Photo: Delegates review petitions in the Advance Editon of the Daily Christian Advocate. Photo by Maile Bradfield, UMNS
An Interpreter article by J. Richard Peck
Every four years United Methodists develop high expectations that delegates to the top legislative body of the denomination will set policies and pass resolutions that address specific challenges in the church and society.
Similar expectations surround the 988 delegates and 4,000 volunteers and observers who will attend the 2012 General Conference, meeting April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla.
United Methodists around the world expect the assembly will take actions recognizing the denomination is a global church, and not a U.S. church with overseas outposts.
Others are confident that the 11-day event will result in a new structure that will increase the number of vital congregations and address the four areas of focus embraced by the 2008 General Conference. They are improving health globally, engaging in ministry with the poor, creating new places for new people and revitalizing existing congregations and developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world.
Others anticipate a time when the denomination will address injustices against indigenous people and other social justice issues.
"Each General Conference has a major impact on the life of our denomination and our role in the world," said the Rev. Fitzgerald "Gere" Reist II, secretary of General Conference. "When the delegates decide where to invest our money and our talent, they also decide who will live and who will die, who will hear the Gospel and who will not, who will be welcomed into the life of the church and who will be turned aside. It is an awesome task and a high calling."
Addressing the theme
The theme of the 2012 gathering is "Make Disciples of Jesus Christ to Transform the World." Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, president of the Council of Bishops, will likely address that theme during the opening worship celebration at 4 p.m. ET, on Tuesday, April 24. United Methodists will be able to participate via live streaming at www.umc.org/gc2012.
On Wednesday, April 25, three addresses will provide a theological grounding for the delegates' work.
The Council of Bishops elected Bishop Peter D. Weaver to prepare and deliver the Episcopal Address on behalf of 157 active and retired bishops from the U.S., Africa, Europe and Asia.
"There is a lot to celebrate as we try to live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world and continue our work around the four foci," said Weaver. "It's also a time of change and challenge, and we will invite the General Conference into prayer and decision-making that helps us be a more effective instrument of God's mission in our world."
The Episcopal Address is one of the few times bishops address the assembly outside of worship. While they attend and preside over the plenary sessions, bishops have neither voice nor vote on legislation and do not address the General Conference without special permission.
The Laity Address will be delivered by Dr. Steve Furr, lay leader of the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference; Betty Spiwe Katiyo, a graduate of Old Mutare Mission in Zimbabwe; and Amory Peck, lay leader of the Pacific Northwest Conference.
Presenting the Young People's Address will be Krin Ali and Joy Eva Algodon-Bohol. Ali, 18, is a high school senior and a member of Park Hill United Methodist Church in Denver. Algodon-Bohol, 24, lives in Manila, Philippines, and worships at Holy Grace United Methodist Church in Cainta, Rizal. A freelance journalist, she is president of the national United Methodist Youth Fellowship.
Equal voice, vote
Annual conferences elect equal numbers of lay and clergy delegates to General Conference, the only body that can speak as The United Methodist Church. Each conference elects at least two delegates. The Book of Discipline limits the body to 1,000. Elected in 2011, 988 delegates will serve in 2012.
Annual conferences in the United States will send 606 delegates. Those in Africa, Asia and Europe will have 372 delegates (up 96 from 2008 and up 186 from 2004), including 282 from Africa. United Methodists in the Philippines elected 48 delegates, while those in Europe named 42. Ten delegates will come from "concordat" churches with which the denomination has a formal relationship.
The North Katanga Annual Conference with 808,123 members is the largest in the denomination. It will send 52 delegates. The next largest delegations are from Côte d'Ivoire, 40; North Georgia and Virginia, 26 each; Florida and Western North Carolina, 22 each; and Texas, 20.
Debating, discerning, deciding
General Conference's main task is revising The Book of Discipline. The denomination's law book regulates how local churches, annual conferences and general agencies are organized and sets policies regarding church membership, ordination, administration, property and judicial procedures.
Each proposal for change originates with a petition sent to General Conference by individual church members, local congregations, annual conferences or general agencies. The Rev. Gary Graves, petitions secretary, expects to process 1,200 petitions. "I like to project the highest possible figure so delegates will be pleased if the final figure is below the anticipated number," he said.
The longest petition comes from the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits and outlines a new retirement program.
A majority vote in a plenary session makes most proposals church law. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote by the delegates, followed by a two-thirds affirmative vote of the aggregate members voting in annual conference sessions.
Delegates will begin reviewing the petitions later this month when they receive the Advance Daily Christian Advocate. At General Conference, each petition is assigned to one of 13 legislative committees. The group of 70-80 delegates reviews all petitions relating to a specific part of the Discipline. The committee's recommendation on each goes to the full assembly for final action.
The Ministry and Higher Education Legislative Committee will receive the most petitions, more than 150. Graves estimates that about 70 percent address topics in the ministry study.
The General Administration Committee will deal with structure proposals stemming from the Call to Action study. It will process over 110 petitions.
Graves estimates two Church and Society legislative committees addressing social justice issues will each work through about 85 petitions.
One will review all petitions related to the nurturing community and social community sections of the Social Principles. Among those will be petitions related to human sexuality, abortion, rights of immigrants and sexual orientation. Another will consider all other petitions concerning the Board of Church and Society and the Social Principles.
The General Council on Finance and Administration and the Connectional Table are proposing a budget of $603 million for the 2013-2016 quadrennium for general church operations, 6.04 percent lower than for 2009-2012. This marks the first time a smaller budget is being recommended. The $603 million is 3 percent of the total expenditures of the denomination.
As it stands, the proposed budget will mean "reductions in programming or staff depending on how the individual agencies react to reductions in funding," said John Goolsbey, an executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration.
Delegates will also elect members of the Judicial Council and the University Senate and revise The Book of Resolutions' collection of statements on social justice issues. The statements are considered instructive and persuasive but are not binding on church members.
Expectations based on history
United Methodists' expectations for General Conference stem from programs and ministries launched by the assembly since 1968 when the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches united. The United Methodist general conferences have created, approved or supported:
The Social Principles
The General Commission on Religion and Race
The Black College Fund
Shalom Zones as a response to 1992 riots in Los Angeles
The Commission on the Status and Role of Women
The Commission on United Methodist Men
New orders of ministry and revised candidacy processes
The JustPeace Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation
Igniting Ministry/Rethink Church
Imagine No Malaria
The Four Areas of Focus
Each offers a reason for United Methodists to have high expectations for the 2012 Tampa gathering.
Peck is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference. He has attended 11 sessions of General Conference, including four times as editor of the Daily Christian Advocate.