GC2008: How General Conference Works
The United Methodist Church's top legislative body, the General Conference, will gather April 23–May 2 in Fort Worth, Texas. Nine hundred and ninety-two delegates from around the world will set policy and direction for the church, as well as handle other business. General Conference is the only entity that speaks for The United Methodist Church.
The 2008 conference has been planned by the 17-member Commission on the General Conference, led by the Rev. Gail Murphy-Geiss of Centennial, Colo. A local committee from the Central Texas Annual Conference, under the leadership of Bishop Benjamin Chamness, is hosting the event. The Rev. Allen Goss is chairperson of the Host Committee. Some 4,000 people will serve in a variety of volunteer roles such as greeters, registration officials, marshals, pages, translators, hosts and hostesses, guides, drivers, musicians, technicians, reporters and emergency-response volunteers.
When General Conference convenes in Fort Worth, The United Methodist Church will celebrate its 40th anniversary 30 miles from its 1968 birthplace in the Dallas Convention Center. On April 23, 1968, the 10.3 million-member Methodist Church and the 750,000-member Evangelical United Brethren Church merged to become The United Methodist Church. The assembly also created a churchwide Commission on Religion and Race and a Commission on Archives and History.
Sites for the international gatherings, held every four years, are rotated among the church's five regional U.S. jurisdictions. The 1996 conference was held in Denver, Colorado (Western Jurisdiction), the 2000 conference was held in Cleveland, Ohio (North Central Jurisdiction), and the 2004 conference was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Northeastern Jurisdiction). The 2008 conference held in Fort Worth, Texas is part of the South Central Jurisdiction. The 2012 General Conference will meet in Tampa, Fla. (Southeastern Jurisdiction).
During the 10-day session, 992 delegates will revise The Book of Discipline, which regulates the manner in which local churches, annual conferences and general agencies are organized. The book sets policies regarding church membership, ordination, administration, property and judicial procedures. The assembly may modify most disciplinary paragraphs by majority vote, but the Constitution can only be amended by a two-thirds affirmative vote, followed by a two-thirds affirmative vote of the aggregate number of members voting in annual conference session. Delegates may not revoke or change the Articles of Religion or the Confession of Faith unless two-thirds of the delegates agree to change this provision and three-fourths of the annual conference members also agree.
Delegates also revise The Book of Resolutions, a volume declaring the church's stance on a variety of social justice issues. The book contains more than 300 resolutions that are considered instructive and persuasive, but are not binding on members.
In addition, the assembly approves plans and budgets for churchwide programs for the next four years and elects members of the Judicial Council and the University Senate.
Equal numbers of lay and clergy delegates are selected from each annual conference. Every annual conference is guaranteed one lay and one clergy delegate.
Just as the U.S. Congress redistricts every 10 years following a national census, the number of lay and clergy delegates assigned from each annual conference changes each quadrennium based on the number of lay and clergy members. The total number of delegates is limited to 1,000. The 2008 conference will have an increased number of delegates from outside the United States.
Groups of churches in Africa, Asia and Europe are known as "central conferences." Central conferences will have 278 delegates, up 100 from the 2004 assembly and up 136 from the gathering in 2000. One hundred eighty-six of the central conference delegates will be from Africa, up 94 from 2004. The 21 annual conferences in the Philippines will have 42 delegates. An additional 10 delegates will come from "concordat" churches with which the denomination has a formal relationship: four from Great Britain and two each from Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Caribbean & the Americas. The United Methodist Church has special covenant relationships with the Methodist traditions in those countries.
Retired and active bishops attend the conference but do not vote and may not speak in plenary sessions without permission from the assembly. Individual bishops preside over business sessions, normally serving for one morning, afternoon or evening period. All bishops, active and retired, attend the entire conference. Presiding bishops are selected by a General Conference committee. Each presiding bishop selects a bishop to serve as a parliamentarian.
Primary sources of legislation are petitions and proposals from church agencies and organizations. Petitions must be submitted 180 days before the opening of the conference. Any organization, ordained minister or lay member of the church may petition the General Conference. Aproximately 1,600 pieces of legislation are expected at the 2008 assembly.
As in the U.S. Congress, the bulk of General Conference business is conducted in legislative committees. Each committee receives petitions and proposals, debates them, and determines whether to approve, amend, combine or reject them for recommendation to the full body of General Conference.
All proposed legislation — from individuals, organizations, churchwide agencies and annual conferences — is printed in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate.