Who is General Conference?

By the time you are reading this, General Conference (April 24-May 4) will have begun in Tampa, Florida (that is, unless you are reading the “early edition” published on the “pastor’s blog” on the church website, and then sent to the Facebook friends of the church!)  Regardless, you know that we have been preparing for General Conference for quite some time.  Last week, you saw pictures of the prayer shawl event at the church, where we not only made prayer shawls for the delegates, but also learned about different forms of prayer, and prayed together.  Last summer, I filled you in on our delegation to General Conference, and my confidence in our delegation leader and others who we are charging to “speak for us” at this important event.

The composition of the 988 delegates may surprise you.   This year, for the first time, the African Central Conferences hold the largest percentage of any represented there.  Its 282 delegates make up almost 29% of the total, while the “traditional powerhouse” Southeastern Jurisdiction’s 220 delegates make up 22% of the total.  The Oklahoma delegation is part of the South Central Jurisdiction, which composes 13% of the General Conference, and is part of a 60% American representation at General Conference, while the rest of the Global church has a growing 40% representation there.  The United Methodist Church, in this sense, is the only church whose polity originates from the global constituency.  (Though there are certainly Methodist churches in Mexico, South America, and other regions, they have remained independent of the UMC, and yet they still compose 1% of the General Conference)  While the Roman Catholic church is the other “Global Church,” its governance and polity is entirely mandated by the upper echelon clergy, and based on the Pope’s last selection of Cardinals, is fairly interested in maintaining a disproportionately European constituency among that “decision making body.”

While the other non-American Central Conferences have always been given the right to amend the Discipline to suit their cultural context, a petition which would have made the same allowances for an American “Central Conference” passed the last General Conference.  Since it was a change to the Constitution though, it required ratification by 2/3 of Annual Conferences to succeed.  At the 2009 Annual Conferences, it failed to obtain that ratification.  So, we have committed ourselves to being a church whose polity is made by a global constituency: what might God have to say and do through such a church?

As you may know, it is only the General Conference that “speaks for the United Methodist Church.”  Though the Bishops “have the reigns” of the church in some way, they are much like the Executive branch of the American government, and cannot make laws on their own.  They do, however, have the chance to “set the agenda,” and this year have put forward an idea that might change the church’s structure quite dramatically.  The “Call To Action” has been heavily publicized, and basically re-directs funding currently given to General Boards and Agencies of the church to other areas that the Bishops believe will re-vitalize the local church.  The plan isn’t without its critics, and alternative plans have been submitted for adoption as well.   There’s also a proposal to have a “Set aside Bishop” who would not be assigned to an Annual Conference such as Oklahoma, but rather to oversight of the whole denomination and to serve as a spokesperson to the media and other agencies with whom our denomination is involved.  There are many other petitions to be considered as well, and during the first five days of General Conference, each one will be looked over by committees before the “survivors” make it to the floor of General Conference for debate and vote.  You can see how it all plays out on www.umc.org.