General Conference 2008: Issues
Below are summaries of some of the major issues delegates will be dealing at the 2008 General Conference.
Future gatherings of The United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly could be smaller than the 1,000-delegate conferences of recent decades. The Commission on General Conference is proposing that the number of delegates to the assembly be limited to between 500 and 600. The planning body also wants to allow annual conferences to set term limits for delegates if they choose. If approved, the changes would take effect for the 2012 assembly.
Four Areas of Focus
The Council of Bishops, the top staff executives of the church’s general agencies, and the Connectional Table, a 60-member group responsible for coordinating the mission, ministries and resources of the church, propose four areas of focus for United Methodists at the dawn of the 21st century:
- Developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world;
- Creating new places for new people by starting new congregations and revitalizing existing ones;
- Engaging in ministry with the poor; and
- Stamping out killer diseases by improving health globally.
This is a long-term agenda designed to address long-term problems and goals in both the church and the world.
United Methodist officials say the church is approaching a “leadership crisis” of ordained clergy in the United States. A 2006 report revealed fewer than 5 percent of United Methodist elders are under age 35. The churchwide Board of Higher Education and Ministry is leading efforts in this area of focus.
U.S. membership is shrinking at a time when 50 percent of the U.S. population has no ongoing relationship with a faith community. Since the most effective evangelism is through new churches, the church wants to start 650 new congregations with 63,000 members by 2012 as part of the proposed emphasis on church growth in the United States. The United Methodist Board of Discipleship has created Path One, an office of new congregational development, to lead this effort. Leaders say the goal is eventually to return the denomination to its evangelistic heyday of starting a new church every day.
The denomination has longstanding ministries with people in poverty as well as programs aimed at combating diseases of poverty. United Methodists seek to alleviate poverty as an expression of Christian discipleship and an outgrowth of the Methodist heritage of social action against conditions that are unjust, alienating and disempowering. The churchwide Board of Global Ministries is leading the church’s work on ministry with the poor. Poverty breeds disease, and the church wants to play a significant role in alleviating diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. A Global Health Initiative, housed at United Methodist Communications, has been launched to focus those efforts.
Delegates will consider a $642 million spending proposal presented by the General Council on Finance and Administration and the Connectional Table. Some $333 million of that total is for the World Service Fund, which supports ministries of nine general agencies (the Board of Pension and Health Benefits and the United Methodist Publishing House do not receive World Service funds).
General agencies submitted expense requests based on current needs and how they would address the four Areas of Focus cited above. While the agencies collectively requested a 16.6 percent increase, the proposal calls for the agencies to receive a 6.55 percent increase.
While delegates will be sensitive to the needs of the global community, they will also be concerned about the abilities of 34,000 local congregations in the U.S. to fund ministries beyond their own communities. The total dollar amount approved by General Conference is apportioned to annual conferences based on a formula that includes: the net expenditures of local churches, including capital expenditures, interest payments, and benevolence giving and a base percentage set by General Conference (around 4 percent in the 2005-2008 quadrennium). The base percentage figure in each annual conference can be raised or lowered based on percentage comparisons of per-capita income in the counties covered by the conference and the total paid by individual church attendees within the conference.
Though the 2009-2012 budget is based on $642 million, financial officials expect to receive only about 87 percent of that amount or $558 million. Only 17 of the church’s 63 U.S. conferences paid 100 percent of their apportionments in 2006.
- World Service Fund: $333,356,000 (up 4.96%)
- Ministerial Education Fund: $113,130,000 (no change)
- Black College Fund: $45,128,000 (no change)
- Africa University Fund: $10,100,000 (no change)
- Episcopal Fund: $94,400,000 (up 13.03%)
- General Administration Fund: $36,935,000 (up 8.07%)
- Interdenominational Cooperation: $8,848,000 (no change)
Total: $641,897,000 (up 4.8%)
The Social Principles states: “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection.” In 2000, General Conference declared its opposition to “late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction” and called for the end of this practice “except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies, incompatible with life.”
Four annual conferences will ask the assembly to withdraw the denomination from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Other conferences and groups want delegates to support membership in the coalition.
The bishops of The United Methodist Church have adopted statements calling for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and urging nations around the world to develop a plan to help rebuild Iraq and other Middle East nations. At their fall 2007 meeting, the bishops also urged against deploying additional troops to Iraq and against establishing permanent military bases there. In 2005 and 2007 statements, the bishops have noted that the denomination’s Book of Discipline declares war “incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ.”
The bishops’ 2005 resolution stated that “the continuing loss of Iraqi civilian lives, especially children, and the increasing death toll among United States and coalition military, grieves the heart of God.” The bishops said the U.S. government’s reasons for war — “the presumption of weapons of mass destruction and alleged connection between al- Qaida and Iraq” — have not been verified, and that the violence in Iraq has created a context for “gross violations of human rights of prisoners of war.” In their 2007 resolution, they called on the United States and other coalition nations to support a plan for rebuilding Iraq, and they urged support for veterans of the Iraq conflict and all wars.
The Board of Church and Society also called on the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq. “As people of faith, we raise our voice in protest against the tragedy of the unjust war in Iraq,” the resolution stated. “We urge the United States government to develop and implement a plan for the withdrawal of its troops. The U.S. invasion has set in motion a sequence of events which may plunge Iraq into civil war.”
At least two annual conferences are asking General Conference to call upon “the United States to remove all troops as soon as logistically practical and to relinquish all military bases on Iraqi soil.”
Two conferences are calling on the conference to send formal letters of protest to the U.S. president and Congress, urging the government to expeditiously bring all Guantanamo detainees to trial or release them without further delay, and that Congress be urged to rescind the Military Commissions Act of 2006, restoring the writ of habeas corpus to any and all detainees.
At least one annual conference wants General Conference to call for a U.S. Department of Peace and Nonviolence.
One caucus wants the assembly to ask Israel to end its military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. It also wants delegates to call on Palestinian officials to condemn violence against Israeli civilians.
The Women’s Division wants to press for peace in the Middle East, including security for the state of Israel and justice and sovereignty for the Palestinian people.
At least 11 annual conferences want to make clear that no person shall be excluded from membership in The United Methodist Church. The conferences challenge a Judicial Council Decision 1032 that allows clergy the right to decide who will be received into membership.
In November 2005, the Judicial Council supported the Rev. Ed Johnson of South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church in his decision not to allow a gay man to join his congregation. The man was a choir member and had been meeting with Johnson about transferring membership from another denomination.
Two days after the decision, the Council of Bishops issued a pastoral letter saying homosexuality is not a barrier to membership in The United Methodist Church.
A survey conducted by the Connectional Table found that slightly more than half of clergy and laity at least “agree somewhat” with The United Methodist Church’s position that it does not condone the practice of homosexuality, reflecting split public opinion on the issue in the United States. At the same time, a significant minority — 30 percent of clergy and 28 percent of laity “disagree strongly” with the church’s position on the issues.
Sharp disagreements on homosexuality surface among the five regional jurisdictions in the United States.
In the Western Jurisdiction only 28 percent of clergy and 26 percent of laity “agree strongly or somewhat” with the church’s position. Fifty-eight percent of clergy and 53 percent of laity in the West “disagree strongly” with the official position. That compares with the Southeastern Jurisdiction where 66 percent of clergy and 67 percent of laity “agree strongly or somewhat.” Only 17 percent of clergy and 18 percent of laity “disagree strongly.”
Board of Church and Society directors voted 21-17 to ask General Conference to delete the sentence, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” from Paragraph 161G of the 2004 Book of Discipline and replace it with the declaration that “Christians of good faith differ on what Christian teaching reveals regarding homosexuality.” Last quadrennium a similar request from the Washington, D.C.,-based agency was defeated.
Two annual conferences will ask the assembly to “encourage civil authorities to enact laws that will ensure full civil and economic rights for persons in civil unions and marriages without regard to the gender of partners.
Concerned about pornography on the Internet, the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women will ask delegates to approve a resolution on preventing the use and abuse of pornography in the church.
At least one conference is asking General Conference to recommit to raising funds for the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund during the 2009-2012 quadrennium in the amount of $4 million through Advance gifts.
At least one annual conference wants U.S. bishops to face re-election after eight-year terms. That is currently the practice in the central conferences.
Separately, a task force, created by the 2004 General Conference, has spent the last four years studying all aspects of the episcopacy. The task force will not bring before the 2008 General Conference a comprehensive statement on the episcopacy but will make recommendations and observations that deal with the bishops. In its report to the 2008 General Conference, the task force says that its primary goal was not to bring forth concrete legislation. Instead, it offers recommendations for moving the denomination beyond the current quadrennium to doing studies and explorations that could strengthen the episcopacy and the capacity of the bishops to provide visionary leadership.
The group examined the theological and missional nature of episcopal leadership, the identity and mission of the church, a number of “thinkable and unthinkable ways of re-envisioning episcopacy,” the use of retired bishops, and fiscal and practical concerns, including the length and flexibility of assignments and episcopal workloads.
The task force says that if the General Conference establishes a Committee on Faith and Order, which is being proposed by the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, the first of the committee’s responsibilities should be a study of the mission, identity and nature of the church, including implications for the episcopacy. The proposed Committee on Faith and Order would provide a venue for ongoing conversation on matters of faith, doctrine, order and discipline in the church.
The task force is also endorsing a pension plan for central conference bishops, a proposal that will be presented by the Board of Pension and Health Benefits.
Several annual conferences and groups will ask the assembly to call upon the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing fuel efficiency and reliance upon renewable energy resources.
The Global Church
A task force dealing with the global nature of the church will propose that the five jurisdictions in the United States become organized as a central conference to deal with national issues. Future editions of The Book of Discipline would apply to all central conferences; portions that only apply to the United States would be deleted. Each central conference would publish its own Book of Discipline with portions related to that conference.
The assembly will be asked to approve four constitutional amendments that strike out language that says that central conferences are only for areas of the church outside the United States.
If those amendments are approved by two-thirds of the delegates to General Conference and two-thirds of the aggregate number of members attending annual conferences, the way would be cleared for the 2012 General Conference to introduce legislation creating a central conference for U.S. churches. The proposal would allow central conferences to form or continue jurisdictions.
The proposal acknowledges the fact that 30 percent of United Methodist members now live outside the United States and legislation that could be proposed to the 2012 General Conference would eliminate U.S. concerns from General Conference. Those concerns would become the business of a U.S. Central Conference.
The General Conference will be asked to allow the task force and the Connectional Table to jointly continue their study of the church’s worldwide nature and report to the 2012 legislative assembly on the church’s characteristics and how the U.S. could become a regional conference while retaining its five jurisdictions where bishops are elected.
Study of Ministry
A study group formed by the 2004 General Conference has issued a 49-page report (available at www.gbhem.org) that makes eight suggestions for reordering the ministry, but the 28-member group will ask General Conference to refer the report back to the committee for four additional years of study.
The group recommends doing away with the practice of commissioning–which it describes as ”poorly developed intermediate steps”–and simply ordaining deacons and elders when candidates have met basic requirements. In addition, the commission calls for all current associate members to be eligible for ordination as elder and election as conference member in full connection. The category of associate member would be discontinued. Because nearly one-third of all pastors are presiding over the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion without ordination, the commission proposes expanding the range of those who qualify for ordination as elder.
- Final Study of Ministry report online
- Commission wants further study of church's ministry
- The study of ministry: Where are we headed?
- Ministry commission hears survey results on report
The Commission on Religion and Race is trying to involve white members to build an anti-racism movement and to increase the number of ethnic minority persons in the denomination. The commission will also ask the conference to amend the church’s clergy retirement benefits program in an effort to make it more just for racial/ethnic, female and rural clergy who typically receive lower pay in their appointments, especially those serving in low-income churches and communities. The petition would give annual conferences options, including using average compensation or individual compensation, for calculating benefits paid to their retired clergy from the Board of Pension and Health Benefits.
The Women’s Division wants the denomination to work to prevent racial profiling and acts of harassment or violence directed at Muslims, Arabs and those perceived to be Muslims.
Migrant and other farm workers have long been a special concern because they are excluded from many of the economic and social benefits enjoyed by other workers. The Social Principles applaud the efforts of migratory workers to organize and determine their own destinies. The principles call upon governments and all employers to ensure for migratory workers the same economic, educational and social benefits enjoyed by other citizens.
The 2004 General Conference adopted a resolution calling for policies that bring more economic parity between Mexico and the United States. The delegates asked the nations to develop agreements that improve the quality of life; safeguard water rights; and prevent the contamination of air, water, and land on both sides of the border.
Conferences and caucuses will ask the assembly to address concerns of immigrants that have emerged in the past four years. Some may ask for additional measures to protect borders while others will seek justice for people trying to escape poverty.
At the general church level, representatives from most of the church’s agencies and the Council of Bishops set up an Interagency Task Force on Immigration in 2006 to focus on federal, state and local immigration policy and on education about immigration issues within the denomination.
The Board of Church and Society has submitted a resolution to General Conference calling on United Methodist churches to “advocate for legislation that will uphold the civil and human rights of migrants in the United States and provide legal status for all undocumented migrants for those currently in the United States as well as for those arriving in the future.” The resolution also urges the church to advocate for comprehensive reform of the U.S. immigration system.
Jim Winkler, general secretary of the Board of Church and Society, outlined five elements for comprehensive immigration reform:
- A path to citizenship — an earned legalization program that is workable and achievable.
- Firm, fair enforcement of the law that is consistent with humanitarian values and treats all people with dignity and respect.
- Restoration of due process protections for immigrants removed by the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
- Family-based immigration reform that reduces waiting times for family reunification.
- A plan for the future flow of migrants that includes workplace protections and examines the root causes of migration.
Stem Cell Research
One caucus wants delegates to favor use of embryonic stem cell research from donated embryos that would otherwise be discarded as long as this is done voluntarily. The caucus also supports research into adult stem cells.
The 2004 United Methodist General Conference designated 2005-2008 as a time of celebration, education and study of the Social Creed and Social Principles leading up to the 100th anniversary of the 1908 Social Creed. The original creed was written as a denominational statement decrying child labor and supporting the economic rights of workers, better workplace conditions, better wages and worker safety.
A task force of the Board of Church and Society has written a contemporary version of the creed to replace a 1972 revision. The task force aimed to make the creed reflect the global nature of the church. The proposed revision follows the sequence of the Social Principles from the natural community to the world community. Board members have expressed hope that the proposed revision will be set to musical arrangements in a variety of genres and that it will become more widely used by congregations.
The final document was approved at the board’s meeting in September 2007, and the proposed revision is going to General Conference for action.
- A Social Creed you can sing? Revision aims for broad usage
- Social Creed gets European flavor at consultation
- General Conference 2004, Part 3: Our Social Creed's Centennial
- Social Principles: Our Prophetic Voice
The Board of Church and Society has adopted a resolution calling for the church to divest itself from Caterpillar Inc., the heavy equipment manufacturer based in Peoria, Ill. The petition states that the company profits from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and contributes to the occupation by supplying the Israeli Defense Forces with bulldozers and other equipment being used to clear Palestinian land, destroy homes and help erect a separation wall between Israeli and Palestinian areas.
A separate Board of Church and Society petition applies to Sudan, asking that those who invest United Methodist funds divest of all equity and debt holdings in companies doing business with the government of Sudan. The petition is aimed at bringing economic pressure on the Sudanese government in response to the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region.
Focusing on both Sudan and Israel, the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference is petitioning General Conference to "refrain and divest of companies that harm Palestinians and exacerbate the Sudan crisis."