By: Joey Butler (for UMNS) and Christa Meland
General Conference 2016 may have started off slowly, but it’s full steam ahead now. On a day with a full docket, delegates considered whether to give $20 million to a group of church growth consultants, whether to eliminate lifetime tenures for U.S. bishops, and whether it’s time to create a new hymnal.
Meanwhile, delegates asked the Council of Bishops to lead the church out of the “painful condition” it is in after an address by Bishop R. Bruce Ough that called for unity. The Rev. Mark Holland, a delegate from Great Plains, asked the Council of Bishops to meet today and bring back a report tomorrow. Bishops do not have a vote at General Conference, but they can call for a special session of the General Conference.
“I think it makes some sense to see if they can help us think through together what the future might look like,” said Rev. David Bard, a Minnesota delegate. “It’s a smaller group than 800-some delegates. They have relationships with each other…Our hearts in many ways kind of ache. I think we’d really like to find a way forward.”
Bard said he appreciated how heartfelt Ough’s remarks to the plenary were and said they reflect the current reality of the denomination and what a lot of United Methodists are feeling.
Discussions about the Council of Bishops and the future of the church are of particular interest to Bard because he’s a North Central Jurisdiction candidate for bishop (elections will take place in Peoria, Illinois, in July).
“What will being a bishop even look like moving forward?” he said. “I’m hoping there will be some space in which I can help lead the church into the future, even if it’s thinking about how we become two denominations at some point. If in fact there’s something coming in which the church may divide, I think we’ll need good leadership to try to work through that. But even though we struggle in our togetherness, I am hoping we can find some way to move forward.”
Votes of note
Committee on church growth: Delegates referred to the Judicial Council a petition that would remove $20 million from general church ministries and reallocate them to a new committee on U.S. church growth. The denomination’s top court will rule whether the plan is in line with the denomination’s constitution and whether it constitutes a conflict of interest. Donald House Sr., a delegate from the Texas Conference, is the architect of the proposed Standing Committee on Strategy and Growth. An economist, House estimates the church only has 14 years to make a turnaround in the United States to have a sustainable future. His plan is to create a board made up of church-growth consultants and “entrepreneurs of local church revitalization” to develop strategies for growing congregations.
Lay delegate Sara Ann Swenson said she has concerns about this petition—particularly when it comes to the inclusiveness of the committee. The proposed group included only two women and no female clergy.
Additionally, “at a time when there’s a lot of concern about how we move forward amid fear of denominational decline and where to go on social issues, how we are redirecting the budget and what we’re doing with boards and agencies is part of that,” she said.
New hymnal: The United Methodist Church is on track to get its first new hymnal since 1989, and this one will be Internet-cloud based and print-on-demand—the first high-tech hymnal for a mainline denomination. General Conference 2016 approved on a consent calendar May 17 a petition authorizing the creation of a 15-member Hymnal Revision Committee. The 2020 General Conference will need to approve the Hymnal Advisory Committee’s recommendations, with release of the new hymnal coming as early as 2021. Each congregation will be able to customize its selections, beyond a core group of hymns.
“I think this has the potential to be significant,” said Bard. “I like the idea that we might have opportunities for new music to come to us in creative ways. It’s a good resource.”
Terms limits for bishops: Once you’re a bishop, you stay a bishop — at least in the U.S. A petition to amend the constitution and impose term limits for U.S. bishops failed get the required two-thirds vote to pass. The final tally was 482-332. Some bishops outside the United States are already subject to term limits.
Delegate Faye Christensen said she voted “no” on term limits. “I think it’s one step in trying to tie the hands of bishops,” she said. That makes me very uneasy. I don't want to micromanage them. There are certainly some bishops that should step down after 16 years but there are others who I think are doing a fabulous job. I would not like to see them have to step down.”
Deacons and sacraments: Deacons now have fewer hoops to jump through to request permission to administer sacraments. A petition passed that allows deacons to contact their resident bishop directly to ask for permission. Previously, the pastor-in-charge or district superintendent had to make the request on the deacon’s behalf.
“This is very exciting,” said Rev. Paula Colton, an alternate clergy delegate for Minnesota who is a deacon. She added that the legislation is especially noteworthy for deacons who are called to chaplaincy, both military and hospital, because it provides the opportunity to seek ordination as a deacon and have sacramental authority in the place that they’re appointed.
Colton is happy to see legislation that has a positive impact on the order of the deacon.
“I think that even though it’s 20 years that deacons have been ordained now in our church, there’s still often times misunderstandings about the role of the elder and the role of the deacon,” she said. “Some people have been worried that sacramental authority for deacons could muddy that relationship even more, but I think it helps us look at ministry in new ways for the deacon and helps bridge the gap between the church and the world in ways we haven’t even dreamed of yet. I think it’s a door to a whole new opportunity for the ministry of deacons.”
Central Conference education fund: Delegates passed a new formula for allocating funding to the Central Conference Theological Education Fund. All money in excess of $750,000 collected by central conference apportionments for the General Administration Fund will now be directed to the education fund. The original petition, which would have removed Central Conference Theological Education from the World Service Fund and established it as its own apportioned fund, was amended in legislative committee to create the new formula.
Holding bishops accountable: Delegates approved a constitutional amendment that would allow General Conference to set provisions for the Council of Bishops to hold its individual members accountable for their work. They also approved legislation that alters the complaint process against bishops. The new measure sets a definitive timeline of 180 days to try to resolve a complaint in the denomination’s supervisory process within the College of Bishops. The legislation also allows the Council of Bishops at any time to remove the complaint from the College of Bishops with a two-thirds vote of the council.
New Special Sundays: Two new special Sundays without offering were created: Women’s Ministry Sunday may be observed annually on a Sunday designated by the annual conference; Volunteers In Mission Awareness Sunday shall be observed annually on a date determined by the local congregation.
In his May 17 sermon on Matthew 18:10-14, Bishop Ivan M. Abrahams, top executive of the World Methodist Council, warned of the dangers of pledging allegiance to something other than Jesus.
History, he declared, is littered with examples of the church building its own empires. “To go in the name of Jesus of Constantine is to live comfortably with power, prestige and profit, failing to hear the voices of the ‘least of these,’” Abrahams said, placing profit before people and preaching Christ without the cross.
Methodism was committed to those on the margins, he reminded delegates, adding, “Conference, is this still true for us today?”
In other news
The 2016 General Conference marks the 40th anniversary of members of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference being granted voting rights in the top legislative assembly of The United Methodist Church. Although recognized as a conference by the 1972 General Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference delegates had voice but no vote until the 1976 General Conference, which also met in Portland.
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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