Above you will find a Tuesday Thoughts video from Pastor Brian all about the upcoming General Conference.


About General Conference

Rev. Matt Benton, a pastor at a local United Methodist Church in Woodbridge, summarized the upcoming General Conference and generously shared his work with us. This description is a great way to get a sense of the major areas of focus that will likely be addressed. (The note in italics is written by Pastor Brian)

After multiple COVID postponements, the General Conference originally slated to take place in May 2020 in Minnesota is set to commence from April 23 through May 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The voting membership of the General Conference will be the delegates elected at Annual Conferences in 2019.  As we get closer to General Conference, I wanted to update you on the major legislative issues that are likely to be discussed during the General Conference.

What is General Conference?

General Conference is the highest level of governance within the United Methodist Church (UMC).  Made up of delegates from churches within the United States and all over the world, the General Conference is the only body that speaks for the whole United Methodist Church.  They meet to debate and pass legislative petitions sent by members of the UMC, Annual Conferences in the UMC, and General Boards and Agencies of the UMC.  General Conference takes place over two weeks; the first week is spent with delegates divided into different legislative committees and the second week is spent in plenary sessions to vote on the legislation that passed out of committee.  To give you a sense of the scope of delegates’ work, there are over 1,300 pages of legislative petitions duly before the upcoming General Conference.

What are the main themes of legislation before General Conference?

In speaking with members of the Virginia Conference General Conference Delegation, the most concise way to think about the major issues General Conference is likely to discuss is the 3 R’s of General Conference: Regionalization, Removing the harmful language, and Revising the Social Principles.

Regionalization

There are a number of major legislative packages submitted to General Conference around the concept of regionalization for our church governance.  Outside of the United States, there is a layer of church governance called a Central Conference.  Matters related to church governance specifically within that area are governed by the Central Conference and the Central Conferences are allowed to adapt certain portions of the Book of Discipline to fit the particularities of their context.  For instance, a requirement to be an Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, according to the Book of Discipline, is a seminary degree.  However, there is a region in Southeast Asia where there is little to no access to seminary education.  That Central Conference has modified the Book of Discipline for their area to not require a seminary degree to be an ordained elder.  

However, there is no such governing body for matters pertaining to the United Methodist Church in America.  Matters pertaining to the governance of the United Methodist Church in America must go before General Conference.  For example, another legislative package before the upcoming General Conference is a new pension program for United Methodist clergy in America.  This new pension program would not apply to clergy outside the US, but international delegates (along with delegates from the United States) will debate and vote on this US-specific pension program.

Regionalization legislation seeks to organize the United Methodist Church into four regions amenable to the General Conference.  These Regional Conferences would have the authority to govern matters related to their specific region as well as to adapt portions of the Book of Discipline to fit their particular context.  If Regionalization legislation were to pass and be implemented, matters like the US only pension program would be governed by the US Regional Conference rather than the General Conference, saving significant time, money, and other resources.  This would allow the General Conference to focus on issues that relate to the whole church, rather than having to spend a significant amount of time every four years dealing also with US only issues.

It should be noted that, should the Regionalization legislation pass and be implemented, the US Regional Conference would have the authority to amend the Book of Discipline to allow for the ordination of duly qualified LGBTQ persons to ministry and allow pastors to officiate marriage ceremonies for LGBTQ persons.  It is believed that these changes would be passed at the first US Regional Conference meeting.

Removing the harmful language

Another major legislative theme will be removing language deemed harmful to LGBTQ persons from the Book of Discipline.  Commonly referred to as “the incompatibility clause,” this is language in the Book of Discipline that says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  Multiple petitions to General Conference seek to remove that language.

While faithful Christians can hold differing views as it relates to human sexuality and LGBTQ inclusion, advocates of removing the language deemed harmful will point out that homosexuality is a rather unique case within the Book of Discipline as being explicitly named “incompatible with Christian teaching.”  The Book of Discipline explicitly names selectively few things in this manner.  Advocates of removing this language say this language harmfully singles out a particular group of people in a manner that is anathema to our theology of grace.

Note: Haymarket Church is committed to being a church that is fully inclusive and affirming of LGBTQIA+ folks. Working towards removing this harmful language is consistent with our church’s core value of inclusivity, our Statement of Welcoming and Inclusivity, and our membership in the Reconciling Ministries Network. We hope and pray for the church around the world to be more welcoming to all people, particularly those who are marginalized, including LGBTQIA+ folks.

Revising the Social Principles

Lastly, General Conference will receive and vote upon a major revision the the United Methodist Social Principles.  This is the result of an 8 year process that began at the 2012 General Conference that called upon the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) to revisit the Social Principles that have been in place in some form since 1972.  Recognizing that life has greatly changed since 1972, GBCS devised a process to approach the Social Principles both globally and for life in the 21st century.  A writing team of 52 members from all over the United Methodist world embarked on a major revision of the Social Principles, which was finalized in 2020.  More information regarding the revised Social Principles, including the proposed revised text, can be found here: https://www.umcjustice.org/who-we-are/proposed-revised-social-principles-for-general-conference-charlotte

What resources are available for learning more about General Conference?

The Virginia Annual Conference has put together a number of resources related to General Conference, with more content coming each week.  You can find all of their resources here: https://vaumc.org/gc2024/

Floris UMC in Herndon, VA hosted Virginia’s Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson among others to provide a primer on General Conference.  You can view a video recording of that presentation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMS0NclpweI