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News briefing offers glimpse into assembly changes

News briefing offers glimpse into assembly changes

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

News briefing offers glimpse into assembly changes

Feb. 20, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0800}

NOTE: This article was produced and distributed Jan. 30 by United Methodist News Service.

An e-Review Feature
By Marta W. Aldrich**

FORT WORTH, Texas — When United Methodists convene this spring for their worldwide assembly, they can expect wider international representation, a denominational budget built around four new areas of focus, and carefully choreographed opening sessions aimed at fostering unity through common ministry, instead of gridlock over divisive social issues.

More than 200 delegation leaders and church journalists attend the United Methodist Pre-General Conference News Briefing Jan. 24-26, an informational session on issues and processes of the denomination’s upcoming assembly in Fort Worth, Texas. A UMNS photo by Larry Nelson. Photo #08-0754.

The 2008 General Conference will meet for 10 days — two fewer than the 2004 gathering in Pittsburgh and with no break — but still must sort through more than 1,500 petitions, which is about the same amount of business conducted at the previous assembly.

In addition to hearing opening addresses from a United Methodist bishop and lay person, delegates will hear the first-ever Young People’s Address — delivered jointly by six teens and young adults who promise a presentation “different from anything that’s ever been presented to General Conference before.”

The new approaches are among a bevy of changes outlined during the United Methodist Pre-General Conference News Briefing, an informational session attended by more than 200 delegation representatives and church journalists. The Jan. 24-26 briefing, sponsored by United Methodist Communications, was held near the Fort Worth Convention Center, where General Conference will open April 23.

“This is going to be an historic event,” said Mary Brooke Casad of this year’s opening sessions, which will feature intricate staging and multimedia effects in delivering a message of unity and hope in mission and ministry.

“We’ve never done it this way before. It’s not going to be just business as usual,” said Casad, executive secretary of the Connectional Table — itself a new entity formed by the last General Conference to coordinate mission, ministries and resources for The United Methodist Church.

A new agenda

Weary of decades of the church’s top legislative meeting being consumed by debate over homosexuality and other hot-button issues, the Council of Bishops and other denominational leaders have shaped a new churchwide agenda with the overarching purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The agenda includes four areas of focus: developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world; creating “new places for new generations” by starting new churches and renewing existing ones; engaging in ministry with the poor; and fighting the killer diseases of poverty, such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

Church leaders believe this approach will help United Methodists unite to address the world’s core needs, reclaim the church’s Wesleyan heritage, start a movement and, as a bonus, reverse decades of declining membership trends.

“This is about alignment — with the Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table, what’s happening in annual conferences — and saying we’re going to coalesce (and) combine to make a difference,” said the Rev. Jerome Del Pino, chief executive of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, which will oversee the church leadership initiative.

It also is hoped the nearly 1,000 delegates who attend General Conference will return to their home districts and churches knowing the four areas of focus by heart and, with a new clarity about “what my church is doing,” ready to spread that vision and sense of identity to the people in the pews.

Delegates at the briefing said it’s time for Jesus Christ to “do a new thing with our church.”

The Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, director of Connectional Ministries for the Florida Conference, uses a visual aid to caution church journalists attending the United Methodist Pre-General Conference News Briefing Jan. 24-26 against oversimplifying their stories as debates between liberals and conservatives. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #08-0755.

“I’m not hearing as much about the more controversial issues so far,” said the Rev. Henry Frueh, a second-time delegate from the Troy Annual (regional) Conference in New York. “There’s more talk about the church positioning itself to be more effective in the world. I think there’s a sense that if we don’t change the way we do church, we’re going to lose the opportunity,” he told United Methodist New Service.

The Rev. Tom Berlin, a delegate from Herndon, Va., said many people in his generation (ages 30 to 45) are disenchanted by past General Conferences that have focused on discordant social issues that “are so predictable in their outcome” — and not enough on substantive issues of need in the world. The result, he said, is that ordained and lay leaders are tempted to cocoon themselves in their local churches “because it’s just not worth the emotional energy.”

“Friends, we’re going to have to lay down our arms on these other issues if we want to deal with the (new) ones,” Berlin told one panel group.

Building a better budget

The briefing featured a session on the $642 million, four-year spending plan for the denomination beginning in 2009 — and the new processes and criteria for developing the budget proposal. For the first time, the plan was built on an “outcome-based” model that much of the business world already follows. Church agencies were asked to shape their funding requests around the four new areas of focus. Also for the first time, the General Council on Finance and Administration shared the budget-building process with the Connectional Table.

“We’re trying to do something different,” said Bishop Lindsey Davis of the North Georgia Area, a member of the council’s board. “We’re trying to do something in a more collaborative fashion together.”

Davis said the previous budget process was “more competitive than it should have been” among various groups within the church contending for their “fair share” of the pie.

“What we’re trying to do … is to begin to align this budget not only with the areas of focus … but with a church that is beginning to think very specifically about outcomes, about being productive and effective and actually changing the world,” he said. 

The $642 million plan represents a 1.2 percent annual increase for a total increase of 4.8 percent over four years.

“All of us know inflation is more than that,” Davis said. “In terms of real dollars, it represents less money for all our boards and agencies and less money for the general church at large.”

He also emphasized the budget represents only 1 percent of the net spending of the entire denomination and cautioned against skimping on mission and ministry done at the denominational level.

“Ninety-nine percent of all the resources of our denomination are spent at the local, annual conference and jurisdictional level,” he said.

New faces, new rules

With United Methodist membership shrinking in the United States and growing in Africa and the Philippines, the makeup of General Conference delegates will reflect those trends. Central conferences (those in annual conferences outside the United States) will have 278 delegates, 100 more than in 2004. Annual conferences in U.S. jurisdictions have elected 714 delegates.

Church leaders who oversee delegate training asked U.S. delegates to show patience and understanding in working with overseas delegates, who need time for translation services and are unfamiliar with parliamentary procedure used in the United States.

“If we’re going to be a global church, we need to hear each other’s voices, and we need to be attentive to each other’s voices, and we need to be understanding that the American way is only one way,” said the Rev. Gere Reist, secretary of the General Conference.

Reist urged delegates to carefully read proposed rule changes that will be voted on at the beginning of the assembly. “There are significant changes this time around,” he said. He cited proposals to elect all subcommittee chairs by ballot, merging the Commission on General Conference with the Committee on Rules, and using parliamentarians in all legislative committees.

The proposed rules also prohibit talking on cell phones and using laptop computers on the convention floor.

The Rev. Gary Graves, petitions secretary, reported that more than a quarter of the 1,564 petitions filed are related to the Board of Church and Society, the church’s social action agency. Delegates will get their first look at all the petitions after receiving “The Advance Daily Christian Advocate,” which publishes petitions and other information related to General Conference.

Graves thanked petitioners for “making the transition to digital submissions.”

“I know that it was like pulling teeth for some people, and others can’t figure why it took us 20 years to catch up with everybody else,” he said.

General Conference delegates and communicators practice “sign chi do,” a new stress management exercise taught at the United Methodist Pre-General News Briefing. During the briefing, an inter-agency Denominational Health Task Force announced recommendations for improving the health of clergy and lay employees of The United Methodist Church. A UMNS photo by Marta W. Aldrich. Photo #08-0756.

He noted that the change saved money and trees and shaved about two months of production time off the petitions process.

Educational setting

The news briefing was designed to be informational, not legislative in nature, said the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications, who welcomed participants to Fort Worth. “We are taking a conversational approach,” he said.

Briefings ranged from hot-button issues such as Middle East-related divestment to strategies encouraging healthier lifestyles by pastors and church employees. Other panel discussions included ethnic initiatives in the church, proposals to change United Methodist structure to reflect the worldwide nature of the church, a new Social Creed up for consideration, the State of the Church report and how to navigate General Conference. Breakout sessions for delegates addressed “holy conferencing” — practices designed to set a more civil tone of discussion and listening in the legislative process.

Participants also toured the convention center and received an update on the challenges of housing all delegates in downtown Fort Worth’s tight hotel market. Many of the 1,500 delegates and staff members will be housed in outlying hotels and must commute daily to the convention center. Thousands of visitors also will attend parts of the meetings and worship services.

”These (hotel problems) are nitpicky little things that seek to distract us from the work that we’re called to be about at General Conference,” said the Rev. Alan Morrison, business manager for the assembly.


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service, the news service for The United Methodist Church and part of the ministries of United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.