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General Conference 2004: Issues

Reprinted from United Methodist News Service "General Conference Media Guide"

WAR

Since the conference meets in the same year as a U.S. presidential election, delegates are certain to debate war in general and the war in Iraq in particular. What form the discussion will take is unclear. The media will be particularly interested since President George Bush is a member of the United Methodist Church. President Bush and Laura Bush, 14 15 both United Methodists, have been invited to address the delegates. No acting U.S. president has addressed a United Methodist General Conference. In 1996, then-first lady Hillary Clinton addressed the General Conference in Denver.

The Board of Church and Society is asking the delegates to adopt a statement on terrorism that concludes: “In an ‘age of terror’ the church needs – more than ever – to respond prophetically and pastorally to this critical issue of our time.” The statement supports broad-ranging international cooperation to combat terrorist groups and adds, “…unilateral actions of nations including the ‘doctrine of preemption’ and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, are disproportionate, deeply disturbing and counter-productive, as they undermine the international cooperation that is key to preventing further terrorist attacks.” Full text of this and other resolutions can be found in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate or on the board’s Web site, http://www.umc-gbcs.org/about/general_conf.php.

Revised resolutions on “Ratification of U.N. Treaties” and “Humanitarian Intervention” also address issues related to war. See the full texts at the above Web site.

The board is proposing a change in the Social Principles section on military service (164G) that would say “many,” not “most,” Christians believe that when peaceful alternatives have failed, the force of arms may “regretfully” be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny and genocide.

SEXUALITY

Homosexuality has been a highly controversial issue for every General Conference since 1972. Two widely publicized events have highlighted this issue in recent months: the election of an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church and the acquittal in a United Methodist clergy trial of a lesbian pastor who had been accused of “practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings.”

Governing members of the Board of Church and Society are proposing to change the anti-homosexuality language in the church’s Social Principles to a more moderate stance, recognizing the differences that exist in the denomination. The recommendation calls for eliminating the clause, “Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching…” In its place, the board recommends adding: “Although faithful Christians disagree on the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching…” The rest of the original sentence would remain: “ ….we affirm that God’s grace is available to all.”

The board is also asking delegates to amend a statement in the Book of Resolutions on the “Rights of All Persons,” which asks United Methodists to push for initiatives that would prohibit job and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and “gender identity.” By adopting the resolution, the delegates would be directing the board to “develop education tools designed to provide for open and healthy dialogue and the understanding of sexuality in the world with the specific goal of protecting the human and civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons.”

BIOETHICS

Delegates will receive a report and recommendations from a Bioethics Task Force that addresses in vitro fertilization and other pregnancy technologies. This report generated major debate among governing members of the Board of Church and Society. The report contrasts the global setting, where there are millions of needy and starving children, with the United States, where some parents go to great medical lengths to produce their own biological children. For more information, go to http://www.umcgbcs.org/about/general_conf.php and click on “bioethics.”

Another resolution deals with bioethics technology on genetically modified organisms.

SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY

A task force mandated by the 2000 General Conference is taking a resolution to the 2004 delegates asking that the denomination develop a theological statement concerning the relationship of science and theology. It also recommends the creation of resources for youth and adults and a variety of forums to improve the dialogue between science and the Christian faith. See http://www.gbod.org/scienceandtheology.

CHURCH AND STATE

In a time when the water between church and government is a bit muddied, governing members of the Board of Church and Society are proposing an independent new paragraph to the Social Principles dealing with church and state. It would read:

“The United Methodist Church has for many years supported the separation of church and state. In some parts of the world, this separation has guaranteed the diversity of religious expressions and the freedom to worship God according to each person’s conscience. Separation of church and state means no organic union of the two, but it does permit interaction. The state should not use its authority to promote particular religious beliefs (including atheism), nor should it require prayer or worship in the public schools, but it should leave students free to practice their own religious convictions. We believe that the state should not attempt to control the church, nor should the church seek to dominate the state. The rightful and vital separation of church and state, which has served the cause of religious liberty, should not be misconstrued as the abolition of all religious expression from public life.”

DEATH PENALTY

The Board of Church and Society is recommending a new paragraph on the death penalty for the church’s Social Principles. It says, in part: “We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. … We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.”

GENERAL AGENCY LOCATION

A joint committee of the General Council on Ministries and General Council on Finance and Administration is recommending that “… the location of the headquarters buildings and staff of the general agencies … (except for possible consolidation of the GCFA headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.) remain at their current locations for another four years. This recommendation is hedged by knowledge that the proposed reorganization being presented to the General Conference by the GCOM can and probably will affect agency headquarters locations if accepted by the General Conference. It is further recommended that the GCFA continue the examination of the benefits of consolidation in the next quadrennium unless other actions taken by the General Conference would make this action improper.” The complete text of the report may be found at http://www.gcfa.org/ReportsWithOtherAgencies04.pdf.

Regarding the consolidation of the GCFA offices in Nashville, the report says the agency “would not be in a position to actually effect the move until after General Conference in 2004, and therefore does not plan to take any actions before that time that would have adverse financial effects on the church if for some reason the planned consolidation cannot be carried out.”

GENERAL AGENCY COLLABORATION

The 2000 General Conference asked the General Council on Ministries to “determine the most effective design for the work of the general agencies and 16 17 … provide enabling legislation to the 2004 General Conference.”

The Council on Ministries is proposing the creation of a “Connectional Table” that would seek to discern and articulate a vision for the church and the stewardship of the mission, ministries and resources of the church as determined by the General Conference and in consultation with the Council of Bishops.

The Connectional Table would “integrate and synthesize” the work of the Council on Ministries and the General Council on Finance and Administration. The other general agencies would remain as they are described in the 2000 Book of Discipline.

The proposed table would be constituted with voting members as follows: a representative from each of the 63 U.S. annual conferences and three representatives from each of the seven central conferences, 12 at-large members for diversity reasons, and up to 14 bishops. The bishops would include the president of the Council of Bishops; three bishops named at the discretion of the Council of Bishops to ensure a minimum of three bishops from the central conferences; the bishops elected as presidents of agencies; plus the general secretaries and presidents of agencies that would be accountable to the Connectional Table.

The general secretaries and presidents of the United Methodist Publishing House and the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits would have voice without privilege of vote. For more details see http://www.gcom-umc.org.

GENERAL CHURCH BUDGET

The total proposed churchwide budget for the next four-year period, or quadrennium, will be published in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate and can be found on the last page of the “reports” section on the General Council on Finance and Administration Web site, http://www.gcfa.org/SummaryAppGenFunds05-08.pdf.

The total budget of all the general funds recommended for the new quadrennium is $585.7 million. If the recommendation is adopted as proposed, it will reflect a 7.3 percent increase over the $545.7 million of the 2001-04 period. General Conference actions requiring new funds could also add to the budget. The budget proposal does not include continued funding for Igniting Ministry and other initiatives that have not previously been approved by General Conference for financial support through the general apportioned funds beyond 2004.

REDUCING NUMBER OF U.S. BISHOPS

As a cost saving measure, the General Council on Finance and Administration is recommending changes in Paragraph 405 of the Book of Discipline that would reduce the number of bishops in the United States. The new formula would reduce by one the number of bishops each of the five U.S. jurisdictions is eligible to elect. If enacted as written, the change would become effective at the end of General Conference, reducing the number of bishops elected in July. Each jurisdiction would still elect one or more bishops to fill vacancies created by retirements. The number of Central Conference bishops would be fixed at the current level.

The proposal is posted at http://www.gcfa.org/Par405.pdf. The denomination has 50 active bishops in the United States and 18 in other countries.

FUNDING MISSIONS

Delegates will be challenged to continue witnessing to their faith throughout the world. The General Board of Global Ministries has done so through missionaries, international Persons in Mission, and the development of at least 11 new mission initiatives. The board is encouraging delegates to assure adequate funding for mission through all channels of giving, including World Service, the Advance for Christ and His Church, and United Methodist Women’s Pledge to Mission.

IGNITING MINISTRY

The General Commission on Communication is requesting funds for the 2005-08 period to continue the Igniting Ministry campaign, the church’s evangelistic effort highlighted by network television advertising across the United States.

During its first four years, Igniting Ministry has raised awareness about the church and increased attendance in United Methodist congregations. During the next four-year period, the Commission on Communication proposes continuing Igniting Ministry and expanding it to reach greater numbers of “unchurched” people. The program will include a sustained multimedia campaign built around three established annual series of television commercials and strengthened by 18 weeks of additional spots targeted on broadcast and cable news networks.

In addition, the commission proposes a “youth expression” designed to reach out and invite youth into discipleship. This effort involves resources for regional advertising and training local youth leaders, rather than a national television advertising effort.

The commission’s proposed quadrennial budget includes $33.5 million to continue the core ministry and $5.4 million for the youth expression. The $33.5 will be used to produce and place advertising and increasing matching grants. The $5.4 million will be spent to develop local church resources, advertising materials, grants and startup costs.

CENTRAL CONFERENCE COMMUNICATIONS

The General Commission on Communications is requesting that $2.3 million be committed through apportionments to “provide financial support for a central conference communications initiative.” The initiative would lay the foundation for a global network to assist the central conferences — regional units of the church in Africa, Asia and Europe — to develop communications infrastructure, receive training and, ultimately, tell their own stories through access to media. As part of the initiative, the agency would build partnerships with United Methodists around the world and collaborate with central conference bishops, communicators and other leaders.

AFRICA UNIVERSITY

The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry is not asking for an increase in the 2005-08 period for Africa University, the Ministerial Education Fund or the Black College Fund. The board is asking delegates to encourage 100 percent payment of apportionments for these funds in their annual conferences.

GLOBAL EDUCATION FUND

The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry is proposing a $10 million Global Education Fund for the new quadrennium aimed at leadership development of clergy and laity for the church and broader society. The fund would help United Methodist and Methodist educational institutions around the world, particularly those in Africa, Latin America, Europe and Asia, improve, strengthen and advance their quality and viability through technical assistance with well qualified educators and moderate funding.

YOUNG PEOPLE

Recognizing that ministry with youth and young adults needed to be a stronger priority within the United Methodist Church, the 1996 General Conference formed the Shared Mission Focus on Young People. In 2000, General Conference asked this initiative to create a strategy for the entire denomination to be in more effective ministry with young people. A new Division on Ministries with Young People of the General Board of Discipleship is being proposed by the Shared Mission Focus in partnership with the United Methodist Youth Organization of the Board of Discipleship.

The new division would seek to shape priorities for ministries with youth, young adults and workers with young people; strengthen the ministries of youth by resourcing and equipping local congregations; create networks for young adults and workers with young people; and bring together members of different ages from the jurisdictions and central conferences to focus on bettering the lives of young people in the world and equipping young people in disciple making ministry. Seehttp://www.idreamachurch.com.

ETHNIC MINISTRIES

The conference will be asked to continue supporting efforts to reach the growing ethnic populations within the United States. The church’s initiatives include the Asian American Language Ministries, the Hispanic/Latino, Korean American and Native American plans, and Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century.

The General Commission on Religion and Race is introducing resolutions on topics such as racial profiling, the elimination of racism and respecting the legacy and tradition of Native Americans.

HOLY COMMUNION STUDY

The General Board of Discipleship proposed to the 2000 General Conference that the assembly mandate 18 19 a study of Holy Communion and that the board bring to the 2004 conference a comprehensive paper on the United Methodist theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper. The need for the study grew out of research done by the board in 1998-99. The 2000 conference mandated the study, and the board created a 19-member representative committee that included leadership from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns and the Council of Bishops. The committee met six times over three years and held “listening posts” in each of the five U.S. jurisdictions and the Philippines, Congo, Zimbabwe, Sweden and Germany.

The study’s most significant results include a commitment to a table that is open to all who would partake and an emphasis on the importance of pastors ensuring that those who come are clearly invited to a life of discipleship. The paper asserts the denomination’s continuity with early Methodist belief that the real presence of Christ is available in Eucharist. Further, the committee reached early and unanimous agreement that communion is to be celebrated in its fullness and ideally on a weekly basis. The study strongly affirms that it is the whole congregation that celebrates the Eucharist, and it underscores the importance of the active participation of all of the people along with the leadership of the presiding minister.

The report vigorously affirms the use of United Methodist ritual for all celebrations of the sacrament, noting that the ritual itself allows for appropriate flexibility and “contextualization.” Matters of hygiene, the role of deacons and laity, hospitality, Eucharist and evangelism, Eucharist and social concern, and Eucharist and ecumenical relations are also covered.

Potentially controversial issues include the urgency of a balance of the open table practice of the church with faithful invitation, and the strong encouragement to use United Methodist ritual. If adopted by the General Conference, the paper would be an official teaching resource for United Methodists, and the enabling petition requests that church agencies and the Council of Bishops use the study to help pastors and lay people better understand communion.

WOMEN IN MISSION

In its report to the conference, the General Board of Global Ministries will acknowledge 135 years of participating in God’s mission through United Methodist Women and its predecessor bodies. “We anticipate their continuing vibrant mission in the empowerment of women and the ministries to women and children in the United States through the many mission institutions,” the report states. “Through Schools of Christian Mission, spiritual formation and social concerns, the Women’s Division and the network of United Methodist Women provide a living link in what John Wesley called ‘social holiness and vital piety.’”

SERVICES FOR ORDERING MINISTRY

The General Board of Discipleship, in consultation with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry and the Council of Bishops, seeks to create liturgical texts for the ordination and the commissioning of those in the probationary relationship. The board is proposing the adoption of “Services for the Ordering of Ministry in the United Methodist Church” as the official texts to be used by the bishops and annual conferences during the 2005-08 quadrennium. See http://www.gbod.org.

TOWN AND COUNTRY MINISTRIES

The General Board of Global Ministries is proposing the creation of a National Comprehensive Plan for Town and Country Ministries. Eight years in the making, the plan affirms the rural church and projects strategies for strengthening town and country congregations, which account for one-third of the United Methodist membership in the United States.

SPECIAL PROGRAMS FOR 2005-08

The General Council on Ministries is recommending to the delegates approval of two special programs for the next four years. A special program is defined by the Book of Discipline as a “quadrennial emphasis initiated by a general program related agency ... designed in response to a distinct opportunity or need in God’s world that is evidenced by research or other supporting data and (with) achievable goals within the quadrennium.” (See Paragraph 703.10) The proposed special programs, funded by the participating agencies through their quadrennial budgets, are:

  1. Holistic Strategy on Africa, coordinated by the General Board of Global Ministries in collaboration with several agencies, $35 million.
  2. Holistic Strategy on Latin America and the Caribbean, coordinated by the General Board of Global Ministries in collaboration with several agencies, $8 million.

PENSIONS

The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits is proposing a new core pension benefit for clergy and general agency employees. The program, designed to provide “security with choice,” has two components. The first is a defined benefit component that provides the same benefit for all clergy across the denomination. This component is based on a formula of 1.25 percent of the Denominational Average Compensation times years of credited service. Second, the design has a defined contribution component of 3 percent of actual compensation, which allows participants to accumulate cash in a self directed individual account. Both components are funded by the annual conference and would become effective Jan. 1, 2007. In addition, the general board proposes a pension for church lay workers of 3 percent of compensation, effective Jan. 1, 2006. Information on the legislation is available at http://www.gbophb.org/news/features/gc2004/index.html.

MEN AND THE CHURCH

The Commission on United Methodist Men is asking the General Conference to direct the commission, in cooperation with the Council on Ministries’ Office of Research and Planning, to create a committee for the next four years to undertake a study of men in the denomination. The study is needed, according to the commission, “in order to develop effective resources, respond to current needs, challenge long-held assumptions, develop effective strategies for reaching men in the 21st century and effectively understand male spiritual formation issues.” The commission is also proposing that local churches observe a Men’s Ministry Sunday each year.

Detailed background on some of the major issues such as homosexuality may be found among the “Backgrounders” at www.umc.org/news. Full texts of the recommendations and petitions are provided in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate and at general agency Web sites throughwww.umc.org.