What will General Conference mean to my United Methodist Church?
A UMC.org Feature by Joe Iovino*
As a United Methodist, you are probably aware that General Conference, the once-every-four-years official meeting of the church is happening in Portland, Oregon, May 10-20, 2016. What may be far less clear, however, is what happens there and what it means to your local congregation.
The best-known aspect of General Conference is the legislation. General Conference is the body that determines direction and speaks officially for our denomination. 864 delegates elected by their annual conferences will consider 1044 petitions. Half the delegates are clergy and half are laity. Bishops lead the sessions, but have neither voice nor vote.
Amendments to The Book of Discipline that guides the work of local churches, pastors, annual conferences, general agencies, and bishops, are adopted. Delegates also vote on resolutions that give the official positions of The United Methodist Church on social issues which are published in our Book of Resolutions.
The General Conference covers a wide array of issues that affect all levels of our church. A small percentage of them receive a great deal of attention. Others will pass or fail without much fanfare, but will have lasting impacts in the life of our local churches.
At the 2016 General Conference legislation will be presented and debated on human sexuality, the budget of the general church for 2017-2020, a more global church structure, the ordination process for our pastors, formation of a hymnal revision committee, and more.
Whether widely publicized or not, General Conference legislation directs our work globally, regionally, and locally in our congregations.
General Conference receives reports, votes on legislation, and passes a budget, but it is more than a business meeting.
The General Conference sessions are the only time The United Methodist Church gathers from across the globe in a single location. In that sense, it is something akin to a family reunion—albeit a ridiculously large one. When we come together every four years, we take the opportunity to worship, remember, and celebrate.
When the United Methodist family gathers, we come from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. We come together as one in our faith in Jesus Christ and our love for The United Methodist Church. There are, however, a variety of languages and cultures represented.
The worship of General Conference celebrates our unity and diversity.
Eleven worship gatherings and nine opportunities to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion are offered during the 11 days. Additionally, the Rev. Laura Jaquith Bartlett, worship and music director for the 2016 General Conference, told United Methodist Communications that at the end of each day, “We’ll send [the delegates] out into the night resting on the wings of the Spirit.”
The worship reminds us that we are part of something much larger than our local congregation. We are a connectional church, united to do wonderful work across the globe. We will share on billboards, trains, and elsewhere around Portland that united in faith, millions serve God and our neighbors.
Watch General Conference: The Global Church Worships to learn more about worship at pervious General Conferences, and plans for 2016.
On Wednesday, May 18, at 9:48 a.m. (PDT), The United Methodist Church will celebrate one of those ministries by which we have helped millions. Imagine No Malaria has greatly contributed to a coordinated international effort to eradicate this preventable disease. Through the efforts of this amazing ministry, more than 1 million mosquito bed nets have been distributed and more than 250,000 people have been diagnosed and treated. That is reason to celebrate.
You can watch the Imagine No Malaria celebration, and the rest of the General Conference session live at GC2016.UMC.org.
The 2016 gathering will also take time to celebrate important milestones that have had tremendous impact in our congregations.
This General Conference marks the 60th anniversary of the ordination of female pastors. The 1956 General Conference of The Methodist Church granted full clergy rights to women.
The gathered church will also begin celebrations of the 30th anniversary of Disciple Bible Study in 2017, and the 150th anniversary of United Methodist Women in 2019. Both of these ministries have been instrumental in the spiritual growth of so many members of United Methodist congregations.
General Conference is also an important time to remember our history.
At General Conference 2016 United Methodists will pause to remember Francis Asbury. Asbury was the first bishop in our Methodist heritage. Born in England, he came to America to form and lead this new church. Under Asbury’s leadership Methodism grew. This year is the 200th anniversary of his death on March 31, 1816.
While we celebrate Asbury, we also remember painful parts of our history, of which we are called to repent.
At General Conference 2012, The United Methodist Church participated in an Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous People. General Conference 2016 will receive a report of one of those specific acts known as the Sand Creek Massacre.
In 1864, a regiment of the US Cavalry, led by Methodist preacher Colonel John Chivington, killed nearly 200 people living in a Peace Camp at Sand Creek in the Colorado territory. Together we condemn these events, pray for forgiveness, and seek to repair relationships with the families of the victims.
The activity of General Conference can seem far removed from our home congregations, but that could not be farther from the truth. The work, worship, celebrations, and remembrances at General Conference are the activity of all the people of The United Methodist Church.
“The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.” General Conference meets every four years to facilitate this work happening in each of our churches.