Church has come long way, but more work to do, delegates say



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

Church has come long way, but more work to do, delegates say

May 4, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011  
tparham@flumc.org    Orlando {0845}

An e-Review Feature
By Tita Parham
 
FORT WORTH, Texas — After 10 days of early mornings, late nights and sometimes painful debate, Florida Conference delegates attending the 2008 General Conference were glad to be going home.

Judith Pierre-Okerson (left), a lay delegate from Norland United Methodist Church in Miami, the Rev. Dr. Geraldine McClellan (center), superintendent of the Florida Conference’s North Central District, and Disney Weaver, a lay delegate from First United Methodist Church of Haines City, listen intently during a plenary session of General Conference April 30 to discussion of a petition opposing homophobia and heterosexism that said the church opposes “all forms of violence or discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual practice or sexual orientation.” The petition was approved. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-0832.

They were among the 992 delegates from 129 annual conferences and 50 countries gathered in Fort Worth April 23-May 2 to consider more than 1,500 petitions to amend the church’s Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions.
 
While glad for the opportunity to get to know United Methodists from around the world and be part of making decisions that impact people far beyond their own local church, delegates left the top-lawmaking assembly knowing there’s still much more work for the church to do.
 
This year’s buzzword: holy conferencing

In the months before delegates gathered in Fort Worth, they were constantly reminded how they should conduct themselves and the business of the conference — with compassion and courtesy for each other in the spirit of John Wesley’s tradition of holy conferencing.
 
While there was disagreement among Florida Conference delegates as to whether or not that was achieved, many felt the emphasis did make a difference in the deliberations of the denomination’s top lawmaking body.
 
“Holy conferencing had a profound effect on all the delegates,” said the Rev. Dr. Geraldine McClellan, superintendent of the Florida Conference’s North Central District. “There was a sense of calm that kind of prevailed, even in the midst of troubled waters.”
 
This General Conference was McClellan’s third. She served at her first in 2000, as a reserve delegate.
 
McClellan said there was more compassion and sensitivity to different cultures that “didn’t leave you with that defeated look, like ‘here we are again.’ ” She said there was an “obvious difference” between this General Conference and the one in 2004.
 
Since 1972, the church’s stance on homosexuality has been debated at General Conference. Although it was again discussed this year, with delegates voting to retain language in The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” there were none of the disruptive protests that marked previous conferences — including those at the 2000 and 2004 General Conferences.

The Rev. Clarke Campbell-Evans, senior pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, consults his Daily Christian Advocate regarding a petition being discussed during a plenary session of the General Conference. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-0833.

The Rev. Clarke Campbell-Evans, senior pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, agreed holy conferencing worked well “in some places.” He said he watched people “of different perspectives come together early in the process and late in the process.”
 
Conversations regarding human sexuality were sad and difficult, he said, but “some of the pieces that happened beyond that conversation felt more whole.”
 
Campbell-Evans pointed to discussions that took place after delegates approved retaining the current language on homosexuality between 12 bishops and 12 members of groups who favored amending the current stance with the statement “faithful and thoughtful people who have grappled with this issue deeply disagree with one another; yet all seek a faithful witness.” 

Campbell-Evans also noted the “witness” during a recess in the business of the conference May 1 by those groups and some delegates and guests who disagreed with the vote.
 
“It acknowledged that we keep a heart of compassion and caring in the midst of (such) issues,” he said.
 
The Rev. Sue Haupert-Johnson, pastor at First United Methodist Church, Cape Coral, and a first-time delegate, said she fully expected to experience holy conferencing during worship and the plenary sessions, but was surprised it occurred, instead, during her work as a member of the judicial administration legislative committee.
 
“We appreciated each other’s gifts, learned to disagree in constructive ways,” she said. “There was no jockeying … (it was) very collegial.”

She said that willingness to work together is harder to accomplish in a larger group, like a plenary session. “Our time is so precious and our work so important,” she said. “I felt many delegates did not honor the time well.”
 
Haupert-Johnson, who is also a lawyer, said her subcommittee’s members included two judges, a lawyer from Sierra Leone and two district superintendents. She said they worked so well together “probably because we have all been schooled in how to disagree.”
 
“People in the church don’t know how to do conflict,” she said. “That complicates everything.”

The Rev. Debbie McLeod, superintendent of the Florida Conference’s South East District, said she did see people “watching their words and trying to be kind.” She appreciated attempts by the bishops, as they presided over plenary sessions, to remind people of the language they used and to be patient. Overall, however, she said she felt the term holy conferencing “got to be meaningless … so overused.”
 
She said the legislative process used at General Conference is not conducive to building the relationships needed for true Christian conferencing. There’s limited time, too many decisions that have to be made and people voting on issues, causing “winners and losers,” she said.
 
“You have to have space with plenty of time,” she said.

The Rev. Debbie McLeod, superintendent of the Florida Conference’s South East District, and Rodney Akers, a lay delegate from First United Methodist Church of Seffner, discuss legislation included in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate during a plenary session May 2, the last day of the General Conference. Photo #08-0834.

McLeod said she is really excited about the involvement of youth and young adults at both the general and annual conference levels. “I really hope I can live to see the day when they can figure out how to do this process without a win-lose result” so there is true Christian conferencing in the sense John Wesley meant it, she said.
 
A lack of holy conferencing did not mean an inability to work together, however. McLeod said the conference was “overwhelmingly positive.” Of note for her was seeing the “collaboration of the general agencies unfold.”

A three-time veteran of General Conference, McLeod chaired the subcommittee in 2004 that presented legislation developing the Connectional Table, which oversees the coordination of mission, ministries and resources across the denomination.
 
This year’s work on the denomination’s four-year budget was, for her, an example of the Connectional Table’s spirit of collaboration in action among the church’s general agencies. Before voting on the proposed $642 million budget, delegates had earlier approved initiatives that would cost $3.5 million to implement and were not included in the budget. Rather than increase the budget, the general agencies agreed to fund those items through their respective budgets.
 
That, McLeod said, is quite different from previous General Conferences, where groups fought over available dollars and no one asked if annual conferences could afford the changes.
 
Experiencing one worldwide church

That it’s not all about the Florida Conference or even the church in the United States was clear to Florida Conference delegates.
 
With emphases on fighting malaria and AIDS and the relationship between the church in the United States and the Central Conferences, it was hard for delegates not to leave with a sense of being part of something much bigger — a worldwide movement.
 
During a breakfast meeting of the Florida Conference delegation May 1, delegates from the East Angola Conference thanked the Florida Conference for its partnership and support in the last few years.
 
After a three-person team from the Florida Conference visited Angola in February 2003, a partnership between the East Angola Conference and the Florida Conference was launched. Each year since then, the Florida Conference has raised money to support the ministry of and projects in the East Angola Conference.
 
Through the Angolan delegates, Florida Conference delegates learned a lay delegate from Angola whom they had gotten to know at the 2004 General Conference had died from malaria.
 
Campbell-Evans said hearing that news made many of the issues and initiatives being discussed at General Conference — eradicating AIDS and malaria, the Nothing But Nets campaign to provide insecticide treated bed nets to prevent malaria — “very personal.”
 
Campbell-Evans said he sensed a “real desire to cross bridges with people of different world views” during this General Conference. He said he is very excited about actions taken regarding the structure of the church and its central conferences — United Methodist conferences outside the United States.
 
Delegates passed 23 amendments that would amend the church’s constitution to allow central conferences to instead be called regional conferences and the possibility of the United States becoming a regional conference. The goal behind the amendments is for conferences in Africa, Europe and Asia to be seen as equal participants in the worldwide 11.5 million-member United Methodist Church, not satellites of a U.S. denomination.
 
Delegates also approved development of a study group to consider how such a structure would actually work and its financial implications.
 
“The long-term general church needs guidance on becoming a global church by design,” Campbell-Evans said. “Right now, we’re a global church by chance.”

Allison Mitchell, a lay delegate from First United Methodist Church of Cocoa Beach, votes on a petition during a General Conference plenary session May 2. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-0835.

Allison Mitchell, a lay delegate from First United Methodist Church of Cocoa Beach and at 20 years old one of the youngest members of the Florida delegation, said she “absolutely loved” the emphases on Africa, Nothing But Nets and the Hope for Africa Children’s Choir, which performed several times before the assembly.
 
The choir was formed by the United Methodist East Africa Annual Conference. Many of the children are from camps established by the Ugandan government for people displaced during the country’s ongoing civil war.
 
“I was really inspired by that,” she said. “I want to bring awareness about malaria and Nothing But Nets to the annual conference.”
 
Both McLeod and Haupert-Johnson pointed to their interactions with international delegates as a highlight of their experience.
 
McLeod said she enjoyed getting to know members of the North Katanga Annual Conference delegation, which sat right behind the Florida Conference delegation in the arena during the plenary sessions. Katanga is a southern province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire.
 
Within her subcommittee, Haupert-Johnson said she has made lasting friendships. “To talk to someone about civil war in Sierra Leone … that doesn’t happen to me every day,” she said.
 
McClellan said hearing the bishops’ passions and concern for Africa and Nothing But Nets brought her “to tears on more than one occasion.”
 
Painful discussion, making strides

McClellan, for one, feels the church has come a long way since previous General Conferences.
 
She said there seemed to be greater “inclusivity,” with “well-balanced participation of all ethnic groups.”
 
“We are one church. … This is the first time I have felt connected and sense that connectedness even with the bishops,” she said.
 
Despite those strides, she said there are still concerns and issues that need to be addressed, among them issues surrounding homosexuality. 

The Rev. Sue Haupert-Johnson, pastor at First United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, and John “Jad” Denmark, a lay delegate from Anona United Methodist Church in Largo, discuss the business at hand during a plenary session of the 2008 General Conference. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-0836.
McLeod agrees. She was one of several Florida Conference delegates who stood when groups favoring full inclusion silently protested after the body voted to retain the current language on homosexuality. She said that debate and subsequent action were difficult. 
 
“There is real pain in the body of the church that reflects the brokenness of the world,” she said. “There’s disagreement — it’s a torn place in the culture of the world and church.”
 
McClellan believes conversations between the bishops and groups in favor of full inclusion “will help us to understand God has called all of us … to bridge the gap and receive folks as they are.”
 
John “Jad” Denmark, a lay delegate from Anona United Methodist Church in Largo, said those conversations give him hope.
 
Denmark was part of the human sexuality subcommittee of the Church and Society 2 legislative committee that recommended the new language for the Social Principles.
 
He was disappointed delegates voted to retain the current language, but said the bishops’ willingness to talk with the groups is “inclusive,” offering the “availability for reconciliation.”
 
That leadership, he said, gives him hope for the future of The United Methodist Church.
 
“As we have crossed other bridges,” McClellan said, “we will cross this one.”

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*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.




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