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Commission proposes changes in General Conference

The Rev. Fitzgerald Reist and the Rev. Gail Murphy-Geiss listen to the Rev. Alan Morrison's comments during a business session of the Commission on General Conference. UMNS photos by Tim Tanton.

By Tim Tanton*
April 30, 2007 | FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS)

The Rev. Alan Morrison, General Conference business manager, chats with consultant Stephen Drachler (left) and the Rev. Eliezer Valentín-Castañón under a Texas star made of hats at the Fort Worth Convention Center.

Future gatherings of The United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly could be smaller than the 1,000-delegate conferences of recent decades.

The Commission on General Conference, which plans the assemblies, will propose to the church limiting the number of delegates to between 500 and 600. The petition was one of several considered April 17-19 as the commission looked at ways to improve the assembly's operation.

The commission also adopted petitions aimed at refining the process for submitting petitions to General Conference and enabling annual conferences — the denomination’s regional units — to set term limits for delegates if they choose. All of the commission’s petitions will be sent to the 2008 General Conference for consideration. If approved, they would take effect for the 2012 assembly.

The three petitions "are expressly for the purpose of creating a gathering at which real Christian conferencing is possible, as opposed to what someone once called … ‘an exercise in the management of petitions,’" said the Rev. Gail Murphy-Geiss, commission chairperson from Centennial, Colo.

General Conference, which meets every four years, will gather April 23-May 2 next year at the Fort Worth Convention Center. The assembly typically brings together about 1,000 delegates from around the world to worship, celebrate ministry, approve a budget and set policy and direction for the church.

Delegation sizes

While the proposal to limit General Conference’s size has financial benefits, it also is being driven by the need for "creating better conversation among fewer people as opposed to a cast of thousands," Murphy-Geiss said at the meeting.

She elaborated on that point in a followup note to United Methodist News Service.

"I’ve often said that the General Conference, as currently constituted, is not a good value for the people of the denomination, and even more so, for those to and with whom we minister," she said. "A thousand (more like 1,100 when you include all the affiliated autonomous delegates, and even more if you include bishops, staff, etc.) people gathered for two weeks, staying in first-class hotels, eating in nice restaurants … is not what Jesus had in mind.

"I’ve often said that the General Conference, as currently constituted, is not a good value for the people of the denomination, and even more so, for those to and with whom we minister."
- The Rev. Gail Murphy-Geiss

"I honestly think we could run our institution while also providing better ‘services’ to the world if we work at cutting the time and cost of what we do for ourselves and shift it to the needs of others," she said. "… Fewer delegates with fewer petitions could meet in a shorter time, in cheaper places, with cheaper arrangements overall, and engage in richer, more spiritually meaningful conversation. That's what our church needs!"

During its meeting, the commission considered two other models for the size of the assembly: a Senate model, with two delegates from each annual conference, and a double Senate model, with four from each conference.

Currently, the church has a combination House of Representatives-Senate model, said the Rev. Vin Walkup of Brentwood, Tenn. The denomination’s Book of Discipline provides for at least two delegates from each annual conference. The church adds members to the various delegations based on the membership in the annual conferences. The denomination has 129 annual conferences – 63 in the United States, 24 in Africa and 21 each in Europe and the Philippines.

Limiting terms

In the discussion about term limits for General Conference delegates, commission members tried to find a balance between fostering more diversity among the delegations and capitalizing on the experience that comes with multiple terms.

Joel Huffman of Gilbert, Ariz., expressed concern about erasing valuable corporate memory from General Conference, and noted that it wasn’t until his second or third term as a delegate that he felt very effective in legislative committees. "That’s one of my concerns about limiting (terms) to two instead of three or four," he said.

Pat Stroman, a commissioner from Waco, Texas, said the proposal for restricting terms would limit the annual conferences’ basic right to choose who represents them at General Conference.

The Rev. Mollie Stewart and the Rev. David Wilson (center) draw annual conference names to determine where delegations will sit on the arena floor, as Marvin Cropsey waits his turn.

Noting that two terms "is a little short," commission member Mollie Stewart of Valhermosa Springs, Ala., suggested the solution lies at the annual conference level. People who keep getting elected over and over again have to say "enough is enough" and let others serve, she said.

Petitions process

In addressing the petitions process, the commissioners were concerned that anyone can submit a petition directly to General Conference without screening for possibly frivolous or offensive content.

Moreover, no process exists for determining whether someone submitting a petition is even a United Methodist, noted the Rev. Fitzgerald Reist, General Conference secretary.

The commission adopted a petition that it will send to the 2008 General Conference requiring that petitions go through specific church entities: the Connectional Table or any local charge conference; general church council, board, commission or agency; General Conference study committee; jurisdictional conference or council; central conference; provisional central conference; annual conference; provisional annual conference; missionary conference; mission of the denomination; or affiliated group or caucus as listed in The United Methodist Directory published by Cokesbury.

Changing the process would raise the quality of petitions that go before the General Conference, said the Rev. Alan Morrison, business manager of the assembly.

Legislative committees at General Conference have little time to discuss, refine and vote on petitions, Murphy-Geiss said. This proposal would better facilitate that, she said.

"It just means you need to get a broader conversation before it comes to the body," she added.

In other business, the commission:

  • Selected the seating assignments for General Conference. The delegation from Nigeria will be in the first row.
  • Heard updates on worship plans from Marcia McFee, a co-director of worship and music for the assembly.
  • Discussed the General Conference agenda and the addition of several denominational celebrations.
  • Approved a proposed language change for the Book of Discipline that would create a new paragraph establishing the commission’s existence. Currently, the commission is tasked with responsibilities in the book but its creation is not formally addressed.
  • Met with the host committee of the Central Texas Annual Conference, which has adopted a theme of "gracious hospitality" as it prepares for General Conference visitors.

The commission will meet again Nov. 12-13 in Fort Worth.

*Tanton directs the Media Group at United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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