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It’s a Wrap: Parting Thoughts on GC2012 by Advocate Editor Jessica Connor

May 4, 2012 – It was a day that began with a shocking announcement, peaked with a hate-filled demonstration and wrapped with many delegates frustrated they had no change in the church structure they so desperately craved.

But it will do us well to remember two things: God will always prevail, and perhaps our actions as a body did more honor to John Wesley’s directive to “do no harm” than we think.

The morning started with news that the Judicial Council unanimously ruled the Plan UMC restructuring plan unconstitutional. In essence, the UMC’s top court said the creation of a General Council for Strategy and Oversight under Plan UMC violates the denomination’s constitution because it intrudes into the Council of Bishops’ authority. (Read more at www.umc.org.)

GC2012 appointed a transition team to work all day on 14 constitutional issues within the new UMC structure legislation, then present it again to the full body.

So the day’s business carried on with other items, most notably passage of the global church budget of $603.1 million for 2013-2016 – about 6 percent less than apportioned for this quadrennium and the first time it had ever passed a budget lower than prior year.

But even as business continued, a mood of exhaustion and frustration seemed to prevail on the floor and in the stands. Twitter, the social media outlet that ended up being a hugely influential force for GC2012, was overwhelmed with commentary. As discussion on the floor continued with talk about reinstating GCORR and COSROW to original full-commission status, the mood became one of a people lamenting their “loss of voice.” Some of this sentiment was echoed on the floor.

One delegate urged the body to support the reinstatement of the two missions: “I am a person of color, I am a woman and I am a woman of color, and my story needs to be heard. … As a woman of color I feel I have lost my voice in this church.” But the motion failed.

As the day rolled into lunch, General Conference got another surprise: a massive demonstration by the taunting, gay-bashing Westboro Baptist Church, which brought signs and shouting outside the tent where the Love Your Neighbor Common Witness Coalition had been holding daily lunches in support of full inclusion of all races, genders and sexual orientation in the church. “You are lying to these people; Methodists are fag enablers,” Westboro’s signs read. “God Hates the Methodist Church.”

UMC pastors and laity formed a human shield in front of the demonstrators, singing inclusion songs and other hymns.

Then, during the evening session, as the tone of frustration over the unconstitutionality of the new structure appeared evident, Bishop Larry Goodpaster told the body there was no need for spirit of panic: “We will find this way forward. … God will provide a way. … Do not be discouraged.”

But debate after debate and vote after vote later, GC2012 ended with a motion to adjourn, leaving Plan UMC on the table indefinitely – essentially dead. Those interested in a new structure will have to start from scratch in 2016.

Some dialogued about GC2012 feeling impotent after the body’s inability to create a new structure when so many desired one.

But at the end of the day, perhaps it is better to remember that sometimes, change for the sake of change is not always good. And no change is certainly better than “bad change,” change that brings harm or further damage to the UMC.

As Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, new president of the Council of Bishops said in the final press conference of GC2012, “We are one church together.”

Indeed. And together, though the grace of God, we’ll find our way.

– Advocate Editor Jessica Connor

Thoughts from Advocate Editor Jessica Connor on May 3 GC2012

May 3, 2012 – It was all about pensions and human sexuality protests as the second-to-last day of General Conference 2012 wrapped to a close.

After a morning of debate and both love-filled and inflammatory language, one of several petitions on human sexuality failed by a 40/60 split. The petition had called for the UMC and the world “to refrain from judgment regarding homosexual persons and practices until the Spirit leads us to new insight. In the meantime, let us seek to welcome, know, forgive, and love one another as Christ has accepted us that God maybe glorified through everything in our lives.”
Following the petition vote-down, protestors broke the bar of the conference and surrounded the communion table, clasping arms, swaying and singing during the proceedings. Bishop Mike Coyner called for an early lunch recess because of the disruption, and announced that under the direction of the conference secretary, the afternoon session would be open to delegates only.
But the protestors were still there more than two hours later when the plenary resumed. The Council of Bishops reportedly consulted with the protestors on how to peacefully resolve the situation and decreed the afternoon session would be open. Then, after a prayer of inclusion by Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, protestors quietly left the floor.
Discussion then moved onto pensions, which passed slightly modified. Bottom line: UM clergy in the U.S. will continue to participate in a retirement program that includes a monthly pension payment. It is only mandatory for full-time clergy; the body rejected a motion to mandate it for part-time clergy.
In the evening session, Tim Rogers made a motion to refer to Judicial Council the petition passed by the body earlier tonight on Balance Between Clergy and Laity. That petition amends Para. 602.4, providing for the election of additional lay members to equalize lay and clergy membership of the annual conference, to include the following: Clergy who are unable to attend annual conference because of incapacity or advanced age shall not be counted in arriving at the balance between clergy and lay.
The motion passed.
Tomorrow is the last day of General Conference 2012! Pray for the delegation. There is much ahead for them to decide.

– Advocate Editor Jessica Connor

Thoughts from Advocate Editor Jessica Connor on May 2 GC2012

May 2, 2012 – It was another huge day at General Conference, but ironically, I missed what was probably the biggest action of the 2012 gathering because I committed to doing something that was, for me, utterly life-transforming.

On the floor, the body spent the morning debating amendment after amendment before finally approving a new denominational structure, Plan UMC, that would streamline and hopefully make more efficient general agencies of the church. The vote was 567 to 384 in favor of the plan, which now heads to the General Council on Finance and Administration to determine costs and to the Judicial Council to determine whether the plan is constitutional.  (See full story at http://www.gc2012conversations.com/2012/05/02/plan-umc-gets-tentative-approval/ )

But I didn’t get to see anything except the actual vote, because I spent the morning doing Cost of Poverty Experience, a two-hour role-playing hands-on poverty simulation. In COPE, I and other participants got to play the part of a real-life low-income person living in Dayton, Ohio. I got to play Casey, a mother of two working 10 hours a day as a minimum-wage secretary. (Read about my full experience athttp://www.gc2012conversations.com/2012/05/02/in-their-shoes-poverty-simulation-helps-servants-do-ministry-with-not-to/ )

The experience was eye-opening. I have a passion for those living in extreme poverty, and I have been feeling the whisper of God’s call to do something more, something deeper. This morning’s exercise brought me a more complete understanding of the plight of the working poor and what I can do personally in my ministry with them.

I also got to learn a great deal about the Circles Initiative, a nonprofit organization partnering with The United Methodist Church that hosted the poverty simulation. The Circles Initiative brings middle- and upper-income allies together with low-income people, all of whom enter into a relationship with each other that ultimately helps alleviate poverty issues in their circle and in their greater community. There are 70 Circle sites across the U.S. in 24 states, plus one hub in Canada. Learn more at http://www.thinktank-inc.org/gpage1.html.

For other highlights from the day, visit http://www.umc.org.

Just like that, guaranteed appointments gone

May 1, 2012 – After a Monday dedicated to a great deal of discussion about lifetime appointments of United Methodist bishops, General Conference on Tuesday voted to end guaranteed appointments for clergy with no discussion in the least.

Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites were swarmed with stunned comments by pastors and laity who seemed to say the same thing: no matter how you felt about guaranteed appointments, no matter your concerns about clergy effectiveness, ending the legislation with no debate left many in the body in stunned disbelief.

“Not all of the hurt comes from loss of guaranteed appointment. It comes from the fact that we didn’t even get to discuss it,” one woman tweeted.

Until now, UM pastors were guaranteed an appointment in their conference. But legislation to end security of appointments passed the Ministry and Higher Education Committee. The legislation was placed on the GC2012 consent calendar for Tuesday morning, and many assumed the legislation would get pulled off the consent calendar for separate debate and vote on the floor. But a double signature made that request invalid, and instead, the legislation remained on the consent calendar and was voted in with the rest of the items in a chunk. Just like that, there were no more guaranteed appointments.

Reeling from the speedy action, clergy and laity were posting one after another on Twitter, Facebook and blogs expressing support and fervent disagreement.

Late Tuesday morning, a delegate made a motion to reconsider the legislation in order to give full voice to those with concerns.

But in a surprising decision, the body voted overwhelmingly not to reconsider the legislation. Guaranteed appointment is now gone.

“I’m stunned that the vote was so large for not reconsidering the legislation,” said the Rev. Ken Nelson, South Carolina delegate who served on the Ministry and Higher Education Committee. “We had such a long conversation yesterday about lifetime appointments for episcopal leaders, but we’re not willing to have any conversation about security of appointments.”

Nelson said while he knows there are a significant number of people concerned about ineffective clergy leadership, but he does not think the reconsideration was voted down because people are overwhelmingly against security of appointments.

Rather, he said, “People are concerned about finishing legislation and getting onto other matters like church restructuring.”

Nelson said the ministry study commission has been looking at doing away with guaranteed appointments for the past four years. While it stems from concern about clergy ineffectiveness, though, many were concerned whether bishops would fairly and freely appoint women and persons of color.

“I was one of those persons who had real reserves about whether we had put in measures to guard against episcopal leaders who (might not appoint women and people of color fairly),” Nelson said.

Nelson worked on the committee to be sure there was a monitoring system in place to be sure no group was singled out in the appointment process – what he calls “a starting point.”

What the change means for South Carolina, Nelson said: Pastors will now need to demonstrate effectiveness, which could bring a great deal of anxiety for pastors and churches.

He said the church will have to monitor appointment-making faithfully to be sure there is consistency across the board and clergy are given the opportunity to demonstrate fruitfulness before they lose their appointment.

“Simply throwing the baby out with the bath water is not the solution,” Nelson said. “How do you define what is ineffective? I don’t think it’s quite clear.”

– Advocate Editor Jessica Connor

Thoughts from Advocate Editor Jessica Connor on April 29 GC2012

April 29, 2012 – I’ve arrived at General Conference 2012 armed with an open mind, a fresh reporter’s notebook and my smartphone – ready to watch and listen to the proceedings so the Advocate can provide in-depth coverage for readers across South Carolina.

I’m a “newbie” to the quadrennial legislative gathering, and I had no clue what to expect. About two months ago, S.C. Conference Secretary the Rev. Tim Rogers told me to be prepared to experience the exact opposite of what I expected. On the train ride last night to Tampa, Fla., site of GC2012, I was imagining a sea of multiethnic delegates speaking in different languages; a massive group of serious-looking, suit-wearing delegates paying very close attention to whatever was happening onstage; protestors carrying signs and chanting; and so many people crammed into one room at the Tampa Convention Center that I’d frankly be more than a little claustrophobic.

Instead, I found something a lot more congenial, more intimate. Yes, people paid rapt attention to the stage, and the swirl of global language and dress added a festive Kingdom vibe to the Sunday evening lineup. But the gathering looked a lot more like a family meeting than a mob scene, the setting more like cozy worship in my local church than an overwhelming pomp-filled circumstance.

I felt the Spirit at work, felt the Global Church made real through everyday people – people just like South Carolina’s 18 clergy and lay delegates, many of whom carpooled and room-shared to make the 11-day conference feasible.

The delegates are people like you and me: people called to represent their conference and do the work of the Lord in the United Methodist Church.

Tomorrow, April 30, brings the first official full plenary day, when the legislative work accomplished during Week One of GC2012 will come to the floor. I know the heated debates will come, and I know passion for certain issues might change some of the friendly tone I sensed tonight.

But based on my first impression of GC2012, I have high hopes that the work of our Lord will be carried out for the glory of the Kingdom.

– Advocate Editor Jessica Connor

 

Briefing previews General Conference issues

Jan. 25, 2012

Editor’s note: This is look at issues explored at a recent Pre-General Conference News Briefing in Tampa, Fla. A separate story, which will be posted on umc.org, will focus on the proposal to restructure the church.

TAMPA, Fla. (UMNS) — Diverse issues presented at a recent three-day briefing signaled the workload ahead for the lawmaking body of The United Methodist Church, which meets this spring.

More than 300 delegates, communicators and others who will be part of the 2012 General Conference met Jan. 19-21 at the Tampa Convention Center, site of the legislative assembly, for a preview of some of the issues they will face April 24-May 4. United Methodist Communications sponsored the event, with involvement and support from other agencies and ministries of the church. This is a brief look at the issues explored.

Leading vital congregations

Proposed changes to the ordination process will eliminate guaranteed appointments, streamline the ordination process and sharpen the focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, said members of the Study of Ministry Commission in their presentation on clergy effectiveness proposals.

The Rev. Jay Williams, pastor of Glendale United Methodist Church, Everett, Mass., endorsed the plan, which would eliminate the commissioning step, create an orientation to ministry and require conferences to have vocational discernment coordinators.

Guaranteed appointments were introduced in the 1956 Book of Discipline as a way to protect women who received the rights to become ordained at that General Conference, said the Rev. Tom Choi, Hawaii District superintendent, California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference.

“Racism and sexism haven’t gone away, but we’re in a different place than we were 56 years ago,” Choi said.

Leadership needs to be creative and nimble, said the Rev. Amy Gearhart, senior pastor of Missouri United Methodist Church, Columbia, Mo. She said security of appointment for elders in good standing has become a “barrier to mission.”

In 2010, the United Methodist Sustainability Advisory Group released a report saying there are 784 more pastors than appointments in the denomination. Clergy retirements by 2013 will leave drastically low numbers, if younger clergy are not recruited and encouraged.

Set-aside bishop

Bishop Larry Goodpaster, current Council of Bishops president, discussed the proposal to create a “set-aside bishop” without residential responsibilities.

“It is nearly impossible to be president of the Council of Bishops and lead an episcopal area,” he said.

Some delegates questioned whether a new bishop position, along with the elimination of guaranteed appointments, would shift too much power to the bishops.

Goodpaster emphasized that the General Conference will still be the only voice that speaks for the entire denomination and bishops will remain bound by The United Methodist Book of Discipline.

Ethnic initiatives

Representatives of the United Methodist ethnic/racial ministries asked news-briefing participants to see and hear them because often they feel “invisible.”

The denomination’s ethnic initiatives help start new churches and cultivate new leaders to draw more people of color into The United Methodist Church.

“It is our mission to be the church for all people and to bring the great news to each in their own language,” said the Rev. Francisco Cañas, speaking for the ethnic/racial ministries. Cañas is national coordinator of the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry.

The group expressed concerns with a proposed restructure of The United Methodist Church, which includes a plan to consolidate nine of the denomination’s 13 general agencies into a new United Methodist Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry.

The ethnic initiatives said there was little or no consultation with them about the new structure proposed by the Interim Operations Team, which developed the restructure proposal endorsed by the Connectional Table and Council of Bishops. The Connectional Table drafted the legislation.

“We should have some direct say-so about where we are placed and financed,” said the Rev. Fred A. Allen, national director of Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century.

“Pacific Islanders will give their last dollar before they see a church die,” said Monalisa Tui’tahi, executive director of the Pacific Islanders National Plan. “We need your partnership to be part of the family.”

Representatives of the United Methodist Council on Korean American Ministries, Asian American Language Ministry, and Native American Comprehensive Plan also spoke.

Trail of repentance and healing

“What if your greatest hope was also your greatest fear?”

The Rev. Anita Phillips, executive director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan, softly asked that question and stilled the room of General Conference delegates, communicators and agency staff.

An Act of Repentance and Healing for Indigenous Persons will be part of 2012 General Conference on April 27.

“I have two identities. I am a Christian, and I am Native American,” said Phillips.

“It is with fear and trembling that I say, ‘yes,’ repentance is possible, and it can be genuine and honest.”

Not far from the Tampa Convention Center, where the legislative assembly of nearly 1,000 delegates from around the world will meet, is a marker in honor of the remains of a small Native American tribe uncovered when the center was constructed in 1987.

“A temple mound stood five stories high and existed before the time of Christ,” said the Rev. Stephen Sidorak, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. Tampa was also the deportation center for Native Americans and African slaves, he said.

“We have to repent of what we have done and what we have left undone,” Sidorak said.

The committee working on the service has been to the Philippines and other places to gather stories from indigenous persons “wherever United Methodism has spread its blanket on the land,” Phillips said.

“My hope rests in Christ. I claim you as a brother or sister in Christ and ask that you claim me as a representative of the Native American nation,” she said. “It is one of the most important things you will do at this General Conference.”

Worldwide nature of the church

A 20-member Committee to Study the Worldwide Nature of The United Methodist Church considered how to forge deeper connections, establish greater local authority and create a more equitable sharing of power and representation, reported Kansas Area Bishop Scott Jones, who chaired the committee.

The process included consultation with United Methodists from around the world.

“Part of what we heard everywhere was … a desire to have greater equality across the church,” said the Rev. Cathy Stengel, a district superintendent from the Upper New York Annual Conference.

The Rev. Forbes Matonga of Zimbabwe, the committee vice chair, said the denomination must make some changes to bind its members together. “As we were listening, it was very clear that people we met want to remain United Methodist,” he added.

Central conferences outside the United States have the right to adapt the Book of Discipline for their own use, but “nobody knows what is adaptable and what isn’t,” Jones pointed out. The committee has submitted legislation to solve that problem.

The committee’s other legislative petitions focus on the duties of general agencies to be responsive to the world church and continued conversations about a global model for the denomination.

Church budget

As the U.S. economy improves, more than 40 percent of United Methodist congregations “describe their financial health as good or excellent,” reported John Goolsbey, a staff executive with the denomination’s Council on Finance and Administration.

Still, all levels of the church responded to the recession, he said, by cutting staff, freezing salaries and re-aligning ministries. The downturn affected church endowments and savings, capital projects and giving to mission work.

At General Conference, the finance and administration agency’s main task will be to present a proposed church budget for 2013-16. The agency also submitted 43 petitions.

To facilitate the budget process, the agency established an economic advisory committee, which created three economic scenarios and worked with the projections of denominational agencies, explained the Rev. Pat Youngquist, staff executive.

At $603 million, the recommended budget reflects general reductions of 6.6 percent and marks the first time a budget smaller than that for the previous quadrennium will be presented.

The World Service Fund represents 52 percent of the budget, at $311.6 million. Other categories are Ministerial Education, $105.6 million; Episcopal (the bishops), $90.3 million; General Administration, $8.2 million; Black College, $42.1 million; Africa University, $9.4 million; and Interdenominational Cooperation, $8.2 million.

“Great ministries cannot be done without your support for the apportionments,” A. Moses Kumar, top staff executive of the Council on Finance and Administration, reminded the delegates.

Changes to clergy pensions

General Conference will consider two proposals that would change clergy pensions, shifting more of the risk in retirement preparation from annual conferences to individual clergy.

The United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits is asking the denomination’s top lawmaking body to choose between the two options. The first would combine a defined benefit component with a defined contribution component, like the clergy’s current retirement program but with a reduced benefit for clergy and, consequently, a lower contribution for conferences. The second option would be a defined contribution-only plan.

A defined benefit plan provides a monthly pension payment for life, with the employer assuming the bulk of the investment risk. A defined contribution plan — like the 401(k) plans most corporate employees now have — provides an account balance to use during retirement, with the clergyperson assuming most of the risk that the money will not run out in his or her lifetime.

The pension board recommends the first option, which combines a reduced defined benefit component with a defined contribution component.

Either option would reduce the costs to conferences overall by about 15 percent.

“We have a theology of hope, but we try not to build that into our actuarial projections,” said Barbara Boigegrain, the pension board’s top executive.

The proposed changes would not reduce benefits for retired clergy that already are being paid or reduce what active clergy have already earned.

Holy conversation

Leading a session on “Holy Conversation about Challenging Issues,” Minnesota Area Bishop Sally Dyck said, “For many people, General Conference is dread-full.

“As a people of The United Methodist Church, we can demonstrate a more excellent way.”

Holy conferencing, or holy conversation, she said, “sets a tone for respectful dialogue and relationship building.”  The goal is to have dialogue instead of debate and to find consensus around important matters rather than have “winners” and “losers.”

“We do more political conferencing than holy conferencing,” declared the Rev. Mike Slaughter, lead pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, Tipp City, Ohio. Paraphrasing John 16:13, he expressed hope that “the Holy Spirit will lead to things to come.”

The Rev. Bruce W. Robbins, pastor of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, Minneapolis, agreed. “The challenge of holy conversation can be a source of frustration and despair,” he said. He cited the dilemma of being asked to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies and the two covenants to which he is called — “as an ordained clergy and as a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, said he experienced holy conferencing in the Wisconsin Annual (regional) Conference’s study of homosexuality and called it “next to impossible at General Conference.”

While some issues may seem impossible to resolve, he said, “it is important to remember how we treat one another, with respect and understanding. Holy conferencing allows us to talk about our deeply held convictions and the reasons we hold them.”

Erin Hawkins, who leads the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, said, “We are tasked with sustaining a difficult conversation every day.

“Holy conversation is a commitment to see equity, participation and access to participation.”

Approaching General Conference, said the Rev. Stephanie Hixon, it is normal to feel anxious and somewhat fearful. She is co-executive director of the denomination’s JustPeace Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation.

“My prayer,” she said, “is that we may know God’s embrace is strong enough, wide enough and tender enough to carry the important conversations that are put before us.”

Asked what they hope to experience about holy conversation from presiding bishops, other delegates and themselves, panel participants listed courage, fairness and respect, honesty, humility and openness to others in the Spirit.

“Will General Conference be dread-full or will it be hopeful?” Dyck asked the audience. “It’s up to you.”

Worship

Gathering participants with rousing, contemporary music was the worship team from Van Dyke United Methodist Church, Lutz, Fla.

In his sermon, the Rev. Tom Albin, dean of the Upper Room for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, focused on the importance of prayer before, during and after General Conference.

“We need the church united in prayer,” he said.

He introduced a resource, “50 Days of Prayer Before & During General Conference 2012.” Electronic communication will make it possible for every local congregation in every part of the world to pray with and for the 988 delegates. Using the Internet and free, downloadable files, every United Methodist will be able to read the same Scripture, share the same insights and pray the same prayer for 40 days before General Conference as well as pray through each day of the conference, April 24 through May 4.

“I know if we listen and God speaks, there will be transformation,” Albin said. “God can answer in amazing ways.”

Preaching on the second day of the news briefing, the Rev. Francisco Cañas challenged participants to find “new forms of being the church.”

Calling for diversity, he said, “To continue perpetuating the old rule of inviting only the people we know, who look and behave like us, will not produce the vitality and diversity that by nature belongs to God’s kingdom.

“As United Methodist people, we find the solid ground of our mission in God’s trust, love and compassion for the entire breadth of humankind.”

Linda Bloom, Joey Butler, Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Kathy Gilbert and Heather Hahn contributed to this report.

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