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.

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