General Conference Dispatch (May 3)

Thursday, May 3, 2012   

Taavi, are you bored?” I asked during a lull in the action at General Conference. Taavi is a district superintendent in Estonia and sits at my table in the very, very, very back row. He is one of five other tablemates, including Estonian lay delegate Meeli Tankler, Emilie Just (laity) and Jorgen Thaarup (clergy) from Denmark, and WMC lay delegate Laurie Dahlman.

What a joy it has been to meet and interact with United Methodists from other parts of the world. He said, “I’m not bored at the moment, but during the hour-long debate over a new pension program for the United States, I simply worked at my computer.” Jorgen said, “There is so much at General Conference that does not concern delegates from outside the United States. Central Conference delegates should not even be voting on issues that do not affect us. The U.S. should be a Central Conference where you can make your own decisions, just as we make our own decisions in the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference. This is not a good use of money or time. We need a different way.”

During the dialogue around which pension program to adopt, I made an amendment that would mandate inclusion of all clergy who are half-time or more in the pension program. The petition coming out of the legislative committee stated that only full-time clergy were eligible to participate in the pension program but that individual annual conferences could extend coverage to clergy serving in ½ or ¾ time appointments.  I felt strongly that this was a justice issue and that clergy serving in these appointments deserved to participate, as is currently the case in the West Michigan Conference.

As debate ensued, my seatmates asked me, “Tell us what’s going on. How should we vote?” Jorgen said, “This is so different for us because in Denmark clergy receive our pension and health insurance from the government.” When a new pension program was adopted this afternoon, 41% of the delegates, international delegates from the Central Conference, were voting for something that did not apply to them in any way. Although the amendment failed, I trust that the West Michigan Conference will still provide pension benefits for ½ and ¾ time clergy.

Our morning plenary was emotionally draining as we considered a substitute motion from pastors at two of our largest churches, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter. This motion would alter our Social Principles to state explicitly that we are not of one mind in The United Methodist Church around homosexuality. I was not expecting that we would remove the language from The Book of Discipline that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. I was hopeful, though, that this might be the General Conference where we are honest with ourselves that good and faithful disciples of Jesus Christ differ on this issue.

I was especially hopeful since the original motion came from the brightest and best of our youth and young adults leaders in The United Methodist Church. The discussion was respectful yet painful as we acknowledged that in Africa and the Philippines, many Methodist clergy and laity strongly oppose the practice of homosexuality. In the end, both the original and substitute petitions failed, prompting a peaceful demonstration on the floor of the plenary. When participants refused to leave after the break and kept singing as we attempted to work, the presiding bishop decided to cancel the rest of the morning session.

In the afternoon I found my new friend, Max Maregman, a pastor from the Philippines. Max sent an email to members of the Superintendency Legislative Committee several weeks before General Conference to introduce himself and connect with delegates ahead of time. When I replied to Max’s initial email, he wrote back, “I look forward to having a very fruitful and holy conferencing in spite of many differences we have.  I love The United Methodist Church because it is the only church in the world that is connectional. The cross and flame is our symbol of unity and love.  I trust that this logo will remain whatever happens in this General Conference, which will discuss and decide on a new structure.”

I asked Max this afternoon about his reaction to the morning’s debate around homosexuality and the resulting demonstration. He said, “I am very open and love all people.  I am very sympathetic to those who were demonstrating. However, in the Philippines we will not be able to evangelize if we go home and say that our church now condones the practice of homosexuality.

“This is your issue in the United States, but it not our issue in the Philippines. I hope that, in time, we will be more accepting of homosexuals, but we are not there yet. I also believe that different parts of the UM connection should be allowed to have different Social Principles.”

My tablemate Meeli said today, “It is interesting to be part of a big body, but many of your concerns are not our concerns, and many of our concerns are not your concerns. I want General Conference to do things that affect all United Methodist churches in our world.”

Over and over I am hearing, “It’s not working.” When The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church united in 1968, General Conference was almost solely for churches in the United States. 44 years later, we are still using the same model. Why?

What if we reimagined The United Methodist Church to be a truly global body where the United States would become a Central Conference, and Central (geographical) Conferences could determine social and polity issues unique to their context? Could General Conference shift its focus to emphasize our theological heritage, mission and vision, and strategic plans for making disciples of Jesus Christ to the end of the world?

“I love The United Methodist Church because it is the only church in the world that is connectional. The cross and flame is our symbol of unity and love.  I trust that this logo will remain whatever happens in this General Conference.”   Form follows function. What do we need out of General Conference? What could General Conference become? We need a different way.


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