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Jan/Feb response: The State of The United Methodist Church

As we enter into a General Conference year, learn more about what’s happening in The United Methodist Church and United Methodist Women’s plans for a bright future

by Tara Barnes

“Be brave and don’t lose heart, because your work will be rewarded!” —2 Chronicles 15:7 (CEB)

The United Methodist General Conference usually meets every four years. The most recent conference was set to take place in May 2020. Then the COVID-19 global health pandemic forced its postponement. In March 2020, the commission on the General Conference postponed General Conference to 2021, and in February 2021 postponed the conference again to 2022. The new dates for General Conference as of this printing are Aug. 29 to Sept. 6, 2022, to be held in Minneapolis.

Delegates elected for the 2020 General Conference will remain the delegates for 2022, and they will vote on legislation prepared for 2020.

What is General Conference?

Similar to the U.S. government structure, The United Methodist Church has three branches: Executive, judicial and legislative. General Conference is the legislative branch. It meets every four years to set denominational policy, revise church law, approve budgets for churchwide programs and adopt resolutions on current moral, social, public policy and economic issues. General Conference is the only body authorized to speak for The United Methodist Church.

The executive branch is the Council of Bishops, currently comprising 151 elected active and retired bishops, with 54 active bishops administering 128 annual conferences around the world, and the judicial branch is the Judicial Council, an elected body of laity and clergy that ensures actions of church bodies adhere to The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.

General Conference is where additions and changes are made to The Book of Discipline and The Book of Resolutions, the church’s book of laws and book of social policies that govern the church from the local to global level. It’s also where official teachings and official documents like The United Methodist Hymnal and The United Methodist Book of Worship are approved.

Delegates to General Conference, equal numbers of clergy and lay, are elected at their annual conferences. The number of delegates to General Conference is always between 600 and 1,000, and the delegate count for each conference is based on the number of clergy and professing lay members of the conference in a formula laid out by The Book of Discipline. The delegate count for the 2020 General Conference (to be held now in 2022) is 862.   

General Conference usually meets for 11 days, with the first week spent in legislative committees and the second in full session to vote on legislation perfected and passed in committee.

The time together also includes worship, prayer, an exhibit hall, missionary commissioning, deaconess and home missioner consecration, sponsored side events, actions, vigils and other ways United Methodists come together as a body as part of the church’s mission to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.

We don’t know yet what General Conference will look like in 2022 or if the current barriers to a representative global gathering can be overcome in time. It is a time we must pay attention and prepare.

What does a delayed General Conference mean?

The delayed General Conference means decisions usually made every quadrennium have been pushed back until General Conference does meet, mainly affecting church budgets, church agency boards of directors and episcopal coverage.

The church is still operating on the 2016 budget. Board members of United Methodist agencies elected in 2016 are still serving. No new bishops have been elected because jurisdictional conferences have not been held, but 11 U.S. bishops have retired in 2021, meaning expanded assignments for current bishops. Five bishops in the United States and eight in Africa, Europe and the Philippines have postponed their retirements.

What has happened during the delay?

First, we as individuals and as a church have gone through a pandemic. We have lost and longed and been at our best and at our worst. The tragedy of the past two years cannot be minimized as we wait for what comes next.

But waiting is not a passive act. United Methodists have been taking steps toward their future. New Methodist expressions have formed, including a traditionalist denomination hoping for legislation called “Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation and Restructuring” (also known as the Protocol) to pass General Conference, and a progressive liberationist denomination that has already launched. Some churches have left the denomination through a process called disaffiliation. In 2020, 51 churches disaffiliated according to United Methodist News, and in 2021, per a response magazine review of annual conference reports and materials, 117 disaffiliated. Currently, only local churches can leave the denomination, not conferences.

Not all activity has focused on leaving: Many see their future in The United Methodist Church and are excited about what it can be and become. Some groups that formed within the church are the Liberation Project, Out of Chaos, Christmas Covenant, Big Tent Methodism: Reimagined and Stay UMC, all focused on how the church can better nurture its members, make decisions together and do the work God is calling it to do.

Why is this important to know?

United Methodist Women is an agency of The United Methodist Church. We are the official women’s organization of The United Methodist Church. We exist to help the church fulfill the mission of Christ. We are in The Book of Discipline and so are amenable to the General Conference.

General Conference is in 7 months. It is imperative that United Methodist Women be there. We don’t want others making decisions about us without us, and we don’t want the church to neglect women, children and youth.

What are we preparing for?

United Methodist Women has its own legislation we are bringing to General Conference, and we’ll be supporting the good work of partners. We’re preparing to be present (as allowed) at General Conference in many ways: Central Conference women’s orientation and lounge, our exhibition booth, prayer room, deaconess and home missioner consecration, action, beaded pins in registration bags, as voting delegates and more.

We’re also paying attention to plans proposed for restructuring the church and their implications for our organization. Currently, the most publicly endorsed plans are the Protocol and regionalization plans, one titled “A Christmas Covenant (Global Regionalism)” and the other “U.S. As a Regional Conference.”

Very basically, the Protocol, “Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation and Restructuring,” is a negotiated “exit plan” for churches and conferences to leave the denomination with property and seed money to form new denominations. The late Bishop John Yambasu brought together a group of United Methodists representing traditionalists, centrists and progressives who worked with a professional mediator to determine the terms of the legislation. Seed money of $25 million will go to traditionalists, and $2 million will be available for others who meet the criteria for starting a new denomination. The United Methodist Church will remain.

Questions about the Protocol include whether it’s legal based on church law, where the seed money will come from and if the carefully negotiated terms will be amended. 

The regionalization plans move the church away from a U.S.-centric, colonial mentality and toward structural parity by making the United States its own regional conference, on par with current central conferences, meaning delegates outside the United States won’t spend the majority of their time at General Conference voting on U.S. matters, and the United States would have the same flexibility as current central conferences to adapt The Book of Discipline to its context. In 2020 United Methodist Women Board of Directors expressed its support for regionalization.

The regionalization plans include constitutional amendments that require a two-thirds majority vote at General Conference, and then each amendment must receive at least two-thirds of the total votes at subsequent annual conferences around the world.

What if General Conference doesn’t happen?

The Book of Discipline does not contain provisions for delayed or canceled General Conferences. If the 2020 General Conference is ultimately canceled, the denomination will continue in this suspended state until the next regularly scheduled General Conference in 2024, a location for which has not yet been announced. Boards and bishops will continue to be strained if jurisdictional conferences cannot meet, and churches will continue to leave.

The long-planned traditionalist denomination has announced a launch date of late August or early September 2022, leaders of which have no doubt been working on alternative exit strategies should their desired plan not pass or General Conference not meet. Facing the possibility of a canceled General Conference and with a desire to move the denomination forward, an open letter to the Council of Bishops titled “A Call to Grace” garnered more than 1,500 signatures in November 2021 asking bishops “to use existing disciplinary authority to find grace-filled ways for these leaders and churches to follow their call now, allowing them to take their church property with them where appropriate.”

Even if General Conference doesn’t happen this year, the church will not stay the same. It will change. It will need your prayers and hope. It will need your leadership. Don’t miss this opportunity to shape the future of the church and so the world.  

What have we been up to?

In this time, we have elected a new, diverse board of directors, organized our 2020-2024 program advisory group, adapted our events and programs and kept right on putting faith, hope and love into action.

We made changes to our bylaws to ensure women can continue to be a part of United Methodist Women even if their local church or conference leaves the denomination. No matter what does or doesn’t happen at General Conference—or if General Conference doesn’t happen at all—churches will leave, and the women in those churches will still need us.

As you’ve read about, we’re creating new initiatives like Soul Care, a national membership option, and new giving opportunities to welcome even more women into the sisterhood and better equip ourselves as faith leaders. This is the fruit of years of listening and discerning. We are rebranding to better express who we are and who we want to be.

Change is part of our history. Change is part of our future. Change is why we are still the largest denominational organization for women.

We are letting change be a chance for new growth.

We are preparing for General Conference and the possible outcomes of General Conference—and we are moving into our future, inviting women in and making sure no one gets left behind. We are loving and leading our church while supporting one another. We are united in faith, stepping forward and daring to transform ourselves and the world. We are answering God’s call to be who we need to be today.  

Tara Barnes is editor of response.

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