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12 lessons from 12 General Conferences

The 2012 General Conference was my 12th. I attended my first conference in 1960 as a seminary student at Iliff School of Theology and my next in Atlanta in 1972 as director of communications for the Troy and New York Annual (regional) Conferences. I attended three as editor of Circuit Rider and Newscope, four as the editor of the Daily Christian Advocate, and the last three as a staff member of United Methodist News Service.

I suspect this was my last General Conference, but I feel especially privileged to have played a small role in all 12 of them. It is a joy to be a part of this great community of faith.

1960, DENVER

The 788 delegates to the 1960 conference celebrated a quadrennial membership gain of 502,181, and noted the need to recruit 8,000 new clergy each year.

Only 76 of the delegates were from 27 conferences outside the United States, including Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Burma, Chile, China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, India, Japan, Korea, Liberia, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines and Sweden. Churches in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Liberia and The Philippines continue as United Methodists. The other conferences have since become autonomous Methodist denominations.

Delegates all had badges resembling military awards. The color on the ribbons holding a medallion designated their role as bishop, delegate, alternate or staff member. All badges served as passes to the cookie tables. I can't remember when they replaced the keepsake medals with simple plastic nametags.

Court recorders sat up front to record every word spoken on the floor and the words were later typeset for the Daily Christian Advocate.

As a student attending a seminary in Denver, I was excused from classes for 10 days to attend sessions, but I had to write a long report on debates surrounding the Central Jurisdiction.

Learning: Looking back more than 52 years, it's hard to believe delegates favored a go-slow and conference-by-conference decision to eliminate the Central Jurisdiction. We forget arguments in favor of continuing the racially constituted conference a guarantee of African Americans on the Council of Bishops and a guarantee that African Americans will have seats on the boards of directors of general agencies (members of the Central Jurisdiction represented one-twenty-seventh of the whole Methodist Church, but were given one-sixth of the representation on general agencies). Not every African American favored dissolution of the jurisdiction.

While membership gains look significant, the denomination was still losing ground as a percentage of the U.S. population.

1972, ATLANTA

Author Rich Peck flashes his
Author Rich Peck flashes his "happy smile" after the 1972 United Methodist General Conference ended. Photo courtesy of Rich Peck.

I missed the 1968 conference that gave birth to The United Methodist Church and the organizing conference of 1970. But in 1972, I was serving as director of communications for the New York Area (New York and Troy Conferences). The gathering in Atlanta created the General Council on Ministries and approved a new doctrinal statement. The assembly also added a sentence to a proposal from a study group on human sexuality that declared the practice of homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching.

Jimmy Carter, then governor of Georgia, spoke to the assembly, but the most memorable address came from the Rev. Cecil Williams, a controversial pastor in San Francisco. He was scheduled to speak in a local church, but the crowd was so large they moved the meeting to the assembly hall.

Learning: Frequently what happens outside the convention center at General Conference is more significant than what happens inside the walls of the center. Cecil Williams was supposed to be a minor figure for an afternoon service, but he occupied all the headlines during and after the event.

1976, PORTLAND, Ore.

The conference established the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, and established the office of diaconal minister. The assembly ordered "no board agency, committee, commission or council shall give United Methodist funds to any 'gay' causes or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality."

My job at this conference was to produce Newscope Reports, a series of audiotape reports before, during and after the assembly. Floyd Kalber (1924-2004), news anchor for the NBC Today show, narrated the audio tapes. We also produced a slide-tape series with highlights of the gathering. And yes, people did purchase these now-primitive audiovisuals.

Learning: It's truly amazing how many United Methodists occupy major positions in politics, the media, entertainment and sports. In 1976, Floyd Kalber was a well-known broadcaster. I suggested him as the narrator for Newscope Reports. I wasn't surprised when my publisher agreed; I was surprised that Kalber accepted the role.

The 1980 United Methodist General Conference in Indianapolis saw the launch of
The 1980 United Methodist General Conference in Indianapolis saw the launch of "the television ministry." A file photo courtesy of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History.

1980, INDIANAPOLIS

The assembly established the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. The gathering failed to add the phrase "no self-avowed, practicing homosexual therefore shall be ordained or appointed in The United Methodist Church" to The Book of Discipline. The conference noted the denomination "has moved away from prohibitions of specific acts, for such prohibitions can be endless."

The assembly sent a delegation to meet with President Jimmy Carter about the Iran hostage negotiations. Delegates also approved a "TV Presence in Ministry" plan that ended up costing the denomination millions of dollars.

I, again, served as writer and producer of Newscope Reports. We also sold audiocassettes of the episcopal address and daily sermons.

Learning: The excitement of delegates allows them to avoid a reality check. The television ministry was launched with great fanfare but costs far exceeded benefits. It's difficult to imagine that only 30 years ago, we were still selling audiotapes and slides as the best way for delegates to tell church members what happened at General Conference.

1984, BALTIMORE

Delegates celebrated 200 years of Methodist history in America with a special service and two "circuit riders" arrived in Baltimore on horseback. The body established a commission to prepare a new hymnal and a committee to revise the 1972 doctrinal statement. The conference reversed its 1980 decision to declare that "self-avowed practicing" homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.

For the first time a woman bishop Marjorie Swank Matthews of Wisconsin preached the opening sermon.

As editor of Circuit Rider, I ran a series of pro-con articles on various issues facing General Conference, and I served as editor of Newscope during the assembly.

Learning: I spent much of the 1984 conference learning the ropes of becoming the editor of the Daily Christian Advocate at the 1988 assembly. While it's tiring to be a delegate or a member of the press corps, few people appreciate the fact that when delegates go home, DCA staff members will work until 1 a.m. and return to work the following morning by 8 a.m.

1988, ST. LOUIS

The conference accepted a new hymnal (including "Onward, Christian Soldiers" after thousands of people opposed the committee's original decision to delete it). The body also created a committee to study homosexuality. The biggest decision was to establish Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe.

We continued to sell audiotapes of sermons. "I could have danced all night" by Bishop Woodie White was a huge seller.

I was now editor of the Daily Christian Advocate. Faith Richardson, secretary of General Conference, and I received a proposal to begin a "Petitions Entry and Tracking System (PETS)," a legislative tracking system to track all legislative proposals, which was put into place in 1992.

Up to this session, only petitions from general agencies were in the Advance DCA. This session called for all petitions to be printed in that volume.

Learning: My mother died on the opening day of General Conference, and I flew to Denver for the funeral. I learned that General Conference is not really as life changing as I had presumed, and the death of your mother changes the rest of your life. I also learned that I was not indispensable: I missed three days of the gathering and delegates still received copies of the DCA on time.

1992, LOUISVILLE, Ky.

Delegates created "Shalom Zones" after riots in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of four white police officers accused in the Rodney King beating. Delegates opposed a petition from the homosexuality study committee to assert that that Christians were not "of common mind about homosexual practice." The conference also celebrated the opening of Africa University.

The 1992 United Methodist General Conference held in Louisville, Ky. celebrated the opening of Africa University.  A file photo courtesy of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History.
The 1992 United Methodist General Conference held in Louisville, Ky. celebrated the opening of Africa University. A file photo courtesy of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History.

I again served as editor of the Daily Christian Advocate and I worked with Carolyn Marshall, secretary of General Conference, to create the position of recording secretary for each legislative committee. That person worked with the committee secretary to enter legislative proposals (called calendar items) into PETS system. This General Conference, we also included persons transcribing all speeches in plenary sessions on the DCA staff. Transcribers were aided by a spotter on the dais who would help transcribers identify speakers, acronyms and obscure words.

Learning: Three years of planning for General Conference were set aside to address the riots in Los Angeles. While some regret that the issue sidetracked the assembly, I rejoice in the fact that the denomination set aside its carefully planned agenda to address a world event.

1996, DENVER

For the first time, all 2,433 petitions were printed in the Advance DCA. First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke to the assembly, and delegates created the General Commission on United Methodist Men. Delegates prohibited clergy from conducting services of same-sex union. The assembly adopted a new statement of baptism and restructured ministry to create two separate orders of ministry deacons and elders. Before this, ordination to the order of deacon was a stepping stone to ordination to order of elders.

PETS improved the accuracy of reports in the DCA. As editor of the DCA, I asked that chairs and secretaries of the legislative committees sign a copy of the report that would go into the DCA on the following day. This eliminated statements from committee chairs saying the committee actions were not reported accurately.

Learning: Personal events occur during every session of General Conference and most of the delegates are unaware of what is happening to the person sitting next to them. The focus is on what is happening in plenary sessions, not what is happening in the lives of each of the 1,000 delegates, staff or visitors.

My daughter, Heather, was serving on the DCA staff as a copy editor at the Denver gathering. The poles and drapes defining our office space covered some water pipes running across the floor. Heather jumped through the curtain, caught her foot on the pipe and broke her leg. After a run to the hospital and placing the leg in a cast, Heather finished the rest of the conference on crutches. I'm sure anyone could share similar personal stories about what happed to their families during the assembly.

Author Rich Peck today. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.
Author Rich Peck today. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

2000, CLEVELAND

Delegates reaffirmed the statement in the Social Principles that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

Soulforce, an ecumenical group seeking full acceptance of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered individuals, led demonstrations outside the hall, and 191 people were arrested for blocking an exit outside the convention center. The next day a protest resulted in the arrest of 30 individuals, including two bishops. One demonstrator stood on a balcony railing and appeared ready to throw herself some 20 feet to the floor below. One unheralded usher pulled the woman back, an action that probably saved her life.

Leaders from black Methodist denominations were invited to an Act of Repentance service where the assembly confessed the sin of racism that had caused major divisions among American Methodists. The body also launched the Igniting Ministry campaign with a theme of "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" and authorized a study of Holy Communion.

I was again the editor of the DCA and the once-great PETS program was on its last legs. After entering all petitions, the computers crashed (thanks to the "Love Bug" virus that hampered everyone's computer that week). We had some early uncorrected versions saved on floppy disks, and we re-entered them. That painful ordeal included one all-night session the day before copy was due. The end result was incorrectly entered petitions that had to be corrected on site in Cleveland. It was clearly time to create a new program to track legislation. The United Methodist Publishing House launched an effort to replace the aging PETS with CALMS, a new and improved system.

Learning: We don't fully appreciate the many ways in which we can now save documents. This painful experience would not be repeated in later years. Of all the memories I have of 12 General Conference sessions, none is more compelling than the image of a woman ready to jump from the balcony. Those 10 seconds clearly demonstrate the emotions involved in what to some may be only an academic debate.

2004, PITTSBURGH

Delegates amended the Constitution to create two membership categories, "baptized members" and "professing members." The church continues to count only professing members in statistical reports. The body approved "This Holy Mystery," a theological statement of the meaning of the Lord's Supper, and delegates expanded the Igniting Ministries campaign. They also held a service to thank African Americans for staying with the denomination in spite of racist structures.

"Being a self-avowed practicing homosexual" became a chargeable offense for which a United Methodist clergyperson could be tried in a church court.

The assembly expanded the ministry of the denomination when it officially welcomed Côte d'Ivoire as the denomination's largest conference.

Before the conference I served as the staff person for a Council on Ministries legislative team that proposed the creation of a Connectional Table. Delegates revised that proposal, but did create the new organization.

At this conference, I served as an editor for United Methodist News Service and I got more sleep than I did as editor of the DCA.

Learning: This conference provided an opportunity for me to view the conference from another position. Moving from one assignment to another helps me appreciate how important all posts are to putting General Conference together. It's easy to forget how hard the host committee, ushers, the secretaries and some 3,000 volunteers work. Meeting for less than two weeks once every four years, the conference rewrites nearly 2,000 pages of legislation. If state legislators were as efficient, they would finish their work in one-tenth the time they now gather.

2008, FORT WORTH, Texas

Delegates took the first step to amend the Constitution to make it appear less like a U.S. church with overseas satellites. They passed 23 amendments to the constitution to allow for creation of a U.S. regional conference. Members of annual conferences did not ratify the proposed changes.

Passing by gay activists lying on the sidewalk to protest church policies, delegates continued the church's stance to deny ordination to self-professed practicing homosexuals, denied general church funds to programs that promote the acceptance of homosexuality and made it a chargeable offense for pastors to conduct services of union for persons of the same gender. They defeated a proposal that would recognize United Methodists "deeply disagree with one another; yet all seek a faithful witness."

Delegates also stated that "all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God," and that United Methodists are to be "welcoming, forgiving and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us."

At this conference, I again served as editor for United Methodist News Service and I wrote a summary of actions at the close of each day.

Learning: God isn't finished with The United Methodist Church. We will have to find other ways to live into being a global church.

Delegates from Cote d'Ivoire consider legislation at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
Delegates from Cote d'Ivoire consider legislation at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

2012, TAMPA, Fla.

Before leaving for Tampa for General Conference 2012, we learned it was the most stressful city in the United States and it was the site of the most lightning strikes in the 50 states. The city lived up to both traditions. It was a stressful two weeks and lightning hit when the Judicial Council struck down a "we-have-to-do-something-before-adjournment" structure that was painfully adopted by the assembly.

As a matter of disclosure, I served as the staff person who wrote the legislation for the structure plan that evolved from the Call to Action study, but I was disappointed in the way in which insightful helps for local churches morphed into a plan to restructure 13 general agencies.

On too many occasions, I heard accusations that general agencies operate in competitive and uncooperative silos that do not help local churches. If people say that often enough it sounds true, but it's not even close to reality. In truth, our agencies have worked closely together to help local churches, primarily around the four areas of focus.

Learning: We do need to increase the number of vital congregations, but that effort is not closely related to restructuring our board and agencies; they do, however, need to find new ways to reach across the oceans to both support them and learn from our brothers and sisters in central conferences.

*Peck is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference. The UMNS team is doing its best to coax him into going for Lucky Number 13. The General Conference newsroom wouldn't be the same without him.

News media contact: Joey Butler, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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