By: Christa Meland and Joey Butler (UMNS)
A day after tabling potentially contentious legislation on human sexuality, General Conference 2016 moved through its calendar at a steady clip, possibly noticing that time to finish its task is running short. Though discussion on the difficult subject was avoided, that other difficult subject—money—had to be addressed. Would the “way forward” set the church financially backward?
How much does the bishops’ plan cost?
The bishops’ plan to find a way forward in the church’s longtime homosexuality debate—which delegates approved Wednesday—comes with a price tag, but perhaps not a steep one.
Moses Kumar, chief executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration, said the church can pay for the bishops’ plan without altering the proposed 2017-2020 general church budget of $599 million. The finance agency estimates a special General Conference session would cost $3.39 million for two days and $4.12 million for three days. To offset the cost, Kumar recommends shortening the 2020 General Conference by the number of days used for any special General Conference session.
Bishops have told Kumar they expect to keep costs for the commission to study the church’s stance on human sexuality below $1 million. A fund the General Council on Finance and Administration has already designated for litigation or conflict resolution could pay the commission’s costs.
Votes of note
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice: A petition to withdraw denominational membership from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice was passed, as was a second petition to remove language supporting the coalition from the Book of Resolutions. The United Methodist Church was a founding member of the organization in 1973 and the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and United Methodist Women are currently members.
“I am saddened that we’re withdrawing from RCRC,” said delegate Faye Christensen. “It provides services for women’s overall health and helps poorer women. Connecting it solely to the abortion issue was an injustice.”
Delegate Sara Swenson was also disappointed about the outcome of the vote.
“When we talk about fossil fuels and Palestine, those are places where we choose to stay at the table,” said Swenson. “I’m disappointed that same advocacy didn’t get applied in this case. The UMC has its own stance on women’s health issues that’s different than stances brought by other faith organizations. That’s an important place to stay in conversation with one another. We are responsible to that conversation.”
Rev. David Bard said he wasn’t surprised about the vote because some groups have been working to get it to the floor of General Conference for some time. The organization began as an advocate for overall women’s health, but the “flash point” issue for it is now the availability of safe and legal abortions, he said. The Book of Discipline seems to indicate that at least in some difficult circumstances, they need to be an option, but it’s hard to legislate which circumstances are morally appropriate, he said.
That said, “I don’t think there are many other organizations that seek from a religious point of view to discuss reproductive health issues in the same way RCRC does,” Bard said. “Perhaps we need to find other avenues to have other voices heard when it comes to reproductive health and women’s choices.”
Extension ministries: Delegates voted 603-175 in favor of adapting the second part of The United Methodist Church’s mission statement to include extension ministries. It now reads: “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches and extension ministries provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.”
“Extension ministries are how we take the gospel into the world,” said Rev. Judy Zabel, who supported the change. “We are Christ to the world through extension ministries.”
Delegates also discussed but ultimately defeated a proposal to remove “for the transformation of the world” from the first sentence of the mission statement so that it simply read: “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.”
“I think it would be a mistake to change our mission statement,” said Zabel. “It is so critical for just such a time as this that we remember that making disciples occurs for the transformation of the world.”
Mascots or symbols that disrespect Native Americans: Delegates overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling on United Methodist agencies to raise awareness about the harm caused by sports teams that use mascots or symbols that disrespect Native Americans. The petition had been amended in the Discipleship Committee, deleting language that would have called on United Methodist groups not to have meetings in cities that have sports teams with such mascots or symbols, which previous church resolutions contained.
In 2006, the denomination’s Commission on General Conference retracted Richmond, Virginia, as the site of General Conference 2012, having belatedly learned that the city’s minor league baseball team was the Richmond Braves. Tampa, Florida, became the location.
“I’m glad that we are standing up for a positive representation of Native Americans,” said delegate Sara Swenson. “Some people could feel like it’s a frivolous issue for us to be talking about but it’s not frivolous to Native Americans.”
Rev. Amy Jo Bur, an alternate clergy delegate said this was important legislation and a step in the right direction.
“I was very glad when the speeches on the floor and then the vote moved us in the direction of better honoring indigenous people,” said Bur, noting that part of her family line is Cherokee and so this issue is personally meaningful for her. “The first moral duty of all nations is to work to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them,” she said. “We need to go back and apologize for the way we completely missed the mark and set our sights toward racial reconciliation.”
Health care: Delegates voted to adopt a petition updating the language of the “Health Care for All in the United States” entry in the Book of Resolutions. The amendment features updated language to reflect changes in health care delivery in the United States during the previous quadrennium.
Anti-Semitism: Delegates defeated Thursday, by a vote of 336 to 446, a petition titled “Confronting Twenty-First-Century Anti-Semitism.” The committee that handled the petition had not supported it, instead backing one titled “Called to Be Neighbors and Witnesses: Guidelines for Interreligious Relationships.”
Throughout the day, delegates paused to celebrate a number of milestones, including the 60th anniversary of the Methodist Church granting full clergy rights to women. Bur took Bard’s seat on the plenary floor for part of the morning so that she could be there for this celebration.
“For my entire lifetime, women have been pastors in The United Methodist Church,” said Bur. “It’s significant that this decision 60 years ago allows roughly half of the population of the earth to be able to follow their call. I think of what would be lost if they weren’t able to follow their call.”
But Bur noted that it wasn’t until 20 years after women gained full clergy rights within the church that they were elected to the leadership of the General Conference as delegates.
“It reminds us that even when we see a major change, we need to continue to work for fuller implementation of that change,” she said. “We still have much work to do. Even with female bishops and female delegates, we have much work to do in fully embracing both women and men as capable of all areas of leadership in the church.”
In other news
Judicial Council ruling: The Judicial Council May 19 ruled a proposed establishment of a United Methodist “Standing Committee on Strategy and Growth” funded by $20 million taken from denominational coffers was unconstitutional. The court’s decision noted that the amended petition did not include how the committee’s membership “is to be determined nor how the $20 million is to be spent,” adding that such a committee also “cannot dictate the duties, functions or responsibilities of the general agencies.”
Judicial Council members: For the first time, a member from outside the United States has been elected president of the United Methodist Judicial Council. N. Oswald Tweh Sr., a lay member from Liberia, will lead the denomination’s top court for 2016-2020. Rev. Kathi Austin Mahle, a retired elder in the Minnesota Conference, had sought re-election for a second term but wasn't one of the two clergy people elected among the 11 nominees. Today, she and the other outgoing council members were recognized and thanked for their service.
Council of Bishops leadership: The new leadership team of the Council of Bishops was formally introduced during plenary on May 19. Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce R. Ough is the incoming president, and Bishop Kenneth Carter is the president-designate. Bishop Cynthia Harvey is returning as secretary. Serving as executive secretary will be Bishop Marcus Matthews, and serving as ecumenical secretary will be Bishop Michael Watson. Past Council of Bishops President Warner H. Brown Jr. will be part of the leadership team as well.
Retiring bishops: General Conference recognized retiring United Methodist bishops during Thursday plenary. Among those retiring is Bishop John Hopkins, who served the Minnesota Conference from 1996 to 2004. He’s now leading the East Ohio Conference. Other retiring bishops from the North Central Jurisdiction are Bishop Michael Coyner, Bishop Bishop Jonathan Keaton, and Bishop Deborah Kiesey.
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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