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How are decisions made at General Conference?

Spare voting machines rest on a table at the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.
Spare voting machines rest on a table at the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

General Conference is the highest legislative body in The United Methodist Church. It usually convenes once every four years to determine the denomination’s future direction. Between 600 and 1000 delegates are elected by their annual conferences—half clergy and half laity. At General Conference, these delegates gather from all over the world to consider revisions to church law and the official ritual of the church, and adopt resolutions on current moral, social, public policy and economic issues. The General Conference also approves plans and budgets for church-wide programs for the next four years.

Requests for change

Primary sources of legislation are petitions. A petition is a request to the General Conference for official action, whether a change in policy or law, an amendment to the Constitution, a revision in the official ritual, or approval of a statement on a social issue. Any United Methodist layperson or clergy person, or any organization of The United Methodist Church may petition the General Conference.

Petitions must be submitted no later than 230 days before the opening of General Conference. The deadline for petitions to the 2020 General Conference was September 18, 2019. Petitions may also be submitted by an annual conference meeting up to 45 days before the opening of General Conference (March 17, 2020). 

All proposed legislation is translated into the official languages of General Conference and published in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, distributed first to elected delegates, and also posted on the General Conference website.

Preliminary work

Petitions are numbered and grouped by subject matter or the Book of Discipline section they address (missions, finance, local church, etc.) and assigned to legislative committees. The number of legislative committees at the 2020 gathering was increased from 12 to 14. The goal is to more evenly distribute the workload and meet the requirement that all submitted petitions receive a vote in committee.

A legislative committee votes to accept, reject or revise the various petitions. Every delegate serves on a legislative committee and spends much of the first week of General Conference focusing on the committee’s assignments. These committees make it possible to review and provide recommendations on hundreds of petitions — something impossible for the full gathering of delegates.

Final decisions

Petitions approved by the legislative committee move on for consideration by the full body of delegates.

Delegates make decisions on the matters before them based on their own conscience as moved by the Holy Spirit. This is an important principle underscored in these words from the Judicial Council: “Delegates to General Conference, just as members of an Annual Conference, are bound to do as their conscience dictates what is good for the Church of Jesus Christ, The United Methodist Church in particular, and that only.”

If an approved proposal has no financial implications, seeks no change in the constitution and receives overwhelming support in committee, it goes on a “consent calendar.” Consent calendar items are voted on as a bundle without further debate to conserve precious floor time in the plenary session.

The rules approved for the General Conference guide the conference deliberations.  Delegates use electronic, smartcard-enabled devices to cast their secret ballots and to request recognition to address the assembly. Votes are not traceable to any specific delegate or delegation. Only the vote totals are recorded and reported.

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A simple majority passes most motions. Constitutional changes require a two-thirds majority of the delegates present and voting and subsequent approval by two-thirds of those voting at annual conferences.

The legislation, budget and other items approved by the General Conference take effect at the beginning of the following year, unless specified to take effect at the close of General Conference or another time.

Following the process

Throughout the legislative process, from initial submission of petitions, to actions taken by legislative committees and plenary sessions, all items before the General Conference are tracked and reported in real time through an online tracking system. The progress of all legislation handled by the 2016 General Conference is archived. The 2020 version will be available after the submission and translation of all petitions is complete.

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