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Thoughts on General Conference 2016

Thoughts on General Conference 2016

The 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, met in Portland, Oregon, May 10-20. The top policy-making body of the UMC meets every four years. This year’s conference was made up of 864 delegates from around the world.

The UMC is becoming more and more of a global church!
Forty-two percent of General Conference delegates were from outside the U.S. (compared to only 20% in 2004), including 30% from Africa, where the church has grown 329% in the last ten years. Some seem to claim the growing global nature of the church is part of our problem. I disagree. The struggling church in the U.S. desperately needs the vital church in Africa and Asia. Our problems in the U.S. began long before we were a global church. I am grateful to be connected to what God is doing around the world!

The local church didn’t get much attention at General Conference!
One of my prayers at the outset of General Conference was, “God, don’t let them mess up what we’re trying to do in the local church!” We say “our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” and that local churches are primary places where this happens. However, I didn’t get the sense there was much discussion about the local church at General Conference. If this is true, there’s a real disconnect between what we say is important and what General Conference spent eleven days focusing on (at a cost of more than $1,338/minute)!

General Conference is energy draining!
Throughout the 11-day conference, I tried to follow news through media outlets and social media. I watched many of the Bishops’ sermons, and parts of a couple of legislative sessions. I wasn’t even there, and it was still energy draining. I can’t imagine what is was like to be there; in fact, I received an email toward the end of the conference from a delegate from another state, who said, “This process is very frustrating and not very effective for getting ANYTHING done.”

General Conference decided to make one last effort to avoid a split!
Ever since General Conference 2012, a heavy cloud has hung over the United Methodist Church. There has been talk of schism, primarily over the issue of homosexuality, and there seemed to be an expectation that the UMC would split at this conference. In the end, the church found a way to make one last attempt at saving the denomination. The Conference approved the proposal from the Council of Bishops to appoint a diverse commission to study human sexuality. They will make recommendations at a future conference, possibly a special session of General Conference in 2018 or 2019; however, I will be surprised if this commission is able to complete its task prior to the regularly-scheduled 2020 General Conference!

On Tuesday, May 17, Bishop Bruce Ough, President of the Council of Bishops, made the following statement in an address to General Conference …

We have risked exploring what many would consider radical new ways to organize The United Methodist Church according to deeply held and differing values and convictions. Ideas brought to the attention of the Council by both more conservative and more progressive voices. We are not fearful of the level of vulnerability and humility required of anyone willing to engage new ideas.

I would like to have heard more about those “radical new ways” at this Conference. It’s hard to imagine a way forward where all parties will be happy, or even be able to coexist. It’s also hard to imagine a scenario where the denomination stays intact. But, it’s clear that something needs to happen, not just to settle this issue, but so that we can be a disciple-making, world-transforming movement again!

Unity appeared to be a strong theme at General Conference. Unity is important, but faithfulness to God and to God’s Word are even more important. In other words, our chief goal must be to be faithful to God’s Word (in a godly, grace-filled way), NOT just find a way to keep the denomination intact!

I keep thinking of John Wesley’s statement (incidentally, I mentioned this quote in a post after General Conference 2012) …

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.

We must pray!
Please pray fervently and consistently for the United Methodist Church over the next few years, as the commission forms and studies our position on human sexuality and makes recommendations to the next General Conference. I recommend incorporating Jesus’ prayers: “I want your will to be done, not mine” (Luke 22.42b, NLT), and “May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6.10b, NLT).

We have to find a way to move beyond this battle, which is keeping us from focusing on our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

A Prayer for the 2016 General Conference of the UMC

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