By Jessica Connor
TAMPA, Fla.—In less than two months, 988 delegates from around the world will come together for the United Methodist Church s quadrennial legislative gathering: General Conference.
For 11 days, April 24-May 4, these Christian leaders will examine, discuss, pray, debate and eventually determine a host of key legislative issues that will become church law for the next four years.
South Carolina is sending 18 delegates “ nine clergy and nine laity “ to the conference, which will be held in Tampa, Fla. All delegates will revise The Book of Discipline, which regulates the manner in which the church is organized; revise The Book of Resolutions, which declares the church s stance on social justice issues; approve plans and budgets for church programs; and elect members of the Judicial Council and the University Senate.
General Conference is the only entity that speaks for the full church.
The full list of legislation to be decided to General Conference is available at gc2012.umc.org.
Every four years is when we can pass legislation that impacts the entire United Methodist Church, said Joe Heyward, South Carolina s delegation head. An Annual Conference cannot make policy for General Conference, so this is the one opportunity we get to rewrite or add to or take away in the Discipline. So it is really important that we all are aware of that fact, that this is an opportunity for us to make changes.
To help delegates and church communicators understand the nuances of some of the most critical and potentially divisive legislation, the Advocate and more than 300 others headed to Tampa Jan. 19-21 for a pre-conference news briefing.
Dr. Tim McClendon, South Carolina s first-elected clergy delegate and the delegation s episcopal nominee, was one of the speakers at the briefing, voicing his perspective on one of this year s hot topics “ church restructuring.
The following is an overview of some of the issues discussed at the briefing. Roughly 1,600 pieces of legislation will be presented at GC2012.
In the wake of the 2008 economic crisis and declining U.S. membership in the UMC, a key piece of legislation would consolidate nine of the church s 13 general agencies into a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry under a 15-member board. The board would be appointed by and accountable to a 45-member advisory board called the General Council for Strategy and Oversight, which would replace the Connectional Table that coordinates UMC mission, ministry and resources.
The proposal would reduce agency boards now governed by more than 500 people to a group of 60. It would also allow the board of the newly created center to redistribute up to $60 million toward funding theological education, recruiting young clergy and fostering vital congregations “ about 10 percent of the amount budgeted for general church operations.
Some think the legislation will promote more vital congregations, while others are concerned the plan would damage the denomination s connectionalism, give too much power to the bishops and eliminate the denomination s historic separation of powers between bishops and GC.
A set-aside bishop
Delegates also will take up a proposed amendment to the UMC constitution to create a bishop without the usual responsibility of overseeing a geographical area. That bishop would be elected by the Council of Bishops and would have the authority to serve as the denomination s chief ecumenical officer, help align the strategic direction of the church and focus on growing vital congregations.
The Connectional Table endorsed this change, and under the proposed restructuring legislation, the set-aside bishop would be chair of the General Council for Strategy and Oversight and ex-officio member of the board of the Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry.
At the briefing in January, McClendon served as a panel speaker on Church Restructuring: Other Perspectives. A member of the Connectional Table, McClendon voiced his concerns that bishops would have too much power.
The power dynamic isn t equal no matter how someone does the math, McClendon said.
Proposed changes to the ordination process will eliminate guaranteed appointments, streamline the ordination process and sharpen the focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, said members of the Study of Ministry Commission in their presentation on clergy effectiveness proposals.
Guaranteed appointments were introduced in the 1956 Discipline as a way to protect women who received the rights to become ordained at that GC, said the Rev. Tom Choi, Hawaii District superintendent, California-Pacific Annual Conference. Racism and sexism haven t gone away, but we re in a different place than we were 56 years ago, Choi said.
Worldwide nature of the church
A 20-member Committee to Study the Worldwide Nature of The UMC considered how to forge deeper connections, establish greater local authority and create a more equitable sharing of power and representation. The process included consultation with UMs from around the world.
Central conferences outside the U.S. have the right to adapt the Discipline for their own use, but nobody knows what is adaptable and what isn t, Kansas Area Bishop Scott Jones pointed out. The committee has submitted legislation to solve that problem. The committee is asking for the Connectional Table to lead conversation about a global model for the UMC.
Changes to clergy pensions
GC will consider two proposals that would change clergy pensions, shifting more of the risk in retirement preparation from annual conferences to individual clergy. The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits is asking General Conference to choose between two options. The first would combine a defined benefit component with a defined contribution component. The second option would be a defined contribution-only plan.
The proposed changes would not reduce benefits for retired clergy that already are being paid or reduce what active clergy have already earned.
The church s General Council on Finance and Administration will present a proposed church budget for 2013-2016 developed in response to the 2008 global recession. At $603 million, the recommended budget reflects general reductions of 6.6 percent and marks the first time a budget smaller than that for the previous quadrennium will be presented.
The World Service Fund represents 52 percent of the budget, at $311.6 million. Other funds are Ministerial Education ($105.6 million), Episcopal ($90.3 million), General Administration ($8.2 million), Black College ($42.1 million), Africa University ($9.4 million) and Interdenom-inational Cooperation ($8.2 million).
Many other critical pieces of legislation will be presented at General Conference, including what many in the church call challenging issues “ such as gay marriage and gay clergy. As well, an Act of Repentance and Healing for Indigenous Persons will be part of 2012 General Conference on Apr
For more detailed information on General Conference 2012 and legislation, visit gc2012.umc.org. The Advocate will follow General Conference through the event, with post-conference coverage available in the June edition.
Compiled from United Methodist News Service reports.