Four staff executives of United Methodist boards explained areas of focus that will guide the future work of the denomination's 13 general agencies on April 24.

The four areas of focus are:

  • Developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world.
  • Creating new places for new people and renewing existing congregations.
  • Stamping out diseases of poverty by improving health globally.
  • Engaging in ministry with the poor.

Somehow, in our 40 years, poverty became acceptable to us," said Bishop Felton May, interim top executive for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. "We permitted ourselves to join the rest of the world in complacency. But here - at our 40-year anniversary - for the love of God, the United Methodist Church declares, no more!"

The Rev. Jerome King Del Pino, chief executive, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, admitted that stamping out disease is an "ambitious" notion. But, he said, church leaders "believe that by interconnecting the resources, capacities and skills of the entire United Methodist community, we can help to significantly reduce deaths caused by the diseases of poverty."

Such work can be accomplished by creating and renewing congregations, according to the Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, chief executive, United Methodist Board of Discipleship. "Jesus calls us to bring more people to follow Christ to the cross … to give their very lives for the gospel," she said.

Principled Christian leaders also are needed. "This focus area is not about recruiting pastors to occupy pulpits on Sundays - while that would be a critical and needed result," Hollon explained. "Instead, it is about cultivating a whole new paradigm of leadership that can engage a culture that has evolved in its color, complexity and global interconnectivity … and is no longer hospitable to the message of Christ."

Seven Pathways

The four areas of focus were derived from "seven pathways" established by the Council of Bishops.

Ohio West Area Bishop Bruce Ough explained that early in the quadrennium, the Council of Bishops "looked across the landscape of United Methodism to seek out the best qualities of who we are and the most fruitful practices of our discipleship."

He said that search found churches that follow seven basic pathways:

  • Teaching the Wesleyan model of reaching and forming disciples of Jesus Christ.
  • Strengthening clergy and lay leadership.
  • Developing new congregations.
  • Transforming existing congregations.
  • Ending racism as the church authentically expands racial and ethnic ministries.
  • Reaching and transforming the lives of new generations of children.
  • Eliminating poverty in community with the poor.

Katrina Update

Bishop Ward and Elizabeth Cumbest took part in a presentation about Hurricane Katrina recovery on April 28. Ward and Bishop William Hutchinson of Louisiana spoke briefly, and Cumbest sang a new song she composed about the August 2005 storm.

In addition, a video produced by The United Methodist Hour, Gwen Green, communications coordinator for the Mississippi Conference, Lisa Michiels, Seashore District communications coordinator, and Louisiana Conference communicator Betty Backstrom, was shown and a copy distributed to all delegates. A printed piece was also provided to all the delegates.

The Katrina Church Recovery Appeal was initiated to help rebuild churches and ministries damaged by the storm. Church property cannot be repaired with funds from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). Ward reported that 340 churches in Mississippi were damaged and shared a total of $1 million from the appeal. In addition to rebuilding churches, the funds may be used to pay pastor salaries.

In 2006, Cumbest released a CD of songs she had written about the storm and pledged all proceeds to help rebuild the Seashore Mission in Gulfport, which was destroyed in the storm and six people died when the hurricane struck the building. Cumbest's CD has raised $45,000 for the mission.

Helping Out

Frank and Mary Poole of Oxford are serving as pages during the General Conference. They also served as pages at the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh. Pages sit on the plenary floor and deliver messages to delegates and hand materials needed during plenary sessions. The Pooles attend Oxford-University UMC. Frank Poole is a retired UM pastor.

Notable Decisions

Creation of a hymnal revision committee. The committee will bring a proposed hymnal to the 2012 General Conference. Benefits of a new hymnal will include the incorporation of "new expressions of worship ... to engage all persons, including new, younger and diverse people," according to the petition to create the committee. The final vote of 450-438 to create the committee came after debate in which younger delegates both supported and spoke against a new book of hymns and other worship resources. A four-year joint music study by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship and the United Methodist Publishing House led to the request to create the hymnal revision committee.

Continuation of Study of Ministry. A commission studying the ordering of ministry in The United Methodist Church is being continued for four more years. Delegates voted on April 29 to continue the commission work authorized by the 2004 General Conference to study the theological, ecclesial and practical groundings of its system of lay, licensed and ordained ministry. The Council of Bishops will establish a 28-member Study of Ministry Commission for 2009-2012.

Increase of bishops' retirement age. The mandatory retirement age for bishops will go up two years, from 66 to 68. Changing the retirement age reflects the way Social Security is moving in allowing people to work longer if they choose, said Peggy Sewell of the episcopal services office at the Council on Finance and Administration. The action also moves the bishops closer to the retirement age for ordained elders and saves costs for the Episcopal Fund, according to the Rev. Janet L. Forbes, a delegate from the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference and chairwoman of the subcommittee considering the recommendations from the episcopal study task force.

Creation of study group on church structure. After lengthy debates, the 2008 General Conference took a hesitant step toward reorganizing the 11.5 million-member denomination by creating a panel to study the issue. The 2004 General Conference created a Task Force on the Global Nature of the Church. That six-member group, which includes Dr. Dora Washington, a member of the Connectional Table and Aldersgate UMC in Jackson, proposed the possibility of making the United States a "central conference" similar to other conferences outside the United States.  The task force submitted 23 petitions that would amend the constitution to allow for the creation of a regional conference for the United States and change the name "central conference" to "regional conference." In response to the proposals, delegates asked the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table to create a 20-member committee to consider recommendations of the study group and suggested that the six members of the early study be included in the new committee. The new group will also consider the financial implications of proposed changes in structure and report back to the 2012 General Conference.

Entrance into full communion with Lutherans. The General Conference approved a full communion agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on April 28. The next day, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson preached for morning worship as the General Conference observed its traditional ecumenical day. The new relationship is not a merger of the two denominations, but recognition of each other's ministry and mission. It recognizes that each has "the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith" expressed in the Scriptures and confessed in historic creeds and the core teachings of each denomination. Under full communion, the two churches also recognize the authenticity of each other's baptism and eucharist and the full interchangeability of all ordained ministers. Bishop Melvin Talbert, co-chairman of the most recent United Methodist-ELCA dialogue team, noted that United Methodists don't often use the words "full communion" because "our table has always been open" to those who profess a belief in Christ.

Affirmation of stance on homosexuality. Delegates to the 2008 General Conference rejected changes to the United Methodist Social Principles that would have acknowledged that church members disagree on homosexuality. On April 30, delegates instead adopted a minority report that retained language in the denomination's 2004 Book of Discipline describing homosexual practice as "incompatible with Christian teaching."  In other action on sexuality issues, delegates voted to retain language in the Discipline that prohibits United Methodist ministers from conducting ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions and rejected amending Paragraph 161.C to include "committed unions" in a section describing the sanctity of the marriage covenant.

Approval of $642 million budget. The 2008 General Conference approved a $642 million denominational spending plan for the next four years built around four areas of mission and ministry. "(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, the final day of the 10-day legislative assembly. 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. 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.

Sending Forth

Bishop Ward preached during worship on the final day of General Conference. "God bless you as you go," she said. "How glorious it is to be a witness to the way God will be in the world beyond this place."
Ward urged the delegates as they return to their homes to focus less on the decisions made and more on the things they learned. "We learned much about God," she said. "Christ reigns in every place. Christ reigns over all that we are and over everything that we do. In this General Conference-ending day, we know that Christ is with us."

Basing her sermon on Acts 1:6-11, where the disciples gathered with the risen Christ and he tells them to wait for the time when God restores His kingdom, Ward acknowledged that many people, especially those at a meeting such as General Conference, have a difficult time waiting and not knowing. "This was an invitation to wait, to remember there are things we are not to know," she said. "It was an invitation to receive the spirit, to be a witness."