General Conference 2016: 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.
Proposed Legislation available
The Advance Edition of the Daily Christian Advocate, which contains all of the petitions to be considered by General Conference 2016, is now available here.
Several major issues face delegates to the 2016 General Conference.
Restructuring General Church Delegates will consider a number of proposals to restructure the ministries of the general church. Several proposals focus on the Connectional Table. However, a proposal that has drawn perhaps the greatest amount of attention is Plan UMC Revised, which aims to restructure the church’s general agencies.
In 2012, almost 60 percent of General Conference delegates voted for Plan UMC to restructure general agencies. On the last day of conference, the Judicial Council declared that the plan violated the Constitution of The United Methodist Church. In the years since, proponents of the plan have developed a revised proposal to present to General Conference. They see the proposal as a critical component in fostering vitality and reversing membership declines in the United States.
Key components of Plan UMC Revised:
- It gives the Connectional Table new authority to elect top executives for United Methodist Discipleship Ministries and the general boards of Global Ministries, Church and Society, and Higher Education and Ministry following nominations by the agencies’ boards. The top executives would be accountable programmatically to their boards and administratively to a newly created position of Connectional Table executive general secretary.
- It authorizes the Connectional Table executive general secretary to evaluate these agencies’ top executives annually. It includes possible dismissal of such executives, “based largely in part on the degree of cooperation and collaboration with other agencies toward the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ.” The legislation prohibits a bishop from serving as executive general secretary.
- It details the Connectional Table’s authority to evaluate agencies based on how they direct the flow of energy toward vital congregations and carry out the mission of the global church.
- It reduces the size of some agency boards, while increasing representation from outside the United States, especially Africa. It reduces the size of the Connectional Table from 59 to 45 members.
- It eliminates the General Commission on Archives and History and moves its functions to the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA).
- It eliminates the general commissions on Religion and Race and the Status and Role of Women and moves their work to a new Connectional Table committee called the United Methodist Committee on Inclusiveness.
In May 2015, active members of the Council of Bishops voted to ask the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision regarding the constitutionality of this proposed legislation. In October 2015, the Judicial Council announced it would defer ruling on the constitutionality of the plan until its meeting in May, just before General Conference. The court said it would be “an untimely intrusion” into the legislative process to rule on one plan, when other proposed plans might face constitutional questions. The decision left open the possibility the Council of Bishops could also refer any other such plans for constitutional assessment.
The General Board of Global Ministries is developing legislation to establish a new unit on global health for the mission agency. The strategy for a new international program, tentatively called “Abundant Health: Our Promise to Children,” would take into account intersections with the other denominational areas of focus, including ministry with the poor, developing principled Christian leaders, and creating new and renewed congregations. It would build on the successes of the Imagine No Malaria campaign, which the 2016 conference will celebrate. Agency leaders link the health strategy to Global Ministries’ work through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). The agency directors are also asking General Conference to change the name of One Great Hour of Sharing, the traditional time of an offering to pay administrative costs for disaster relief, to UMCOR Sunday.
The General Commission on Religion and Race is developing legislation related to equipping the church for relevance and relationships in a global community. It would expand and redefine the agency’s role to include resourcing and increase the possibility of central conference participation.
The Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders will present legislation that would empower General Conference to override a Judicial Council ruling of unconstitutionality. The lay leader group’s report concludes that such power would leave the Judicial Council in place for resolving conflicting paragraphs of the Book of Discipline, making initial decisions of constitutional review, deciding appeals from church trials and reviewing a bishop’s decisions of law. “In most of these processes,” the report says, “the Judicial Council would have its proper role as an appellate body where other Church bodies have considered and ruled on the issues. But the General Conference would be empowered ultimately to make its own decisions on the constitutionality of acts in keeping with our polity that General Conference is the only body empowered to speak for The United Methodist Church.”
Central Conferences and Jurisdictions
The General Board of Global Ministries is proposing the creation of a Southeast Asia and Mongolia Provisional Central Conference.
Delegates also will consider proposals from the North Texas and Central Texas conferences for a U.S. central conference. The Northeastern Jurisdiction is proposing organizing the church into four continentwide “connections” for Africa, Asia, Europe and North American as part of its wide-ranging “Global Connection Plan.”
The Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders will also submit two petitions related to annual conference structure. One would amend the Disciplinary paragraph defining the annual conference as the basic body in the church and delineating its rights and functions by adding a sentence: “Except when the General Conference shall prescribe specific features of its organization and structure, each annual conference, as the basic body of the Church, shall have authority to organize and structure itself as it shall determine.” The other legislation would amend multiple paragraphs to empower annual conferences to determine their own agenda and structure.
The Detroit Annual Conference is requesting a change in the annual conference lay-clergy equalization formula that would base the formula for equalization of annual conference membership on average attendance of clergy and laity.
The General Commission on Religion and Race is submitting legislation that would mandate commissions on religion and race in annual conferences of central as well as jurisdictional conferences, and expand the role of the conference commission.
Making the Discipline Truly Global
In 2012, the General Conference assigned the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters to assist in developing a truly global Book of Discipline. Unlike U.S. jurisdictions, central conferences have authority under the United Methodist Constitution to make “such changes and adaptations” to the Discipline as missional needs and differing legal contexts require. The standing committee, in consultation with the Committee on Faith and Order, must recommend to General Conference which portions of the Discipline are not subject to adaptation. Committee leadership gave an update of their work to a February 2015 joint meeting with the Connectional Table.
The standing committee has 39 members, three from each jurisdiction and central conference, as well as three from the General Board of Global Ministries. It is the only denominationwide body in which most members are from outside the United States. Focus of the committee’s work is to assess the Discipline, Part VI, Organization and Administration, which contains material most directly related to organizing ministry in the central conferences. Committee members express hope that the 2020 General Conference would approve a “General Discipline” with a worldwide outlook and possibly fewer paragraphs. The committee will make available to 2016 delegates a draft of a shorter version of Part VI and receive feedback. The only legislative proposal asks for an extension through 2020 to continue its work. After the 2016 General Conference, the committee plans to ask each annual conference to respond to the proposal using specific questions.
General Conference has determined the following parts of the Book of Discipline should apply to all United Methodists and are not subject to local adaptation. To change any of the following would require General Conference action: The Constitution, Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task, The Ministry of All Christians and The Social Principles.
Concurrent with the work of the standing committee, the General Board of Church and Society has held global consultations on the Social Principles. These principles are not church law, rather, “prayerful and thoughtful … to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world.” The consultations are a first step in developing more global Social Principles, a process that will last at least through 2020.
The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry is also submitting a legislative proposal dealing with a General Book of Discipline process in light of the worldwide nature of the church.
GCFA is sending a proposal for global funding of the general church. The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters is cosponsoring the proposal. Under the proposal, central conference apportionments would contribute to two of the seven general church funds — Episcopal and General Administration. That money supports the work of bishops and the operations of denominationwide administrative bodies, including General Conference. The GCFA board recommends a different formula for central conferences, many of which are in developing countries. The formula for giving outside the U.S. would begin with the U.S. apportionment for the Episcopal and General Administration funds — $4.24 per member.
The Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders has approved a petition calling for limited tenure for bishops and changing the relationships of retired bishops from the Council of Bishops to an annual conference. The legislation adds the term “residential” bishop, defined as bishops who are not retired and whose terms of office have not expired. This would apply to both annual and central conferences. Bishops completing one eight-year term would be eligible to be elected for another eight years. The lay leaders are also submitting legislation related to conflicts of interest on the Committee on Episcopacy, removing the three-year term limit on assignments of bishops and changes in the episcopal complaint process.
The 2013-16 Ministry Study Commission, formed by the 2012 General Conference, is proposing significant changes in the ordination process for elders and deacons and standards that are more rigorous for local pastors. The 2012 General Conference asked the commission to tackle a range of issues, including “the nature and grounding of the elder” and education for local pastors, whose numbers continue to grow.
The most dramatic proposal, known as “early ordination” but termed “reshaping the ordination process” by the commission, would move ordination to the front end of the process – at the time a candidate is elected to provisional membership. Currently, those who have met educational requirements to be ordained as an elder or deacon must serve as a provisional member of their annual conference for at least two years. These candidates are ordained during the annual conference session at which they are elected to full membership. Rationale offered by commission leaders includes concerns that The United Methodist Church is losing clergy candidates because the current process is so lengthy. One concern that has surfaced from annual conference boards of ordained ministry involves what would happen if a candidate were ordained, then does not achieve full membership. In that case, the commission notes, the ordination would no longer be valid in the United Methodist understanding.
The commission report includes issues affecting licensed local pastors, including strengthening the mandated course of study. It would also eliminate one requirement for local pastors who want to apply for provisional membership and get on the track to ordination as an elder. They would no longer have to be at least 40 years old.
The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry will introduce legislation related to the commission’s call for the agency to collaborate with United Methodist-related colleges to develop an undergraduate degree program that would also meet course-of-study requirements. The commission report also calls for changes in the Discipline referencing the course of study as a five-year program.
Another proposal would give deacons more flexibility to preside at the celebration of sacraments, and all clergy would get additional ongoing formation through mentoring and covenant groups.
The commission is making no proposals concerning the issue of security of appointment for elders, often referred to as “guaranteed appointment.” The 2012 General Conference approved legislation to end this practice, but the Judicial Council ruled the legislation in violation of the Constitution.
The Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders is introducing several pieces of legislation on clergy matters, including revisiting the issue of security of appointment in the constitution, requesting a role for the lay leader in appointment-making and requesting that the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry conduct a study of the number of United Methodist seminaries.
Discipleship Ministries is proposing a new hymnal that would use digital technology to provide music and worship resources, customizable to meet the needs of different faith communities. The Hymnal Revision Committee at Discipleship Ministries would have primary responsibility for the content of the hymnal. While part of the collection of music and resources would be uniform across all versions, another part would contain additional hymns, songs and worship resources that the user could select. The hymnal collection would go to the 2020 General Conference for approval.
The Global Young People’s Convocation and Legislative Assembly is asking annual conferences to ensure representation across all age groups, by whenever possible, electing one of every three lay delegates as a youth or young adult. They are also submitting a petition that asks annual conferences to consider the schedules of young people when setting meeting times for boards and agencies.
Revised Social Principles
At the request of the General Conference and the Connectional Table, the General Board of Church and Society is continuing to develop revised Social Principles for a worldwide church. The board recommends continuation of its work following General Conference 2016.
Numerous annual conferences and other groups are petitioning General Conference on the denomination’s stance and statements on homosexuality. Many propose either removing or adding less-restrictive language to the Social Principles. Others call for upholding the current language and denominational standards regarding homosexuality. Some, such as the Texas Annual Conference, propose maintaining the present stance while offering “more gracious language.”
The Connectional Table has voted a compromise legislative proposal that will be before the 2016 General Conference. It would remove prohibitive language from the Discipline concerning homosexuality, while making minor changes to existing Social Principles. The proposal would allow United Methodist clergy to perform ceremonies that celebrate same-sex unions if they wish, but no clergyperson would be required to do so. The proposal would also remove being a practicing homosexual or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies from the list of chargeable offenses for clergy. In addition, the proposal removes language saying that the church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers it incompatible with Christian teaching, while recognizing this has historically been the church’s position.
The Connectional Table describes the proposal as a possible “third way” to help the church resolve this contentious issue. It would end church trials over homosexuality and allow the exercise of conscience by United Methodist clergy, yet retain the authority of annual conferences to discern suitability for ordination.
United Methodist bishops in Africa have released a statement calling on all United Methodist bishops to fulfill “their shepherding responsibility” regarding the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. They released the statement in November 2015, at the Council of Bishops’ retreat.
The General Board of Church and Society is offering a resolution on “The Rights of All People,” with the specific goal of protecting human and civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
In April 2015, the Commission on the General Conference voted to support an alternative discernment process for dealing with legislative petitions that may benefit from discussion in small groups. Delegates would have to approve this process.
Several petitions ask The United Methodist Church to withdraw from membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Two petitions from Indiana call for seeking common ground and supporting adoption.
General Board of Global Ministries’ directors endorsed a new statement on religious freedom based on the love ethic of the New Testament. The proposed resolution challenges the right of any government to limit religious freedom or to use the idea of religious freedom “in ways that would harm others by denying anyone services, honor, dignity, equal rights and equal protection. Such actions that harm or discriminate against others are not expressions of religious freedom.”
Several petitions address the needs and equitable treatment of persons with disabilities. One from the Pacific-Northwest Annual Conference would amend the Discipline to require that a person with a disability be a part of the committee determining clergy medical leave and that a disability would not disqualify provisional candidates. Another petition from the conference asks that the Disciplinary paragraph on conference agencies include revised language indicating every effort shall be made to ensure all meetings scheduled by the annual conference and its districts, boards and agencies convene in places that are accessible to all.
Sustainable and Responsible Investments
A number of petitions address issues of investment strategies. Several would ask the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits to divest from investments in fossil fuels. Others seek divestment from companies, such as Caterpillar and Motorola, which they contend go toward supporting efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Texas Annual Conference is suggesting a “Pathway to Peace in Israel and Palestine.”
The General Commission on Religion and Race is submitting numerous proposals on use of diverse languages in the United States, ethnic ministry plans, ongoing acts of repentance for racism and responsibilities for eradication of racism at all levels of the church. Other proposals oppose membership in clubs or organizations that practice exclusivity; white privilege in the United States; global racism, tribalism and xenophobia and its impact on women, children and youth; and racial profiling in the United States. The Upper New York Annual Conference is asking for a “Fruits of Repentance” resolution calling for an end to the celebration of Columbus Day. United Methodist Women is calling to amend and readopt “A Charter for Racial Justice Policies in an Interdependent Global Community.” Two other United Methodist Women petitions deal with transforming the context of hate in the United States and a stop to criminalizing communities of color in the United States.
The General Board of Church and Society is seeking to amend and readopt “Welcoming the Migrant to the United States” and to continue the work of the United Methodist Task Force on Immigration.
The Global Young People’s Convocation and Legislative Assembly has issued a statement, “Beyond Resolutions to Environmental Action,” asking all levels of the church to conduct an environmental study. The General Board of Church and Society is presenting two proposals: “Caring for Creation: A Call to Stewardship and Justice” and “Climate Change and the Church.” United Methodist Women seeks readoption of a document called “Law of the Sea,” calling for global cooperation of this common resource through the United Nations. The Baltimore-Washington Conference is asking for readoption of a resolution around “God’s Creation and the Church.”
Economics and Finance
The General Board of Church and Society has submitted two pieces of legislation dealing with justice in the world of economics: “A Call for Just Tax Structures” and “A Call for Faithful Lending Practices.” The latter decries predatory lending practices that affect the poor.
Many petitions deal with the United Methodist Book of Resolutions.
Annual conferences have submitted resolutions on a wide variety of subjects, including health care, prayer and support for veterans, income inequality and a request to cross-reference the Book of Discipline with the Book of Resolutions.
Of every dollar given in the offering, approximately:
85 cents stays in the local church to pay salaries and provide a building for worship, hymnals, heat and air conditioning, vacation Bible school resources and more.
- 7 cents goes to district, annual and jurisdictional conferences to provide camps and retreats, continuing education for laity and pastors, confirmation rallies, new-church starts and more.
- 6 cents goes to “designated giving” such as The Advance, World Service Special Gifts, churchwide special Sundays and other causes.
- 2 cents goes to the general church. That is where, together, we help build new churches, prepare clergy and lay leaders, provide continuing education for pastors, send students to college and seminary, pay missionary salaries, expand Bible studies, serve with other faith traditions through interdenominational and ecumenical work, ensure financial oversight and accountability of church funds, engage in diverse life-changing ministries and more.
GCFA and the Connectional Table are proposing a budget of $611.4 million to support apportioned general funds for 2017-20. This represents an increase of 1.4 percent over the previous quadrennium. The budget for 2013-16 operations was the first time a smaller budget went before General Conference.
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. The latter provides most of the funding for the denomination’s general agencies.
The proposed budget would go to support United Methodist Church missional strategies, the Four Areas of Focus, to enable vital congregations shaped by and witnessed through four focus areas: calling and shaping principled Christian leaders, creating and sustaining new places for new people, ministries with poor people and communities and abundant health for all.
World Service is God’s people reaching out in love and compassion in the name of Christ. It represents a call and a challenge to each United Methodist. The Book of Discipline calls the full payment of the World Service Fund the “first benevolent responsibility” of each congregation.
The 2012 General Conference approved two new initiatives, funded through World Service:
First, the Commission on Central Conference Theological Education (¶817), elected by the Council of Bishops, is tasked with developing theological schools, developing courses of study, developing libraries and contextually developed resources, providing scholarships and faculty development, supporting associations and networks of faculty and schools, and supporting new and innovative approaches to theological education. The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry administers this designated fund.
Second, the Young Clergy Initiative Fund is a three-quadrennium effort begun in 2013 to enable the denomination to focus efforts on encouraging young adults responding to the call to ordained ministry by providing a strong theological education in the United Methodist tradition. The initiative is in addition to the funds the church has already budgeted for discernment, recruitment, nurturing, education and support of young clergy leaders.