Thursday, May 29, 2008

General Conference of the United Methodist Church

This is my article published in the "Faith & Values" section of The Huntsville Times on May 30, 2008 - Steve West

General Conference, the international policy-making assembly of the United Methodist Church, met April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth, Texas. I was honored to serve as an alternate delegate. The Conference meets every four years to set direction for the entire Church. Almost 1,000 delegates, representing 11.5 million United Methodists in 129 Annual Conferences from 50 countries, held proceedings translated into 7 languages. There were over 1500 petitions to consider in a grueling 9-day schedule. It was one of the most mind-boggling experiences of my life. Simply put, it was BIG!

In the center of our gathering was a communion table made from wood salvaged from Gulfside Assembly in Mississippi, destroyed by Katrina. Bishop Janice Huie opened by casting vision related to the theme “A Future With Hope.” Like other mainline denominations in the U.S., there has been numerical decline in recent years. Yet the Spirit is alive. We set forth four clear priorities: poverty, global health, new churches, and effective leadership. These are things I can get excited about.

I learned that the legislative process is complex. I discerned that the division we have between regions over issues related to homosexuality is deep. I was on the floor voting during the peaceful protest concerning our denomination’s position and walked by protestors lying outside on sidewalks as if wounded. It was both troubling and strangely beautiful.

But I was also overwhelmed by the things that unite us. We heard the Africa University choir and voted on another $20 million to support this mission that has now trained 2,000 Christian leaders in Africa. We heard the “Hope for Africa” children’s choir sing and dance, and celebrated that most of them were saved by Methodist mission homes. It was exciting to vote on a $330 million World Service missions budget. It was inspiring to acknowledge that we are becoming a global church. Though we are declining numerically in each U.S. region except the Southeast, the church is growing like crazy in places like Africa, the Philippines, and Korea.

It was incredible to hear the president of Liberia speak. She is the first woman elected president of an African nation. She is not only United Methodist, but was raised in a school built by our missionaries. Hearing Bill Gates, Sr. (the father of Microsoft’s founder) speak and pledge to join the UMC in our fight to wipe out malaria through “Nothing But Nets”, was inspiring. We raised $480,000 for nets in a serendipitous movement of the Spirit, bidding on a bishop’s basketball.
Important decisions were made, including expanding the mission statement of the church to making disciples of Jesus Christ “for the transformation of the world,” beginning a Hymnal Revision project, changing our constitutional language to recognize our global nature, and a strong resolution against homophobia and related violence. The right to vote on clergy delegates was given to licensed lay pastors, and we reduced the number of bishops in the U.S. to free up funds for more bishops in Africa, where the church is growing.

Experienced delegates say that though we remain divided on a few key issues, this was a calmer and more unified Conference than in the past. The bishops encouraged a spirit of “holy conferencing” throughout. Acknowledging our differences but casting vision with the four new priorities, the bishops left me feeling that there was much to get excited about.