General Conference 2012: Major Legislative Issues
Note: This background section was prepared prior to publication of the Advance Daily Christian Advocate and may not include all proposals related to an issue.
Restructuring General Agencies
Legislation from the 60-member Connectional Table proposes consolidating nine of the denomination’s 13 general agencies into a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. The center would be governed by a 15-member board of directors, which would be accountable to a 45-member advisory board called the General Council for Strategy and Oversight. The council would replace the Connectional Table, which was created in 2004 to coordinate the denomination’s mission, ministries and resources.
The recommended restructuring is a result of the church’s multiyear Call to Action process. Originating with the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table, the Call to Action aims to address decades of decline in the denomination’s U.S. membership and to increase congregational vitality. The suggested changes originated with the Interim Operations Team, eight laity and clergy working with denominational leaders to implement the Call to Action recommendations. .
The Connectional Table refined and endorsed the recommendations.
The new center would have five offices; four would relate to the Four Areas of Focus adopted by the 2008 General Conference. The proposed offices are:
- Office of Shared Services, which would include the essential functions of the General Council on Finance and Administration, United Methodist Communications and other agencies’ communications staff, the General Commission on Archives and History and the denomination’s information and technology support.
- Office of Congregational Vitality, encompassing the essential functions of the General Board of Discipleship and multicultural ministries (Focus: New Places and People).
- Office of Leadership Excellence, encompassing much of the work currently done by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (Focus: Developing Leaders).
- Office of Missional Engagement, responsible for much of the work of the General Board of Global Ministries, including global health, missionaries, Volunteers in Mission and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (Focus: Global Health).
- Office of Justice and Reconciliation, encompassing the essential functions of the General Board of Church and Society, the General Commission on Religion and Race and the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (Focus: Ministry with the Poor).
If approved, the consolidation would be achieved no later than Dec. 31, 2014.
The Connectional Table supports the petition of the Women’s Division (United Methodist Women) to separate from the General Board of Global Ministries. It and the General Commission on United Methodist Men would become membership organizations accountable to General Conference.
Reforming the Council of Bishops
United Methodist bishops propose amending the church’s constitution to redefine the role of the president of the Council of Bishops.
Under the proposal, the president would serve full time for four years without the responsibilities of overseeing a geographic area. The president would be the denomination’s chief ecumenical officer, help align the strategic direction of the church and focus on growing vital congregations, among other duties.
The intent is to enable the president to focus better on the global church. The president would also help give The United Methodist Church a more prominent voice on the public stage.
Currently, the council president serves a two-year term and retains a residential assignment. The presidency now rotates among the U.S. jurisdictions and the central conferences.
Proposals to have a full-time president go back at least to 1968 and the merger that created The United Methodist Church, but none has been approved.
To be adopted, a constitutional amendment must be approved by two-thirds of the delegates to General Conference and two-thirds of the aggregate number of members attending annual conferences.
The current proposal follows a Call to Action recommendation to reform the Council of Bishops. Active bishops would assume responsibility for establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church and promoting congregational vitality by improving attendance, participation in servant/mission ministries and benevolent giving, lowering the average age of church participants and increasing professions of faith and baptisms.
Another proposal folds the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, the denomination’s ecumenical agency, into the Council of Bishops. The commission’s staff members would work for the council as part of the newly created Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships. The commission’s current 38-member board of directors would become a 15-member oversight group. If the legislation passes, the new office will be established by 2013 or 2014. If not approved, the commission will continue to exist, but with a 15-member board.
Clergy Appointments and Ordination Process
The 2008–12 Commission to Study the Ministry is making several recommendations. Chief among them is eliminating appointment guarantees for ordained elders in good standing, while retaining the ability of bishops to move clergy to different assignments and churches.
Guaranteed appointments are a major contributor to mediocrity and ineffectiveness, the ministry study commission said, and guaranteeing all elders an appointment restricts the flexibility of bishops to appoint the most effective person for each congregation. As some churches struggle to survive and some conferences have an oversupply of ordained clergy, guaranteed appointments have become a barrier to achieving the church’s mission, according to the commission.
The Sustainability Advisory Group, a body examining church finances, supports the proposal. The group says the present appointment structure and compensation system are unaffordable and unsustainable and often do not place competent, qualified leadership in local churches.
The Book of Discipline states elders in good standing who honor their covenant to the itineracy, effectively fulfill their ministerial duties and attend to continuing education requirements “shall” be continued under appointment. The proposal changes the language to “may” continue to be appointed.
The commission recognized concerns that eliminating appointment guarantees could adversely affect pastoral freedom in the pulpit and leave clergy subject to potential abuse of authority. The commission recommends each annual conference determine a clear definition of clergy effectiveness and a method for evaluating effectiveness and the mission needs of communities.
Delegates will also consider proposed procedures to address concerns about clergy ineffectiveness. Under the proposal, a corrective plan between the bishop and the clergy person will be initiated after concerns are identified. If that plan is not carried out as directed or fails to produce the desired result, the bishop and district superintendents may place the clergy person on “administrative location,” which removes the clergy’s conference membership.
To help ensure that women and racial-ethnic clergy are treated fairly, the commission proposed that the jurisdictional committees on episcopacy meet annually to review and evaluate the commitment of the bishops in their jurisdictions to open itineracy.
The commission also recommended streamlining the candidacy process. If approved by delegates, candidates could be eligible for ordination as soon as they complete their educational requirements. After serving at least two years as a provisional elder or deacon, they would be eligible for full conference membership.
The General Council on Finance and Administration and Connectional Table are proposing a budget of $603 million for the 2013–16 operations of the denomination’s general agencies.
The figure represents a 6.04 percent reduction from 2009–12 and marks the first time a smaller budget will go before the church’s top legislative body. While budgets for the agencies have increased over previous years, income has not kept pace with inflation.
Reductions in the number of members in U.S. congregations and declining revenue have forced general agencies to eliminate some staff positions and programs. The number of general agency staff positions has decreased annually from 3,139 in 1971 to 1,384 in 2010.
According to the General Council on Finance and Administration, the 7.7 million members in some 33,500 churches in the United States had expenditures totaling $6.2 billion in 2009. Of that total, churches paid $126.3 million or 2.03 percent to the seven general church apportionments — 79 percent of the $159.3 million budgeted.
Budgeted funds support seven general apportionments: Africa University Fund, Black College Fund, Episcopal Fund, General Administration Fund, Interdenominational Cooperation Fund, Ministerial Education Fund and World Service Fund, which provides funding for most general agencies.
Factors considered in budget projections include church membership, inflation, per-capita disposable income and “giving elasticity” — the percent of giving from increased revenue, net spending and the U.S. gross domestic product.
Delegates will consider amending the church’s constitution to allow General Conference to empower other units or bodies within the denomination to raise and distribute funds — in essence, directing and initiating the work of the church — between General Conference sessions, provided those groups are accountable to General Conference. Currently, after General Conference adjourns, no entity can make changes to the allocated budgets.
The intent of the amendment is to equip the church to be more flexible in ministry and mission.
Another recommendation enables General Conference to authorize the board of the proposed United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry to study the most effective ways to fulfill the mission of the church, specifically sustaining and developing greater numbers of vital congregations.
Under this proposal, the board would evaluate programs and spending at all levels of the church.
Ultimately, it could reallocate up to $60 million during the 2013–16 quadrennium. Of that total, $5 million would go toward theological education in the central conferences and $5 million toward lay leadership development for young people. Additional funds would support efforts increasing the number of vital congregations and training ministerial students under age 35.
One goal is to fund education at United Methodist-related seminaries to help reduce student debt.
The Global Church
Delegates will consider recommendations to make the denomination less U.S.-centric and strengthen its worldwide connection.
The 20-member Committee to Study the Worldwide Nature of The United Methodist Church of international church leaders recommends three actions:
- Adopt “A Covenant for the Church as a Worldwide Church,”
- Streamline The Book of Discipline to focus on law and doctrine applying to the entire church rather than dealing with predominantly U.S. issues, and
- Renew conversation about restructuring the denomination so General Conference can concentrate solely on issues affecting the church worldwide.
The legislation specifies those parts of the Discipline that apply to all United Methodists, including the constitution, doctrinal standards, Social Principles, standards for ordained ministry, rules on church property and the organization of various church institutions. Regional entities could create their own supplements to the Discipline covering issues and processes that relate directly to their part of the world, such as theological education.
The group calls for discussion of creating “continental conferences,” new bodies in North America, Africa, Asia and Europe to focus on regional church issues. Under such restructuring, General Conference’s role would narrow to include only issues of global relevance.
The committee does not expect action on its suggested structural changes until 2016 at the earliest. The committee’s main emphasis in 2012 will be adoption of the covenant as a statement of intent.
The 2008 General Conference directed the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table to appoint the study committee after that assembly approved 23 constitutional amendments to make the church’s structure more uniform globally. Those amendments were not ratified by the annual conferences.
The amendments would have allowed the organization of groups of annual conferences in a particular area or single nation, including the United States, into a larger regional conference. The term “central conference,” referring to the church regions in Africa, Asia and Europe, could have been replaced by “regional conference.”
The United Methodist Church has nearly 41,000 congregations in the United States, Africa, Europe and the Philippines. In 2010, the denomination reported more than 12.1 million members worldwide. About 7.7 million United Methodists live in the United States.
More than a dozen U.S. annual conferences are petitioning General Conference on the church’s stance and statements on homosexuality.
More than half urge delegates either to remove discriminatory language from or add inclusive language to the Social Principles. Others propose removing bans on clergy performing same-gender marriage or civil unions or holding those ceremonies at United Methodist churches. Some would remove prohibitions against practicing homosexuals being certified as clergy candidates, ordained or appointed in the church.
At least one annual conference seeks to uphold the current language regarding homosexuality.
The General Board of Church and Society is petitioning to strike two statements from the Social Principles: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching;” and “Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.” The petition seeks to add the statement, “As a denomination, we are conflicted regarding homosexual expressions of human sexuality.”
Since 1972, the subject of homosexuality has been debated and discussed at every General Conference. While delegates have consistently voted to keep the Discipline’s stance against the practice of homosexuality and the candidacy, ordination and appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, disagreement about the issue continues.
In mid-2011, at least 900 active and retired United Methodist clergy around the United States signed pledges affirming their willingness to perform same-sex unions. At the same time, 33 retired United Methodist bishops, including two from central conferences, called on the church to remove its ban on homosexual clergy. In response, more than 2,500 United Methodist clergy and 12,000 laity signed letters urging the Council of Bishops to take a public stand supporting the denomination’s position. In November, following the council meeting, the bishops issued a statement declaring their commitment to their covenant “to uphold The Book of Discipline as established by General Conference.” The statement also acknowledges the denomination’s “deep disagreements over homosexuality.”
In June 2011, the church wrestled with the issue in a public church trial for the seventh time in 20 years. The Rev. Amy DeLong, a lesbian clergy member of the Wisconsin Annual Conference, was charged with violating the church’s ban on non-celibate, gay clergy and its prohibition against clergy officiating at same-sex unions. Acquitted of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual,” DeLong was found guilty of celebrating a same-gender union. The trial court suspended her from ministerial functions for 20 days and sentenced her to a yearlong process to “restore the broken clergy covenant relationship.”
The sentence marked the first time in 20 years in which a United Methodist elder was not stripped of his or her clergy credentials or placed on indefinite suspension. Although the Rev. Greg Dell was initially suspended indefinitely in 1999, the North Central Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals later amended the suspension to one year. Observers said DeLong’s sentence is indicative of the division over the issue.
The 2008 General Conference rejected language acknowledging the church’s disagreement on homosexuality and retained language describing homosexual practice as incompatible with Christian teaching.
Delegates in 2008 also adopted wording stating “all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God” and calling United Methodists to “seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.”
Delegates retained statements asking “families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends” and approved a resolution to oppose homophobia and heterosexism, saying the church opposes “all forms of violence or discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual practice or sexual orientation.”
The Book of Discipline states all people “without regard to race, color, national origin, status or economic condition” shall be eligible to attend worship, participate in programs, receive sacraments, be admitted as baptized members and “upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith” become professing members in any local church in the connection.
The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women is asking General Conference to add “gender” to the list of categories. One annual conference is urging delegates to include “sexual orientation, gender choices and gender identity.”
One annual conference is asking General Conference to end the church’s financial support of and membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. The conference is also petitioning to remove from the Social Principles the statement recognizing “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.” The petition adds a statement to allow abortion, if deemed necessary by medical professionals, “when life conflicts with life.”
The 2008 General Conference affirmed the continued membership of the General Board of Church and Society and the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
The General Board of Church and Society is asking delegates to instruct all general agencies to divest immediately from “Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard until they end their involvement in the Israeli occupation” of the Palestinian territories. Those companies were named because general agencies, boards and annual conferences have repeatedly asked them to cease their involvement, according to the petition.
The petition also urges divestment within two years from other companies that have been identified as being involved in the occupation if those companies do not cease their involvement.
At least five annual conferences submitted similar petitions.
Delegates in 2008 rejected a petition calling on the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits and the General Council on Finance and Administration to identify companies profiting “from sales of products or services that cause harm to Palestinians and Israelis” and to begin phased selective divestment from them.
With tougher immigration laws passed in several states and continued debate over U.S. immigration policy, various church groups are advocating for change.
The Women’s Division is petitioning General Conference to urge the U.S. government and denominational groups to dismantle policies that unfairly target and criminalize communities of color. Among other actions, the petition urges General Conference to call on the U.S. government to stop racial profiling, raids and wrongful imprisonment; and institute legalization programs for migrants that protect civil and labor rights, keep families together and strengthen communities.
The petition also urges United Methodists to build alliances between citizen communities of color and new migrant communities, challenge police engagement in immigration enforcement, and provide local ministries of compassion and solidarity.
At least six annual conferences in 2011 passed resolutions calling either for comprehensive immigration reform or support of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), a bipartisan bill to provide a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, completed two years of college or military service and met other requirements.
Laws passed in Arizona in 2010 and Alabama in 2011 moved United Methodists to repeat their call for immigration reform and mobilize for advocacy.
Among the issues with the Alabama law, considered the toughest immigration law in the United States, was a provision making it a crime to harbor or transport immigrants who are not in the country lawfully. That portion was blocked after a coalition of groups and individuals, including bishops of the United Methodist, Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches, filed suit against the law contending that it would criminalize routine acts of ministry.
The Arizona law requires police to detain people they reasonably suspect are in the country without authorization and to verify their status with federal officials. It also makes failure to carry immigration papers a misdemeanor and allows people to sue local governments or agencies if they believe the federal or state immigration laws are not being enforced.
The United Methodist Task Force on Immigration and MARCHA, the denomination’s Hispanic caucus, called on every United Methodist to oppose the law.
Despite opposition to the laws, United Methodists do not agree about the solution to the United States’ immigration issues.
The church’s Social Principles call on the church and society “to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.”
The 2008 General Conference urged the United States to reform immigration laws and make “family unity, students being able to get an education at an affordable rate, fair and just treatment of laborers and a reasonable path towards citizenship a priority.”
War and Peace
General Conference 2008 approved a petition calling for the end of the war in Iraq. In 2012, delegates will address the issue of the war in Afghanistan.
The Women’s Division and at least one annual conference want General Conference to advocate for the end of the conflict in Afghanistan. The Women’s Division further calls for promoting “Afghan-led peace talks” that include women and redirecting U.S. financial resources from the war to improving the lives of women, children and communities worldwide.
A petition from the General Board of Church and Society asks United Methodists to expand their peacemaking efforts globally by encouraging worldwide disarmament of nuclear and conventional weapons and redirection of military spending to “peaceful and sustainable purposes.”
Financial Reform and Equality
In the wake of a collapsed U.S. housing market, recessions and continued high unemployment, coupled with a worldwide economic crisis, delegates will consider two petitions from the General Board of Church and Society that attempt to safeguard the “most vulnerable members of society.”
One urges governments to “reapportion national revenue diverted from military spending” and to prioritize domestic programs to reduce social inequalities.
Another calls for United Methodists to educate themselves and others about abusive and deceptive lending practices and to take steps to reduce them. A third calls for establishment of fair and just tax structures globally to reduce the gap between rich and poor.
One annual conference is petitioning General Conference to urge congregations to evaluate their carbon footprint.
The Women’s Division is calling for delegates to approve advocacy urging governments to codify reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to the level needed to reduce atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases.
At least two annual conferences want delegates to affirm their opposition to bullying, while the General Board of Church and Society is urging the church to take specific steps to reduce bullying in society.
One annual conference is calling on General Conference to support efforts to restore voting rights to ex-felons.
Two petitions call for greater civility in public discourse.
One from the General Board of Church and Society calls United Methodists to urge elected officials to refrain from using hateful and dehumanizing rhetoric that prohibits meaningful dialogue and to model that behavior themselves.
A petition from the Women’s Division calls on the church to model a different way of discussing controversial issues as an act of justice to counter “the current climate of hate and racism in the United States and in other parts of the world arising from the global economic crisis.”
One annual conference has asked General Conference to develop a committee on disability awareness.