Reflections on General Conference By Jim Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church & Society Photo credit: UMNS/ Kathy Gilbert 

The United Methodist Church’s highest policy-setting body will meet April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla. I want to share some thoughts with you as United Methodists from around the world prepare to assemble for this meeting that occurs every four years.

  • The overriding issue in the United States is membership loss. This is not the case in Africa and the Philippines. U.S. members, succumbing to doom-and-gloom scenarios, are unaware our denomination is growing overall.
  • The U.S. church is 93% white. It does not represent the diversity of this nation.
  • The United Methodist position on homosexuality will change one day, just as it did on racial segregation and women in leadership.
  • As a person who has worked at the general church level for 30 years, I can assure you that those who wish to hide what they are doing will be able to do so much more easily when overseen by a 15-member board trying to keep track of the remnants of nine agencies — as has been proposed — than under boards focused on each agency.

There is nothing inherently better or more efficient or more nimble about a smaller board of directors versus a larger one.

  • Making decisions by majority vote is a terrible way of doing things, but we apparently do not have the inclination or the skills to get beyond Robert’s Rules of Order.
  • At times, you can feel the Holy Spirit at work at General Conference. At other times, one wonders where it blew off to.
  • When people tell you it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.
  • It’s a crying shame that U.S. United Methodists make African, European and Filipino members vote on decisions specific to the United States and the church here.
  • The paternalism of U.S. delegates toward African, Filipino and youth delegates is sickening.
  • The preaching, worship and singing at General Conference are amazing.
  • Watch closely to see what happens to the petition to disenfranchise European and Filipino delegates at future General Conferences.
  • Just because some have hidden agendas doesn’t mean everybody does. But everybody does have prejudices, and everyone acts with limited perspectives and information available to them.
  • There simply is not $8 million in board-meeting expenses to be saved. That figure includes the expenses of meetings of agencies that will continue to exist if the Connectional Table legislation is adopted.

By the way, a lot of money could be saved if these boards, entities and councils would stop meeting at expensive hotels.

  • We don’t trust in Jesus enough at General Conference.
  • When it comes to social concerns, the key question to be answered by delegates is “What should the Church of Jesus Christ say?,” rather than “What do most of the people in my Sunday School class back home think the Church should say?”
  • As with any 10-day event, General Conference can at times be filled with excitement and at other times can be mind-numbingly boring.
  • This is the year of General Conference and the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
  • A third rail at General Conference is the obsolete jurisdictional system. We’ll never move forward as long as we maintain five separate denominations in the United States.
  • U.S. local churches combined raise and spend $6.5 billion a year. Only $125 million — less than 2% — goes to the general church, and about half of that money goes to the general agencies. The way this tiny percentage is gnashed over would make you believe it was most of the denomination’s money.

You’d be surprised how few United Methodist leaders know these and other basic facts about our denomination.

  • The closer we get to General Conference, the more selective memory recall of some becomes, and revisionist history is recounted as truth more frequently.
  • You might be surprised at how quickly a notion, fad or trend can take hold in certain quarters of this denomination. The desire to immediately act on what some perceive as a good idea, although it may in fact be a fad, is what is meant by the need for “nimbleness” in restructuring.
  • You can triple the size of the general-church structure or you can wipe it out entirely and it will make almost no difference in membership gain or loss.

Membership growth has more to do with welcoming congregations that offer compelling ministries and good worship. There’s not enough of that. The general church complements the life of the local church; it does not govern it.

  • Speaking of selective memory, it conveniently has been forgotten that the “bloated, general-church bureaucracy” has been reduced already by some 60% in staff, 30% in size of boards of directors, and 60% in share of the dollar in the offering plate over the past 40 years.
  • It is disturbing that some groups which have placed their imprimatur on restructure legislation meet in secret or in executive session an inordinate amount of time. Yet, this restructuring allegedly is intended, in part, to yield more transparency and shrink the distance between the general church and the local church.
  • I certainly understand the fascination with restructuring the general agencies. Along with others, I have drawn up lots of restructure diagrams over the years. No matter what anybody says, though, there is absolutely no reason why this particular General Conference has to pass a restructure plan.
  • In a world rapidly decentralizing and flattening, the answer, according to some, is for our denomination to centralize command and control. This is their answer in a world where people have literally been sleeping in the streets to protest abuses of corporations. In such a time, their answer for our denomination’s U.S. membership decline is to centralize command and control on a corporate model?!

When all is said and done, General Conference is too long.


  1. I am working on a paper about ecclesiology and the Methodist Church. It is amazing how, from our very beginning at the Christmas Conference in 1784, we separated our theology from our structure. In particular we have never incorporated ideas of holiness, or seeking holiness, within our understanding of the purpose of the church. The United Brethren did a much better job of this. The trend continues: GC is about organizational structure that is divorced from a theological mission. My personal focus is on leading people to lives of faith: when GC deals with something related to that, I will pay attention.

Leave a Reply