Bishops Thomas J. Bickerton and Jack Tuell watch the proceedings during the voting in the wrap-up session of the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

By Joey Butler*

Thank you, Joey Lopez.

After an evening session that sometimes bordered on comical as sleep-deprived delegates attempted to finish with the remaining legislation, the young Western North Carolina delegate made the most popular motion of the night: to adjourn General Conference 2012.

Attendees left, perhaps happy to get some sleep and prepare to go home, but likely frustrated that they didn’t come to a resolution on how to restructure The United Methodist Church.

Once the delegates reconvened for the evening session, they debated various motions to refer the Plan UMC restructure plan back to the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table to be crafted for consideration at General Conference 2016 in Portland, Ore.

However, after an hour of debate, they voted 499-398 to table discussion on restructure referral and move back to hearing calendar items originally presented by the Committee on Agenda and Calendar.

Some of the legislation that passed decreased the number of members of the general boards and agencies, folded the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns into the Council of Bishops and made United Methodist Women an organization separate from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

When a motion to take Plan UMC off the table and end debate failed by a vote of 427-444, Lopez made his motion to adjourn.

With no total restructure plan approved or referred, the denomination’s framework approved by General Conference 2008 remains intact, except for a few adjustments made at this assembly.

Afternoon drama

As the afternoon session of the last day of General Conference 2012 was winding down, with delegates perhaps thinking more of packing their luggage than voting on the remaining items, the United Methodist Judicial Council dropped a bombshell that rocked the assembly to its core: Plan UMC is unconstitutional.

That unanimous ruling came from the nine-member council, which had been asked on May 3 by General Conference to make a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of the 80-page restructure plan for The United Methodist Church, adopted on May 2.

“Under the Constitution, the creation and establishment of general Church board and agencies, the fixing of their structure, the determination of their functions, duties and responsibilities, and the establishing of Church priorities are legislative functions reserved to the General Conference alone,” said Judicial Council Decision No. 1210. “These legislative functions may not be delegated.”

The establishment of a General Council for Strategy and Oversight under Plan UMC does not meet the test of constitutionality because it intrudes into the constitutional authority of the Council of Bishops for general oversight of the denomination, the court found, and “comingles” the role of the bishops and the strategy and oversight council.

“It creates an overlapping authority for which no constitutional authorization exists,” the decision said.

Within minutes of the return from a recess that followed the reading of the council’s decision, presiding Bishop Jeremiah L. Park of New York announced that the dinner break would begin, with delegates to return afterward to continue their business. Printed copies of the Judicial Council’s decision were distributed to delegates.

Budget approved

The assembly approved a budget of $603.1 million for seven general church funds during the 2013-2016 period; that total is 6.03 percent less than the amount apportioned for the 2009-2012 quadrennium –– the first time the assembly has adopted a lower budget than the amount set for the preceding four-year period.

Delegates approved two new line items in the World Service Fund. They established a new $5 million fund for theological education in central conferences and $7 million to recruit and train young clergy in the United States.

That action, combined with earlier recommendations to reduce agency budgets by 6 percent, means general agencies will receive nearly 10 percent less money in the 2013-2016 period then they received in 2009-2012.

The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) and the Connectional Table had the nearly impossible task of estimating the cost of forming the new — and now defunct — Council on Strategy and Oversight and other costs of the new structure, including adding additional central conference members to agency boards, a new program audit, an Adaptive Challenge Fund and costs of research.

The Judicial Council decision on Plan UMC led GCFA to reallocate the funds set aside for the Council on Strategy and Oversight. The World Service Fund received $1.5 million; $1 million went to the General Administration Fund to pay for General Conference deficits and $500,000 went to the General Administration contingency fund.

General Conference

The delegates called for the advance edition of the Daily Christian Advocate to be translated into Kiswahili and increased the size of the Commission on General Conference, thus adding some $600,000 to the cost of the General Conference.

The Commission on General Conference will struggle to find ways to reduce costs. For instance, it could decrease the number of delegates from 1,000 to 600 or decrease the number of days the assembly meets. It also could make greater use of technology and consider other cost-saving measures.

For the first time, delegates agreed (504-406) to save money by eliminating the right of individuals to petition General Conference. All petitions now must be submitted by a local church council or a larger unit of The United Methodist Church.

Higher Education

A $7-million young clergy initiative created to encourage young adults in the United States who wish to respond to God’s call to ordained ministry was approved Friday, with the funds to come from money previously budgeted for general church agencies.

The initiative was amended to ensure that all prospective young clergy are included in any initiatives that come from the fund. The provision had originally referred to increasing the number of young elders appointed to local United Methodist churches.

Lay people with no theological training lead more than 800 churches in Mozambique, and that is one example of the need for the $5 million Central Conference Theological Education Fund, said Bishop Joaquina Nhanala of Mozambique.

General Conference 2012 approved the creation of the fund this week and a commission to oversee it. On May 4, a budget that included $5 million from World Service funds for the next four years was approved.

“The church is growing in Africa, and we have a great need to educate pastors,” Nhanala said. “Some of the pastors have never been in theological schools, so it is necessary to train them, and some who have training need more education.”

Westboro Baptist protest

The last day of General Conference also brought the arrival of members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. The controversial group travels across the United States picketing against anyone they consider to be pro-gay rights.

A small group of Westboro protesters assembled outside the Tampa Convention Center, holding up offensive signs and shouting at delegates passing by.

The Rev. Troy Plummer, director of Reconciling Ministries Network, and other United Methodist pastors and lay members formed a shield in front of the demonstrators. Westboro demonstrators positioned themselves outside a white tent where the Love Your Neighbor Common Witness Coalition has been having daily lunches in support of full inclusion of all races, genders and sexual orientation in the church.

Across the street, a lone delegate held a sign that read: “God loves all.”

Other issues

In other business, the assembly:

• Approved a motion to ask the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of Calendar Item 355, which removes guaranteed appointments for elders and associate members. The council said it “does not have sufficient time to process the case and render an opinion” before adjournment of the General Conference, and deferred the matter to the Fall 2012 Docket.

• Continued the present apportionment formula that provides a percentage adjustment based on the economic strength in a conference, which is based on per-capita income in the area, and local church costs divided by the number of people in attendance

• Approved a requirement that general agencies receiving general church funds make available an annual report on the names of people receiving funds as outside contractors and the amounts they are paid.


*Joey Butler is editor of young adult content at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.

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