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General Conference

As most of you know, I spent last week in Tampa, Florida, at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Every four years 1000 delegates from across the globe gather as, basically, the legislative body of our denomination. As I mentioned on Sunday morning, it’s going to take me a long time to process all that I experienced and learned during those five days in Tampa. If I had to pick one word to describe the experience…well, I couldn’t do it. It was many different things at once: interesting, challenging, emotional, inspiring, frustrating and exhausting.

For those who are interested, I will set up a time in the next few weeks to share with you some of what was discussed and decided (or not decided) at the Conference. For now, though, I at least wanted to give you a summary of some of the highlights. I will share with you what happened without much editorial comment on my part. I’ll be happy to share with you my feelings on any of these issues in person, but wanted simply in this article to inform you about some of the major decisions.

Going into the General Conference (GC), there was a great deal of conversation around restructuring our boards and agencies. Many of our boards have worked independently of each other, and there has been a call for greater efficiency and shared vision. Two plans were proposed before the GC but neither was approved. A third, compromise plan was offered during the conference itself and was actually passed. For better or worse, though, it was rejected by the Judicial Council as unconstitutional. So, we’re back to square one, although the boards are committed to reducing their size and improving their communication.

The General Conference also voted to abolish the “guaranteed appointment” that pastors receive. Up until now, anyone ordained as an elder in the UMC was guaranteed a job. Some felt that the guarantee tied the hands of bishops, who had to pastors even if they had become ineffective. Others felt that the lack of a guarantee would hurt women and minorities, whom many churches resist as pastors. In the end the guarantee was removed.

There was a lot of emotion and energy around the question of homosexuality. Currently, our Book of Discipline states that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and it prohibits people who are gay from being ordained. Many would like to see this language removed. Others, especially many of our brothers and sisters from Africa, are afraid that removing the language would alienate Christians in their countries. Several people presented a proposal that would acknowledge that we as United Methodists are not of one mind on this question. People of faith disagree, but we are committed to continuing the conversation and to loving each other. Sadly, this proposal failed. (That was an editorial comment on my part. I do believe acknowledging our differences would have been a prophetic step in the right direction.)

One of the things I realized at this meeting was that many are trying to “save our church.” We are looking to young adults or better budgets or “stronger leadership” to save us. A telling moment for me was during worship one evening. The man at the piano had us sing, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” But I wanted to shout, “No! It’s not up to me! It’s not up to you or any of us! It’s up to God!” The church is the body of Christ, and we don’t have to save it. We can’t. Christ is alive, without our help. We just need to be listening and following where he is in the world. That’s not an easy answer to our struggles. It is nearly impossible to get one family to agree on anything, much less 1000 Christians from all over the world. But Christ is our leader, and because of who he is, I have every hope in the world for “the people called Methodists.” God is not finished with us yet!