NG delegation reflects on General Conference
By GLENN HANNIGAN
The meetings, debates, negotiations, cajoling, and balloting went on for 10 days in Tampa. And as the dust was settling on the 2012 General Conference, various participants were still seeking to grasp the long-term significance.
United Methodists from five continents, including 26 delegates from North Georgia, had come together to tackle the biggest issues facing the church. In the course of the quadrennial event, the group addressed a host of challenging topics, including: restructuring of the church, human sexuality, the role of bishops, guaranteed appointments, pension options and budgetary plans.
“By and large we protected the status quo in Tampa,” said clergy delegate David Jones. “If we want to turn our frustration and disappointment into effectiveness, we need to hear Jesus calling us to do something very familiar in ways that are new, unfamiliar, and perhaps even startling.”
The most startling event occurred on the last day, mere hours before final adjournment, when it was announced that the Judicial Council had ruled that the most significant, complicated piece of legislation – Plan UMC – was in violation of the church’s constitution. The sweeping restructuring plan was, in a matter of a short declarative sentence, unceremonially swept out the door.
A brief flurry of sporadic applause was followed by stunned silence. A quick call for adjournment was followed by a scramble to replace Plan UMC with some form of agreeable cutbacks.
In other significant action, delegates:
• Eliminated guaranteed appointments for ordained clergy;
• Retained the church’s policy regarding homosexuality, rejecting a resolution which sought to soften the current language;
• Rejected a call to divest from three companies who sell products used by the Israeli military in occupied Palestinian territory;
• Rejected a proposal to set aside a bishop to serve as full-time president of the Council of Bishops;
• Adopted a $603.1 million budget for 2013-2016.
“My biggest surprise, the most memorable event, and the biggest disappointment were all wrapped in the judicial decision that came late on Friday afternoon,” said clergy delegate Ed Tomlinson. “The new structure passed by General Conference, by a 60-40 vote, was ruled unconstitutional. The Connectional Table, which had been in place for the past eight years, was not significantly different from the centerpiece of the new plan or the General Council on Strategy and Oversight.
“The hope had been to streamline the structure to make the focus of the agencies to be on vital congregations. In the five General Conferences I have attended, nothing comes close to the stunned reaction of the body.”
Comments from North Georgia delegates to the General Conference:
On serving as a delegate:
• “No doubt about it, it was the best of any of the five General Conferences I have attended. On occasion, it got a little rambunctious, but it was very good overall,” lay delegate Dick Williamson.
• “I wish everyone could experience this. General Conference is a witness that our Church is reaching out with the Gospel of Jesus Christ in different parts of the world in different ways,” clergy delegate Jonathan Holston.
• “I am honored that the North Georgia Conference felt that I could represent them. I do feel a burden of responsibility to express the concerns and wishes of the young people of the conference. I guess I was surprised because there are so many people with more experience than me,” lay delegate Bill Stikes.
• “Being a delegate can be exhausting. You really work hard, have to listen intently, and just really be aware of all the moving parts that are going on around you. I am very humbled and honored that the North Georgia Conference gave me the chance to be here,” clergy delegate Sharma Lewis.
• “Getting to know people from other conferences and experiencing our connection — now that’s great. As District Lay Leader of the Atlanta Emory District, I preach that alot — our connectional system is so unique and wonderful. Learning from each other’s experiences is powerful,” lay delegate Bill Martin
• “I feel like my role is to help make sure that we continue to increase the quality and authenticity of higher education. I feel very honored and humbled to help do this,” clergy delegate Alice Rogers.
• “It’s wonderful to be able to be a part of the process of General Conference. It can be tiring and tedious and long, but it is a wonderful opportunity to be a part of the church,” lay delegate Joe Whittemore.
• “General Conference is such an ‘up and down,’ but we will only be able to see the whole after time has passed. I am optimistic that God will continue to work through churches and individuals,” clergy delegate John Simmons.
• “It was important for us to understand the significantly different perspectives from delegates from the Central Conferences. Delegates from other nations would often let us know when the issues we were facing were particular to the U.S. We had some discussion about term limits for bishops, yet the Central Conferences already have a variety of different rules in place for bishops. This is a non-issue for them,” clergy delegate Jane Brooks.
• “I would like for the North Georgia Conference to know that they are in good hands. We are making every effort to be faithful to their confidence in us, and that we are remaining faithful to them,” lay delegate Tonya Murphy.
Biggest disappointments or concerns:
• “In contrast with the last three General Conferences, I came home from this one feeling like the disciples when they said, “We toiled all night and caught nothing.” I’ve had to remind myself of Jesus’ reply: “Try casting your net off the other side of the boat.” Within seconds the nets were full,” clergy delegate David Jones.
• “My biggest disappointment was that we were not able to erase the one sentence from the Discipline that singles out the practice of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching. We do not give a laundry list of sexual sins like adultery, pedophilia, incest, etc.; we just name one thing. By leaving out the sentence, we are not condoning the practice of homosexuality, we are simply treating it like we do the other sexual sins. The sentence is so hurtful that it turns people away from the church. If we are not in the church, we have little possibility for transformation,” lay delegate Marge Kimbrough.
• "My greatest surprise was the failure of all of the proposed restructuring plans. If we are so bound up in our laws and legalisms that we cannot save ourselves, it will become increasingly more difficult for us to be God’s instrument for the salvation of others,” lay delegate Lyn Powell.
• “My biggest disappointment was that the petition which eliminated the so-called ‘guaranteed appointment’ for elders was not brought to the floor for discussion and debate,” clergy delegate Jim Cantrell.
• “I have always said the schism on that one issue (human sexuality) is troublesome. I don’t want to see us fractured. We need to stick together,” lay delegate Leon Jourolmon.
• “The biggest disappointment was the time spent on the floor speaking to non-critical legislation that were not really agenda items of importance for the whole but rather special interest agenda items. When a piece of legislation passes 71-0 in committee, it is perplexing why it would be pulled off the consent calendar and we had way too many of those,” clergy delegate Steve Wood.
• “I am continuing to hear from folks who believe their voices were not heard on various topics. We need to be very careful about listening to others and making sure everyone has an opportunity to speak. This church is meant to be open to all,” lay delegate Dianne Spencer.
• “Although a great deal of legislation was passed, my disappointment came from the feeling that we did not make as much progress on critical issues as we could have. Time will tell about the impact of General Conference 2012. I do feel better equipped to be able to impact legislation in the future. Studying and learning the rules of parliamentary procedure is not the same as living them out under pressure,” clergy delegate Phil Schroeder.
• “My biggest disappointment was when the GC voted down the petition to take our UMC investments out of companies that are profiting from the Israel/Palestinian conflict. But I am glad the UMC is sending a strong message in opposition of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land,” clergy delegate Nora Martinez.
Looking toward the future:
• “The impact of the African delegation's stance of faithfulness to scripture was an awesome ray of hope for our future as their number of delegates will continue to increase with unprecedented growth,” lay delegate Jane Finley.
• “I see more hope for our church than I have seen in the past of getting back to what Wesley and Jesus would have us do. We tend to put ourselves in a place of choosing either truth or grace, but scripture says that Jesus came full of truth and grace. Our objective is to be like Jesus,” clergy delegate Chuck Savage.
• “The future of the UMC will be determined by laity and clergy in local congregations. If laity and clergy join together to build strong congregations, then I know we United Methodists will be in ministry long into the future,” lay delegate Mathew Pinson.
• “I believe we are going in the right direction. We are making a serious evaluation of who we are. We continue to struggle with issues involving sexuality. But we have a broader-based involvement of a diverse population and that is positive,” clergy delegate Jamie Jenkins.
• “It is obvious to me that we are really ready to be a global church, with widespread participation on boards and agencies. It will bring new challenges, but we are prepared to meet those,” lay delegate Jeff Jernigan.
• “The defining facet is that the international delegates have come of age. They are not just making a presence, but actively participating. Thirty-five percent of all delegates are from Africa. They are not just coming to observe, but with a recognition that their voices are relevant and important and they are arriving more informed,” lay delegate Joe Kilpatrick.