The South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church met this week in Oklahoma City for what we called a “Delegate Meeting.” It wasn’t the actual conference, but rather a training event designed to get us prepared for the work ahead. Here is my reflection on the event, for any who may be interested.
We had a chance to meet the candidates for bishop. Alphabetically, with their Annual Conference:
- Bob Farr, from Missouri
- Janice Gilbert, from Texas
- Ron Henderson, from North Texas
- Morris Mathis, from Texas
- Jimmy Nunn, from Northwest Texas
- Ruben Saenz, from Rio Texas
- Erradio Valverde, from Rio Texas
- David Wilson, from Oklahoma Indian Missionary
These are the people who are currently in the mix for election, though there may be more who emerge. I am not 100% certain how many we are electing, but the number I have heard floating around is three.
It was good to see them, to have a face to go with a name (except for Jimmy Nunn who was not present), but we didn’t have much chance to speak with them at this meeting. That will come next Spring when each delegation has a chance to interview each candidate one on one.
A couple of topics of discussion were centered on the global nature of the United Methodist Church:
Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and Southern Europe Conference presented some work being done to create a “Global Book of Discipline” that would identify parts of our polity that are universal across the denomination, and parts that could be adapted for particular contexts. They will bring no specific proposals to General Conference, but ask the Conference to affirm the direction their work has taken and continue it for the next four years.
We received information about a related proposal coming to General Conference. This idea would create a “Central Conference” for the United States which would be the equivalent of the seven other Central Conferences around the world. The rationale for this proposal is to create a forum for discussing those issues that are unique to the North American context, in the same way that the other Central Conferences can in their own locales.
I am in favor of both of these ideas, which are aimed at keeping the global identity of United Methodism while at the same time trying to find ways to be more flexible in our mission in various contexts around the world.
A significant rule change is being proposed that would change the way the General Conference talks about all of the petitions that pertain to human sexuality.
The basic idea is to break the entire Conference into small groups of 15 people to discuss the petitions. The small group leaders would then report to a Facilitation Group. The Facilitation Group would then create the petition or petitions that the entire plenary would discuss and vote on.
This would replace the way it is done now, which is to discuss sexuality petitions in a legislative committee (Church and Society 2), who go through the regular committee process and then make their recommendations to the entire body. The thought is that the new idea would allow for every single participant in the Conference to have input into the decisions made on this one issue. It would also be a model for handling any contentious issues that may arise in the future.
Here are some process points: Small group leaders would be nominated from each delegation and selected by the Executive Committee of the Commission on General Conference. The Facilitation Group members are nominated from each Central Conference and US Jurisdiction by the Leadership Discernment Committee of the Council of Bishops. These 24 are then given to the Executive Committee on the Commission on General Conference who propose a slate of six for the entire General Conference to vote on. Conference members may also nominate others from the pool of 24 when the slate is presented.
I applaud the attempt to do something differently around the questions of same-sex marriage and ordination of people regardless of sexual orientation. Clearly the status quo processes are not working. However, it seems to me that there is an awful lot of power in that group of six called the “Facilitation Group.”
While the conflict and controversy may shift away from the legislative committee process, it will not go away altogether. There will be a great deal of scrutiny on the people serving as small group leaders and in the Facilitation Group. That’s where the controversy will reside, if this rule change is approved.
Speaking of homosexuality, there were a couple of specific proposals discussed. Adam Hamilton talked about the Connectional Table proposal, and Chappell Temple talked about a resolution coming from the Texas Conference (I could not find it online).
The Connectional Table proposal lets pastors decide if they will marry couples, and lets Annual Conferences decide what people will be ordained. Adam strongly implied that he would propose an amendment that would let congregations decide what weddings can happen in their buildings.
The Texas proposal completely rewrites paragraph 161f of the Book of Discipline. In their own words they want to do something that “maintains our position but is more gracious in tone.” No longer is the phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” used to describe homosexuality. In fact, it doesn’t use the word “homosexual” at all. The phrase they use is, “In our historic understanding of the scriptures, sexual relations are to be affirmed only when practiced within the legal and spiritual covenant of a loving and monogamous marriage between one man and one woman.”
It is notable that the petition also calls destructive a list of activities, including “promiscuity, infidelity, bigamy, multiple or serial marriages, pornography, human trafficking, and all attempts to commercialize the gift of human sexuality within our societies.” I do not know if it is intentional or not, but to me it seems to imply that they think same-sex marriage ought to be on this list, even though it is not explicitly stated. (It also seems to strongly condemn divorce, for what that is worth.)
For the record, I am a strong advocate for the amended version of the Connectional Table proposal for local autonomy in these decisions. It seems to be a “no brainer,” in fact. Of course local churches should be able to set their own wedding policies. Of course pastors should have the authority to decide whom they will marry. Of course Annual Conferences should determine which candidates they will ordain. The United Methodist Church’s officially sanctioned obsession with gay people is embarrassing, hateful, and counterproductive to our mission.
We also talked about divestment proposals that are coming to General Conference. Dave Zellner from the General Board on Pension and Health Benefits did a wonderful job of explaining the situation. The essence is social justice; there are many who want the United Methodist Church to pull our investments out (divest) of companies that profit from injustice and from destruction of the environment.
Essentially, he told us that the General Board is deeply committed to social justice and sustainable business practices. They are active in the companies in which we invest, raising awareness and encouraging changes as needed. They invest in community development projects and projects that help those in poverty, making positive social impact.
I’m not really an expert in financial matters, but I trust our General Board here. They are guided by some pretty clear principles and policies, and I’m convinced that telling them specific companies they cannot invest in would not be helpful. They are as transparent as they can be with their investments, and if anyone ever has any concerns, they do indeed listen. But elevating our particular divestment ideas to the level of general church policy is not a good idea.
One of the most astonishing things I learned was the process by which we elect people to serve on the Judicial Council. It is not a good process, to say the least.
The Council of Bishops chooses a slate of candidates that is three times larger than the open positions. The slate is presented to the General Conference one day before the vote, and then we vote on them. That’s it! No time to get to know the people or hear what their ideas are or try to understand if they have the mission of the church as their highest priority or anything like that. It’s just – here they are, pick some.
We have five positions to choose this year, three laity and two clergy. So, we will see the names of nine lay people and six clergy, literally from all over the world, and then in 24 hours we will vote on them. And these are people who will have enormous power in our denomination. They are the “Supreme Court” of Methodism, and their decisions are not reversible without action from the General Conference, which as you know meets only ever four years.
Again this isn’t really my area of expertise, but it seems like a pretty strange way to elect some pretty powerful people.
There was some more stuff, but I think I’ll stop there. If you actually read through all of that, congratulations! You are a Metho-Nerd for sure.
I am honored to serve as a delegate for at Jurisdictional Conference and as first alternate to General Conference. I want to be available to anyone who has questions or concerns or insights, and so I covenant with you to be as transparent as I can.
Please contact me if I can be helpful to you in any way.