|Daily wrap-up: Legislative work begins, follows day of speeches at General Conference|
James Bezau Vocks and Eunice Musa of Nigeria raise the elements of Holy Communion while the bishops bless them on April 24 at the United Methodist General Conference. A UMNS photo by John C. Goodwin.
By J. Richard Peck*
April 24, 2008 | FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS)
Delegates to the United Methodist General Conference began to sink their teeth into some 1,500 petitions during the evening of April 24.
The 992 delegates gathered in 13 legislative committees following a day of speeches, presentations and reports.
The morning began with the traditional Episcopal Address, delivered by Illinois Area Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher. The Laity Address was delivered by Lyn Powell, lay leader of the North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference, and the first-ever Young People’s Address was presented by six youth and young adults.
Most of the speeches tried to help delegates guide the 11.5-million member denomination to “A Future with Hope,” the theme of the 10-day gathering.
Speakers lamented the loss of members in U.S. churches and celebrated the growth of churches in Africa and Southeast Asia. They called upon United Methodists in this nation to set aside their differences and to follow Wesley's three rules: Do no harm, do good and stay in love with God.
Christopher's message on behalf of the Council of Bishops was filled with songs and multimedia and multi-sensory images about how people received and experienced hope, gave hope, and were transformed by encounters with Christ.
Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher delivers the Episcopal Address during the 2008 General Conference. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
"All around this world there is physical, mental and spiritual hunger for the bread of life," she said.
There are various types of hunger--food, education, freedom, meaning and purpose, and a relationship with God. But, "in the midst of the world's hunger pangs we--gathered here and connected around the world--are the church of Jesus Christ,” she said.
She attributed some of the membership decline in U.S. churches to "ruptures in our United Methodist relationships. Left or right, conservative or liberal, we treat our baptized brothers and sisters as if they are our enemies" and seek to destroy those who have a different viewpoint or perspective, she said.
"Our fervent pursuit of being right takes priority over right relationship," she said. The disarray of the table, the fractured and ruptured United Methodist relationships, and "carefully calculated formulas of theology" make church members unable to hear and listen to the cries of a neighbor. "Our own need deafens us to the needs of others," she said.
Young People’s Address
The first-ever Young People’s Address to General Conference was given by Becca Farnum, 17, of Mount Pleasant, Mich.; Kira Volkova, 24, of Kirov, Russia; the Rev. Annie Arnoldy, 29, of Grand Junction, Colo.; Andrew Craig, 16, of Denver; Matt Lockett, 20, of Seattle; and Jason Rathod, 24, of Hastings, Neb. They were chosen by the Division on Ministries with Young People, Board of Discipleship. The presentation included videos, photos, drumming and singing.
Jason Rathod, 24, of Hastings, Neb., helps give the first-ever Young People's Address. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
“We have shared stories of persecution, homelessness, and what it means to be a young person in a world desperately in need of Jesus,” said Lockett. “What you do with what you have heard is really up to you.”
“On the local level, we’ve started believing that we’re so far apart on the major issues of the day that we can only find common ground in hosting potlucks and singing praise songs,” Rathod said.
“What I know about the church is that it yearns for young people,” Arnoldy said. “What I know about young adults is that they yearn for a place to belong. This seems like a pretty fruitful situation.”
The six concluded their presentation side by side on the stage and said, “Believe in us. Believe that the future of the church is in good hands. We’re ready. The time is now. Let us begin.”
Powell challenged lay members of the denomination to assume responsibility for reaching the unchurched. She said it is unreasonable for clergy, with their myriad responsibilities, to spend time engaging the unchurched. "But the laity are already there," she said. They encounter unchurched people in all walks of daily life.
She asked why 80 percent of the residents in most U.S. counties are not meaningfully connected to a church. Why did 42 percent of the denomination's 34,398 U.S churches not have a person join by profession of faith? she asked, citing a church statistic for 2006.
Powell said laity have become complacent and think it is their calling to receive ministry from clergy rather than be equipped by the clergy to go out into the world and offer Christ.
She suggested each lay person might claim one area of personal ministry that could be centered around one of the denomination's four areas of focus.
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.
The four areas of focus area 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.”
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.
The bishop explained, “The seven pathways are embedded in these four focus areas.”
The General Council on Finance and Administration, the church’s finance agency, works with the 60-member Connectional Table to balance the mission needs of the denomination with the ability of local churches to fund the programs.
Delegates learned that the two units are proposing a quadrennial budget of $642 million. The spending plan is developed around the four Areas of Focus.
Bishop Mary Ann Swenson reports April 24 on the work of the finance agency of The United Methodist Church. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
The budget is based on a formula in which, for every $1,000 that is received in a congregation, $854 remains in the local church, $124 supports district and annual conference ministries, and $22 goes to denominational ministries.
Using the analogy of the church as a cup, Los Angeles Area Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, president of the finance agency, said God’s life-giving love and grace should overflow and pour out into a thirsty world in need of spiritual transformation. However, “too often we are living as if we have just one small cup.”
When used faithfully, however, the cup becomes Christ’s vessel for mission and ministry. “When it is empty, its purpose is to be filled; when it is filled, its purpose is to be emptied. It gives what it receives; it receives only so that it can pour out,” she said.
Second-day activities also included:
- A lunchtime rally near the Fort Worth Convention Center by some 300 United Methodists who oppose H.R. 4088, a bill focused on strict enforcement of immigration laws. The group also backs General Conference resolutions that seek immigration reform.
- A report from the Judicial Council saying two paragraphs of the Book of Discipline dealing with the complex process of nominating and electing members of general agencies are in conflict and should be reconciled at this session of the General Conference. The Discipline is the denomination’s book of law.
- celebration of Katherine Commale, who at age 5 learned that a child dies of mosquito-borne malaria every 30 seconds. She launched an effort that raised $40,000 for mosquito nets. The 7-year-old was part of a presentation by the Connectional Table.
- A late-afternoon press conference featuring the Rev. Drew Phoenix, pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baltimore. He said he took “steps toward wholeness” two years ago when he underwent surgery and hormone therapy to switch his gender from female to male. He was reappointed when Bishop John R. Schol said the 2004 Book of Discipline does not prohibit a transgender pastor from being appointed. General Conference will act on resolutions declaring that neither transgenderism nor transsexuality “reflects God’s best intentions for humankind.”
*Peck is a retired United Methodist clergyman serving as an editor for United Methodist News Service during General Conference.
News media contact: J. Richard Peck, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phone calls can be made to the General Conference Newsroom in Fort Worth, Texas, at (817) 698-4405 until May 3. Afterward, call United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn., at (615) 742-5470.
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