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General Conference 2012: Frustrating, sobering and head scratching

By Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton
May 29, 2012

You, no doubt, have heard the old phrase, “When everything’s said and done . . . there was more said than done!” This very well may be the theme of the 2012 General Conference that adjourned after 10 p.m. on Friday night, May 4.

I have been a part of seven General Conferences. While expectations ride high in the pre-General Conference hype, these quadrennial gatherings have become hauntingly predictable for the ideas never acted on and the paralysis that has beset this denomination for 50-plus years.

This General Conference had some aspects that were somewhat distinguishing. In past years, there has been some degree of corporate optimism as well as a spirit of cooperation among the body. This year, however, the combined assembly of delegates often was described as cantankerous and flat-lined. One could feel an unusual air of unease every time we gathered.

In past years this body was separated primarily around one issue — theological perspective. This year, however, signaled the dawning of at least two additional divides that have caused us to struggle in our quest to find common focus and direction — a growing global context and a clear difference between the “old guard and the new.”

Without an approved and implemented “Global Nature of the Church” plan, the contextual divisions between the Central Conferences and the U.S. Jurisdictions stood out in our inability to coalesce around pivotal decisions. The Central Conferences were voting on the U.S. approach to electing bishops and pensions while the U.S. conferences were voting over the number of bishops in the Congo. It felt as if neither group was informed or sensitive enough to vote based on the context of the situation. With each vote delegates reverted to voting based on their own understandings. This will only grow more intense unless a future General Conference structures itself around global realities rather than institutional formulas.

A generational divide

It is also evident that generational differences are creating a divide among leaders. It used to be that the younger generation was loyal to the denomination and the succession of leadership. Now, young leaders feel a strong calling to lead while older leaders resist giving up control. Unless a spirit of generational respect emerges on both sides, I believe this general assembly will only grow more tense, ineffective, paralyzed, and ultimately, irrelevant. We must find a way to value one another and cooperate for the sake of the church and the mission each of us love.

In past years, seasoned participants would, along with the presiding bishop, shepherd the body through parliamentary procedures to reach orderly conclusions. This year, however, there was a contentious spirit on nearly every issue. Instead of using Robert’s Rules to bring order, Robert’s rules were used, at times, to keep discussions going far longer than any were intended, even the most simple.

This General Conference received a blunt reminder in its waning hours. Late in the afternoon of our final day the Judicial Council released a decision on the already approved “Plan UMC” of re-structuring. The decision: “Plan UMC” is unconstitutional! The rationale stated the decision was based on the constitutional reality that bishops are the ones set apart with “oversight” responsibilities, not a committee. It also determined that a committee cannot prohibit various components of the church’s structure from receiving funding, which was a key component of the new plan.

The blunt reminder in all of this was simple: We all may want change but change that does not acknowledge the long-standing constitutional provisions of our church will not be authenticated. It was a reminder we all needed to hear. In other words, our church’s “checks and balances” have reminded us all that we just can’t change for the sake of changing. We can’t throw the “baby out with the bathwater” because the baby is more valued than some of us realize.

Two distinct reminders

Oh, there were some changes made at General Conference but, in the end, there was much more said in Tampa than there was done. That clear reality is a signal for me of two very distinct and clear reminders.

First, if we are going to ever reach a point of moving this denomination into God’s preferred future, if we are ever going to find a way to make our church relevant for the 21st century, we must find a way to respect one another more deeply and cooperate with one another more significantly. This conference should remind us that the church cannot change without all parties, or at least most of them, finding a way to compromise, cooperate, and respect one another. That applies to liberals and conservatives, central conferences and U.S. jurisidictions, young and old.

Second, as I stated very clearly in a position paper I wrote before General Conference, there is no institution, structure, or piece of legislation that will transform the world as much as someone somewhere sharing his or her faith with another and reaching out in actual hands-on ministry in the world.

This General Conference was frustrating, sobering and head scratching. We did a few things but one thing we didn’t do was kill God. On the Sunday mornings after this General Conference, there will be local congregations all over the world who will gather to praise God. In each of those churches, the gospel of Jesus Christ will be shared freely and joyfully. In some of those congregations babies will be baptized, affirming our long-standing belief that God loves us long before we ever come to our senses and love God in return. In some of those churches a person will come to a first-time realization of that love and that life will never be the same. And, in those congregations, people will be urged to embrace this faith as their own and challenged to share that faith with another. And in all of them, God will be glorified.

It doesn’t take an action of General Conference for The United Methodist Church to be the church of Jesus Christ. What it does require is all of us deciding to follow Jesus with enthusiasm and conviction. It doesn’t need a second and it cannot be amended. For that reality, we should be extremely grateful.

When all is said and done, Jesus Christ IS Lord!

Thanks be to God!

The journey continues.

*Bickerton is assigned to the Pittsburgh Area and serves on the United Methodist Commission on Communication.