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Church structure, membership top list in debate on amendments

Church structure, membership top list in debate on amendments

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Church structure, membership top list in debate on amendments

By Jenna De Marco | June 17, 2009 {1036}

The results of votes cast June 12 at the 2009 Florida Annual Conference Event show a majority of clergy and lay members oppose constitutional amendments that would change the structure of The United Methodist Church and language related to membership.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker explains how discussion of the amendments will proceed. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #09-1214.

The 2008 General Conference recommended 32 amendments to the denomination’s constitution, but their approval is subject to a two-thirds majority of the total votes cast across 120-plus annual conferences globally. Those eligible to vote are clergy in full connection and lay members of the annual conferences.

Name change gets ‘no’ vote

Twenty-three of the amendments deal with changes to the structure of the church. The Council of Bishops’ Task Force on the Global Nature of the Church proposed the amendments after conducting a multi-year study.

The Rev. Sue Haupert-Johnson, chairwoman of the conference’s resolutions committee and co-pastor at First United Methodist Church in Ocala, shared some of the rationale behind the proposed amendments during a time of discussion moderated by Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker.

“The United Methodist Church is growing astronomically in other continents as we dwindle here (in the United States),” Haupert-Johnson said. “It is exciting, but it affects how we are structured.”

As a delegate to the 2008 General Conference, Haupert-Johnson said she noticed a range of issues related to the dynamics among conferences from across the globe. In studying these differences, the global church task force recommended the amendments in an effort to acknowledge the worldwide function of the church, she said.

The Rev. Sue Haupert-Johnson shares some of the rationale behind the amendments and answers questions submitted by members prior to discussion of them. Photo by Greg Moore. Photo #09-1215.

“Our reality in the United States is far different than the reality that folks overseas face in many contexts,” Haupert-Johnson said.

Eighteen of the 23 amendments would change the name central conference — those outside the United States — to regional conference.

There are seven central conferences, similar to jurisdictional conferences: Africa, Central and Southern Europe, Congo, Germany, Northern Europe, Philippines and West Africa. Within those conferences are 59 annual conferences.

Proponents say the “central” term is outdated because it reminds many of the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction, which existed in the United States from 1939 to 1968, Haupert-Johnson said.

The Rev. Clark Campbell-Evans, senior pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, spoke in favor of the amendments, saying the organization of the church has developed without a clear sense of whether the church is a U.S. church or a global church.

“There’s a legacy of colonialism in the way that the church has been structured,” he said. “The Central Conference College of Bishops voted unanimously to approve the amendments … so I would strongly encourage us to support this first subgroup (of amendments) as a way to honor the requests of our sisters and brothers.”

Other members expressed concern about the timing of the amendments.

Russ Graves, a member-at-large from the Atlantic Central District, said originally he agreed with Campbell-Evans’ position.

The Rev. Clark Campbell-Evans speaks in favor of amendments that would change the name of central conferences to regional conferences. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #09-1216.

“My initial reaction was yes, absolutely yes, but because of some of the amendments that come later that I think we will all struggle with, I would suggest to you that the planning and the actual state of this proposal is premature,” he said.
About 60 percent of the more than 1,050 votes cast opposed the amendments.

Members say ‘worldwide church’ plans should wait

The remaining five of the 23 amendments would allow General Conference to make the church structure consistent across the denomination.

Every conference, including annual conferences in the United States, would be part of a larger regional conference organized into subunits called jurisdictional conferences, Haupert-Johnson said.
There are 63 annual conferences and five jurisdictions in the United States. The Florida Conference is one of 13 annual conferences in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, which runs from Kentucky and Virginia, then east of the Mississippi River to include Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.

No one spoke in favor of the amendments during the discussion. Several did say more information about the overall impact of the proposed changes was needed.

The Rev. Debbie McLeod, outgoing superintendent of the South East District and chairwoman of the 2008 General Conference structure subcommittee, explained that two groups are working to provide that information. The Study Committee on the Worldwide Church will submit a proposal at the 2012 General Conference offering details regarding a new structure. The Council of Bishops and other denominational groups are looking at ways to reposition the church for 21st century ministry.

McLeod said she was not in favor of approving the changes without that information.

The Rev. Jim Harnish shares his belief that not enough consideration has been given to the impact the amendments proposing changes to church structure would have on the denomination. Photo by Greg Moore. Photo #09-1217.

“It is prudent for us to wait until we know what the structure will be before we change the structure,” she said, urging members to vote against the amendments. “Are we adding layers or will we be streamlining the church? When the General Conference adopts the structure, they can adopt the amendments and bring those back to us (for voting).”

The Rev. Jim Harnish, senior pastor of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, said he believes people are “predisposed to be in favor of the intention of the movement toward a worldwide church,” but wonders if the impact of restructuring has been fully considered.

Harnish said he asked proponents at General Conference if they had given any consideration to the cost. “It had not even broached anyone’s imagination,” he said.

He said he was reminded of the parable of the builder who didn’t “count the cost” and expressed concern the denomination would be creating “a larger superstructure on a decreasing financial base,” given the decline in United Methodist membership in the United States.

“I think we are way ahead of ourselves,” he said.

Members voted against the proposals by about 83 percent of the more than 1,050 votes cast for each amendment.

Current membership language upheld

Members also failed to pass Amendment I, called the “inclusiveness” amendment, with 59 percent of the 993 votes against it.

The amendment proposes that church ministries and membership be available to “all persons,” instead of “all persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status or economic condition.”

Discussion of the amendment focused on several possible interpretations: its meaning with regard to homosexuality, requirements for membership and the role of the pastor in deciding eligibility for membership.

The Rev. Mason Dorsey, pastor at Riviera United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, spoke against the amendment based on issues related to membership and homosexuality. 

“Amendment I is not an attempt to make us more like Jesus, but an attempt to deny grace to people struggling with major issues and keep them locked in the sin from which Jesus died for them to be freed,” Dorsey said. “Passing this amendment, I think, just hurts the people who are waiting to be healed.”

South Central District youth member Carlene Fogle-Miller urges members to approve the “inclusiveness” amendment. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #09-1218.

South Central District youth member Carlene Fogle-Miller said failing to pass the amendment hurts the very same people. “I fail to see how people who are homosexuals are not people,” referencing the “all people” wording in the amendment.

“If they are not welcome,” she said, “how are they going to get the grace that we’re saying that they need?”

Graves spoke against the amendment because of his belief it would remove the pastor’s option to determine readiness for membership.

“Pastors have been entrusted with the responsibility of helping prospective members understand and affirm the vows and meaning of church membership,” he said. “When a large council steps in and removes the responsibility from those that are given the responsibility — when that responsibility is removed with a word — then that can often be disastrous.”

Seventeen-year-old John Cook from the North West District said the amendment does not affect that right “at all.” He said it’s included in the ordination vows listed in the Book of Discipline.

A member consults the wording of an amendment before casting her votes. Photo by Greg Moore. Photo #09-1219.

“Jesus hung out with deadbeats, prostitutes, tax collectors,” he said. “We’re just adding ‘all’; we’re not excluding people. Failing to pass this amendment would be looking past what Jesus taught.”

The Rev. Bill Fisackerly IV, pastor of Gulf Cove United Methodist Church in Port Charlotte, asked for clarification on whether the intent of the amendment is to make membership automatic or require some action on the part of prospective members, such as attending membership classes.

That question, Whitaker said, raises the issue that divides people’s interpretation of the amendment.

“It raises the question of, if we are including ‘all’ in membership, what are the conditions for membership, such as participating in a membership class?” he said. “You all have to make up your own minds whether or not you feel the conditions for membership are adequately defined in this amendment.”

Members pass portion of amendments

A majority of voters passed six of the remaining eight amendments, including a proposal to establish a minimum basis of support for the election of bishops at Jurisdictional Conference and adding “gender” to categories of people protected against discrimination.

Another gives deacons, associate and provisional members, and local pastors who have completed the Course of Study or master of divinity degree and served under appointment for two consecutive years immediately preceding an election, the ability to vote for clergy delegates to General and jurisdictional conferences. Currently, only ordained clergy in full connection may vote.

Members of the youth and young adult delegation cast their votes. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #09-1220.

Amendment II, which seeks to establish conflict of interest polices, failed to receive the necessary two-thirds approval, with 592 yes votes and 473 no votes.

Amendment VI, which provides an avenue for the General Conference to establish representation for newly created conferences on a non-proportional basis for a transitional time period, was opposed by 53 percent of 1,036 voters.

The question of whether the 32 amendments pass the global two-thirds majority will not be answered until all annual conferences have had the opportunity to register their votes.

Results of how Florida Conference members voted on each amendment are available on the Florida Conference Web site at They are also listed at, along with the complete text of the amendments.

More information about the conference session, including a schedule of activities and reports presented, is available at

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

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.