A Layperson’s Guide to General Conference 2016

Today, our quadrennial United Methodist General Conference convenes in Portland, Oregon. You may not be able to muster a thimbleful of concern about this, but I can assure you that Methodist leaders will be glued to the proceedings these next two weeks.

For those of you who don’t really get how it all works, here is a brief UMC primer to help you understand how our structure fits together — from your local United Methodist church to this month’s gathering in Portland.

The local church is the heart and soul of Methodism and the basic unit of our structure. We are not a “congregational” tradition, however; we are connected to each other.

Every United Methodist church is part of a district. Districts gather three or four times a year and are presided over by District Superintendents. District Superintendents are part advocate, part arbitrator, part administrator and part appointer. They connect churches and pastors to the larger Annual Conference.

Every district is part of an Annual Conference, a term representing both a geographical area and an annual gathering. An Annual Conference gathering is made up of equal parts laity and clergy and is presided over by a Bishop.

Every Annual Conference belongs to a jurisdiction. Jurisdictional conferences meet every four years. The most important thing jurisdictions do is elect bishops. There are also what is known as Central Conferences, which comprise areas beyond the United States, including Africa, Europe and the Philippines (don’t ask me about South America; it’s complicated).

The Central and Jurisdictional Conferences, along with a host of boards and agencies, together make up the General Conference. Every four years, delegates from every conference area (864 this year) come together to discuss the structure, doctrine and missional focus of the UMC. The General Conference is presided over by a Council of Bishops but decisions are made by the body itself, not by the bishops.

Ours is a global connection. “Connection” ends up being an important term in our structure. Being connectional means that none of us who lead in the UMC can up and make decisions in a vacuum. We belong to a global family held together by a covenantal structure. Like families, denominations (and churches, and businesses, and pretty much anything else that involves people) have huge disagreements and personality conflicts. And like families, no one really understands yours except the ones who are in it. The connection is deep and personal.

What makes a family is that connection. It is that intangible you can’t quite define but when it is there, you know it. The United Methodist Church was designed to be like that. When we talk about the places where we disagree and what is on the table at this year’s General Conference, that question of connection is beneath all the other questions.

Are we connected? If we are not, then everyone is free to have their own opinion and go their own way. If we are, then whether we end up agreeing or not, we are required to live respectfully with one another inside a set of expectations. That question of connection and accountability is at the heart of the current crisis within the UMC.

Because this is a critical piece of our structure, it bears repeating: A connectional church has an agreed-upon set of expectations.

Of course those expectations can change if enough people think they should. At General Conference, there are issues up for debate that could fundamentally change the ethos of our denomination. The most volatile issue to be discussed (and has been for forty years) is human sexuality and its connection to marriage and ordination. As David Watson, a professor at a UMC seminary puts it, we have reached an impasse on matters related to “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” people.

The Book of Discipline currently reads this way: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all.” The position goes on to affirm our strong commitment to a loving, grace-filled approach to all relationships. This position is in line with orthodox, historical Christian teaching. In most areas of the world it is the acceptable norm, though in Europe and the United States, the culture around homosexuality has changed dramatically.

At this year’s General Conference, there will be dozens of proposals on the table that promote some version of a change to that position. There will be protests and demonstrations by those who want to see the Discipline changed. It will not be a comfortable place to be, no matter what your position.

If the position as it is currently stated in the Discipline changes, it will most certainly be newsworthy. If you’re a Methodist, don’t be be taken off guard. What you’re seeing is what happens when families — really big families — disagree.

Chances are, when the gavel falls again at the end of this General Conference, the wording of the Book of Discipline will not have changed. But not so with the UMC. Why? Because our core value is connection and the connection is unraveling. That is already a fact and no matter what decisions are made at General Conference the connection as we know it will continue to deteriorate. The United Methodist Church will likely change in fundamental ways, sooner rather than later.

Are we connected … or not? In other words, are we accountable to one another or not?

How we answer that question determines how we answer all the other questions in Portland in the days ahead.

Carolyn Moore

I follow Jesus within the communities of Mosaic Church, Asbury Seminary and the Moore household.

9 thoughts on “A Layperson’s Guide to General Conference 2016

  1. Yep, you put this in about a good and plain way as possible. I have been a student pastor for the last seven years and will be graduating Asbury in 2018. I wish things were a bit clearer as I will be transitioning from my two little rural churches to whatever God would lead me to next. It’s going to be rocky and crazy as all this unfolds . . . things are definitely not going to stay the same, whatever happens. It’s kind of scary as the leader of my family but I’m also glad that something is going to change. The culture within the UMC has become toxic and almost unbearable . . . trying to play pretend and act like we’re O.K. with all of this. God is good and faithful. I’m looking forward to something so much better than what we have currently.

  2. 111 pastors signed a letter showing how this is going to be. I pray for the general conference and I for one am sick and tired of the ones stirring up all the trouble at every step of the way. It will only get worse unless we force them to act responsibly and with decorum. This they will NOT do and I fear disruption at every turn. I will keep praying.

  3. Carolyn,
    Once again you’ve driven straight to the core. At stake are the twin issues of connection and scriptural understanding. If we have fundamental disagreements, how can we maintain a connection that is covenantal and mutually accountable? A loose connection is not enough to sustain a vibrant body of faith. That is why proposals that allow for disagreement with no mutual accountability across the denomination will be ultimately futile. A house built on a cracked foundation will continue to manifest signs of disunity.

  4. The Church is letting a single issue divide it and keep it from the great Commission. After 40 years of arguing, isn’t it about time to close this chapter and not try to enforce something that is causing a great divide. Why not follow John Wesley’s ‘agree to disagree’ principle and get on with it.

    The Church is losing membership and not bringing more people to Christ. Where is the focus about bringing people to faith.

    The Church appears to be facing financial difficulties and turn a blind eye toward greed. Where are the programs addressing this issue. The Church needs to re-address its priorities.

  5. I love my local fellowship which stands solidly on the truth found in God’s Word! It seems that the cracks we face are the places where we have left that truth. Love in truth and without compromise secured anchored to the rock of Jesus Christ should be our only stand. To move from that is to try to mold God’s Word to fit us and not us to fit into God’s Word. It seems to stand in God’s Holy Truth should solidify our foundation. Perhaps that pieces that fall off are things that should.

  6. If the General Conference eventually decides and votes to have the US as a separate conference based on allowing gay clergy and gay marriage WHERE does that leave those of us who believe the biblical view and teaching of the view of marriage? Are we to seek out a denomination or non denominational church that believes as we do?

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