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Worldwide decision: United Methodists to vote on amending constitution

Worldwide decision: United Methodists to vote on amending constitution

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Worldwide decision: United Methodists to vote on amending constitution

By Bill Fentum | April 22, 2009 {1005}

NOTE: This article was produced and published by United Methodist Reporter in Dallas, Texas, April 10. The photos included are from e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service and United Methodist News Service coverage of 2008 General Conference and were not included with the original story.

Delegates to United Methodist annual conference sessions in 2009 will vote on 32 amendments to the denomination’s constitution. Twenty-three of the changes, if passed, could lead to a new global structure for the church.

Delegates consider legislation during the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Photo #09-1153.

The 62 U.S. annual conferences would belong to one or more “regional” conferences, while the country’s five jurisdictions would remain the same. Overseas, the seven central conferences would be renamed “regional,” and could establish their own jurisdictions.

To become church law, the amendments must be ratified by two thirds of the total voting membership in all annual conferences worldwide.

The Worldwide Nature of the Church proposal, adopted at the 2008 General Conference, also calls for new church legislative procedures. All matters of doctrine, ordination and mission would still be decided at General Conference, but regional conferences would rule on issues that affect only them.

In February, the denomination’s Council of Bishops and Connectional Table assigned a committee, chaired by Bishop Scott Jones (Kansas Area), to further study the plan and bring recommendations to the 2012 General Conference. Nineteen other members of the committee were chosen from across the United States and overseas.

“Given a globalizing world, how can we structure ourselves for the most effective ministry in the 21st century?” said Bishop Jones, who helped draft the 2008 proposal. “That’s the big question here.”

Supporters of the amendments say the “central” label holds reminders of a racist, paternalistic past, when U.S. bishops were assigned to lead the church overseas. Central conferences, Bishop Jones noted, are no longer foreign outposts of a U.S. church, because more than a third of United Methodists now live in Africa, Europe and Asia.

“But the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal is still the official hymnal for the Congo,” he said. “That’s crazy. We ought to allow local church ministry and committee structure to be different in Africa than it is here.”

He believes regional sessions could respond more easily to such needs than General Conference. And in the United States, concerns like the English language hymnal and new church planting could be reserved for regional conferences.

Some worry, however, that the plan lacks clarity.

Florida Conference delegates pour over petitions in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate during the afternoon plenary session April 30 of the 2008 General Conference. Photo by Tita Parham. File photo #08-0848. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0850 | May 8, 2008.
“There’s nothing in the current legislation that states that we (General Conference) will continue deciding matters related to ministry, doctrine or the Social Principles,” said the Rev. Eddie Fox, director of evangelism for the World Methodist Council. “That’s not in these constitutional amendments which are before the annual conferences.”

Fox led efforts at the 2008 General Conference to retain the Social Principles’ current language against homosexuality, and delegates from Africa largely supported the stand. “We need to make sure,” Fox said, “that people are enfranchised — not disenfranchised — by the way the General Conference is conducted.”

The plan adopted in 2008 states that General Conference would remain in charge of “resolutions on global issues,” Jones said.

“Matters of doctrine including the Social Principles are to be kept at General Conference,” he said. “You cannot have one region having a different view on homosexuality than another region, or the church will split.”

Others say that’s a real possibility.

The Rev. Tim McClendon, a district superintendent in the South Carolina Conference, doesn’t object to the name change from “central” to “regional.” But he does oppose the amendments that would actually restructure the church: IV, X, XIII, XXIII and XXVI.

If those five pass, United Methodist connectional unity will be at risk, McClendon says. For evidence, he points overseas.

A clause in Paragraph 543.7 of the Discipline, which allows central conferences to adapt rules “as the special conditions and the mission of the church in the area require,” has led to variations in the Social Principles; in Germany, the statement that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” reads, instead, “A majority in the church interprets the Bible in such a way that it cannot approve the practice of homosexuality.”

“To allow regions in the U.S. the same power would guarantee fragmentation,” McClendon said. “I don’t want us to look like the Anglican Communion, where we have compartmentalized and competitive areas.”

It makes more sense, he believes, to simply rename the U.S. jurisdictions as regional conferences and leave the structure unchanged. And he’ll be able to say so, as a member of the study committee chaired by Jones.

Jad Denmark (left), a lay delegate from Anona United Methodist Church in Largo, talks intently with another member of the legislative committee on which they both served during the 2008 General Conference. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. File photo #08-0825. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0841 | April 28, 2008.

“They’ve got their work cut out for them,” said the Rev. Thomas Frank, a professor of religious leadership and administration at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. “If you look at the Discipline, there are pages and pages that define the powers and duties of central conferences. To put regional conferences into action, all of that will need to be done again (by the committee). It’s like an omnibus bill in Congress, where one piece of legislation leads to more amendments and new laws.”

Another wrinkle appears when the regional conferences, defined in Amendment XIII, are compared to jurisdictions. The powers and duties of both are mostly identical; so what happens if a U.S. regional conference — or more than one — is formed alongside the five existing jurisdictions?

Even more puzzling, what if some of the amendments pass, but others don’t?

“That would truly make a mess because a lot of the amendments are paired up, where two amendments apply to the same paragraph,” Frank said. “There’s a tremendous amount of constitutional work involved. My preference would have been to get the study done before the amendments were sent out.”

The amendments came first, supporters say, to speed up the process. Without constitutional changes in place, no plan submitted by the study committee in 2012 could be launched until at least 2016.

Last fall the denomination’s Judicial Council, asked to rule on the meaning of Amendment IV, said the 2012 General Conference must enact “legislation to create a U.S. regional conference or regional conferences” if the amendment is ratified by the annual conferences.

How General Conference will respond to that, Jones said, “is an interesting question. It must take the (Judicial Council) decision seriously.”

The Rev. Bruce Robbins, also a member of the committee and author of “A World Parish?,” says the need for change is urgent. His book, published nearly a decade ago, urged structural shifts similar to the worldwide proposal.

“To maintain status quo in the church would be disastrous,” Robbins said. “One could compare it to our federal government and inability to address profound economic issues because we get caught up in politics.”

The Rev. Øyvind Helliesen, a district superintendent in the Norway Conference, agrees.

Judith Pierre-Okerson (left), a lay delegate from Norland United Methodist Church in Miami, the Rev. Dr. Geraldine McClellan (center), then 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 the 2008 General Conference. Photo by Tita Parham. File photo #08-0832. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0845 | May 4, 2008.

“We have discussed this for more than 20 years, and I believe it is now time to act,” Helliesen said in an e-mail. “We are a worldwide church, no longer a U.S. church with mission branches in the rest of the world, and the way we organize ourselves must mirror that reality.”

Nine other amendments before the delegates cover a range of issues.


Amendment I would change Paragraph 4, Article IV, making “all persons” eligible for membership in any United Methodist church, “upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith and relationship in Jesus Christ.” The amendment was one of several petitions submitted after Judicial Council Decision 1032, a 2005 ruling that reversed the suspension of a Virginia Conference pastor who denied church membership to a practicing homosexual.

“All persons” would abbreviate a sentence that ensures eligibility for “(a)ll persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition … .”

“We came to recognize that any list tends to exclude someone,” said the Rev. Kevin Young, a pastor in Huntsville, Texas, who proposed Amendment I. “And so, instead, we let it stand on the strength of the word ‘all.’ ”

Young co-chairs Breaking the Silence, a group of clergy seeking full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the Texas Conference. Behind the amendment, he said, is a “larger motivation to embrace everyone, of all ages, abilities, marital status, gender and sexual orientation.”

Patricia Miller, executive director of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church, criticized the amendment in a written statement. “It would allow an individual to join any United Methodist church under any circumstance,” she said. “The clergy and a local congregation could no longer require something as simple as attending a membership class prior to taking the vows or deny membership to a member of a hate group, a self-avowed practicing homosexual, or even an atheist who is willing to take the vows of membership.”


Amendment II would add a new article after Paragraph 5, Article V, requiring all churches, groups and agencies within the denomination to “adopt ethics and conflict of interest policies, applicable to both members and employees, which embody and live out our Christian values.”

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 2008 General Conference plenary session. Photo by Tita Parham. File photo #08-0834. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0845 | May 4, 2008.


Amendment VI adds a sentence to Paragraph 15, Article III, allowing General Conference to set a transitional period for new annual, missionary or provisional conferences; for up to eight years, the conferences could be represented at general, jurisdictional and central conferences on less than a proportional basis.

The new Cote d’Ivoire Conference in West Africa has more than 600,000 members, but was limited to two delegates at the 2008 General Conference. The limit, approved during the 2004 session, clashed with a representational formula in the constitution. The amendment’s supporters say it would prevent such confusion in the future and allow time for legislation to fully admit new conferences.

Amendment IX to Paragraph 23, Article I, would mandate at least 100 delegates at all jurisdictional conference sessions. This would ensure a “minimum basis of support” for the election of bishops, according to the amendment’s rationale. A related petition at the 2008 General Conference changed the formula for jurisdictional conference membership, to allow more delegates if needed to reach the minimum.


Paragraph 16, Article IV, already forbids churches and church agencies to discriminate against members based on “race or status.” Amendment VIII would protect women’s rights by adding “gender” to the list. “Given our long-standing work in eliminating gender bias and sexual misconduct in the Church,” says the amendment’s rationale, “it is glaring that gender is not included with retirees (status) and race… .”

Amendment XV would revise Paragraph 32, Article I, reducing to one year the time professing lay members must belong to The United Methodist Church before they can serve as delegates to annual conference. The amendment also drops a long definition of conference membership, already included outside the Constitution in the Discipline’s Paragraph 602.

Amendment XVII, according to its rationale, would give laity “the right of voice and vote” on conference committees that investigate charges against clergy. Currently, only laity on boards of ordained ministry are elected to the committees. The 2004 General Conference ensured the right of all professing lay members to serve, but the Judicial Council ruled the action was unconstitutional; the amendment responds to that ruling with revisions to Paragraph 33, Article II.

The Rev. Jorge Acevedo (right), senior pastor at Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, and Bill Walker, then lay leader of the Florida Conference, confer during a 2008 General Conference plenary session. Photo by Tita Parham. File photo #08-0840. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0847 | May 6, 2008.

Amendment XIX would change Paragraph 35, Article IV, to allow licensed local pastors, associate members and probationary members of annual conferences to help elect clergy delegates to general, jurisdictional or central conferences. The voters would first need to complete all educational requirements for their jobs and serve at least two years under appointment.

The Rev. Joy Barrett, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Chelsea, Mich., was among supporters of Amendment XIX at the 2008 General Conference, where it passed 695-135. It’s only fair, she told delegates on the floor, because local pastors and associates — though not fully ordained — “serve faithfully … and they demonstrate deep commitment to this church.”


Amendment XXII to Paragraph 37, Article I, on jurisdictional boundaries would add the British territory of Bermuda to the Northeastern Jurisdiction.

Two churches on the island, Marsden Memorial United Methodist Church and Centenary United Methodist Church, left the United Church of Canada in 2002 to become United Methodist mission churches. Since then the Baltimore Washington Conference has provided oversight and appointed clergy; if passed, the amendment would formalize the ties.

(More information about the constitutional amendments is available on the Florida Conference Web site at by clicking on the amendments graphic on the right-hand side of the page.)

Reprinted with permission of the United Methodist Reporter (

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Fentum is a staff writer at the United Methodist Reporter in Dallas, Texas.