Broken processes characterized the 2012 United Methodist General Conference.  (Photo credit: 
Kaye Cee/ Fine Art America)

November 29, 2012

Why Was United Methodist General Conference So Dysfunctional? (Part 1)

The top governing authority in the global United Methodist Church is the quadrennial General Conference, which last met April 24 — May 4 in Tampa, Florida.

We must not forget the positive. As IRD has reported elsewhere, this General Conference took several important, helpful steps, and those concerned for the biblical faithfulness and spiritual health of the UMC beyond 2012 have powerful reasons for encouragement. It is also worth mentioning that there are several leaders of General Conference logistics who I have always found to be very helpful and fair in my dealings with them, whatever their personal beliefs may be. And I appreciate the great many individuals who, for their part, do very hard, competent, and largely thankless work to make General Conference happen.

But the overall reviews by General Conference participants were clear and emphatic: sky-high frustration, profound disappointment, and deeply hurt feelings over the most embarrassingly dysfunctional General Conference in memory. Such reactions were widely shared across United Methodism’s theological and geographic divides. For example, one self-styled “maverick” southern bishop memorably quipped that the Conference “made history as the most expensive ($1,500 per minute!), least productive, most fatuous assemblage in the history of Methodism”. Meanwhile a key, left-of-center leader from the Northeast recalled that by the final day, “[t]here was a level of frustration among delegates and visitors that was palpable,” which only worsened as the day went on with the painful awareness that “[w]e were running out of time.”

Every General Conference inevitably leaves many disappointed over WHAT delegates decided on some issues. But this time there especially seemed to be a more fundamental outrage over HOW the gathering went about its decision-making.

The 2012 General Conference has the dubious distinction of having left with a MUCH larger “unfinished business” list than other recent conferences. By my count, it was so mismanaged that it “ran out of time” to even consider over 18 percent of the petitions before it. On top of this General Conference’s dearth of productivity, its two signature accomplishments – the abolition of “guaranteed appointments” for United Methodists elders and the compromise “Plan UMC” to sweepingly restructure our top-heavy denominational hierarchy – were both ultimately struck down as unconstitutional by our denomination’s supreme court, the Judicial Council. (At this point, I have little to add to the countless ink already spilled on those two specific issues.) Delegates were sent home struggling to articulate what they had accomplished after taking two weeks away from their jobs and families and spending nearly $9 million of our church’s dwindling resources.

Keep in mind, that between the years 2009 and 2015, the ONLY opportunity for “the United Methodist Church” to take definitive action on many pressing issues facing our denomination was during these 11 days last spring. So now because of this General Conference’s failures to do the work which the church entrusted and paid it to do, many, many important people, ministries, and causes dear to the heart of God will be forced to suffer for another four years while awaiting the chance to bloody their knuckles once again at the distant door of the 2016 General Conference.

How did this happen?

Months later, and after a lot of behind-the-scenes digging, I have found that there is still a lot of confusion about this question.

First, a couple of myths need to be refuted.

The restructuring debate was NOT the main culprit for the lack of productivity on other issues. The General Administration committee’s focus on competing restructuring proposals is surely responsible for its not having time to deal with many of its other assigned petitions. But this accounts for just 33 of the 215 unconsidered petitions. The main plenary debate on Plan UMC took up only part of a single day’s scheduled morning plenary session. Previous General Conferences have also dealt with major structural changes, like the creation of the Connectional Table in 2004 and the consideration of the so-called “Global Segregation Plan” in 2008, without coming close to the 2012 General Conference’s record of legislative incompleteness. Furthermore, the bombshell announcement that “Plan UMC is unconstitutional” did not come until less than an hour before the conference was scheduled to conclude.

Furthermore, this General Conference was NOT overwhelmed with an unusually high number of petitions. In fact, the 1,148 petitions submitted to this General Conference were actually over 25 percent FEWER than the number of those submitted to either of the last two General Conferences and over 40 percent fewer than those submitted to the 2000 General Conference.
Also, it is true that this General Conference, in contrast to its predecessors, saw the failure of a final-day motion for the plenary to automatically adopt all petitions that had passed their committees with only token opposition. But this failed motion would have resulted in the adoption of no more than a dozen additional petitions.

Selective Omissions

This General Conference’s unfinished-business list included important, committee-passed petitions related to clergy education requirements, the role of retired bishops, making our denomination’s Book of Discipline accessible online, handling the property of our growing number of closed churches, racism, pornography, the Christian example set by congregational leaders, civility amidst political disagreements, and a small number of liberal political pronouncements. After the 2008 General Conference created and funded a special, four-year Commission for the Study of Ministry, this General Conference could not find the time, in committee or plenary, to even consider several of its key proposals.

But while the petitions effectively killed by conference inaction represented a full range of issues and authors, they ultimately were NOT a random, fairly distributed sample of all petitions.

Of the thirteen legislative committees into which petitions and delegates were divided in the first week, the ONLY one denied the chance to present its recommendations (aside from generally less high-profile items adopted in undebated omnibus consent calendars) to the full plenary session of all delegates was the committee devoted to “Local Church” concerns. That was a tough one to explain to the folks back home.

Not counting those to related to sexual morality (more on that later) or tied to the complex restructuring debates, the list of killed-by-neglect petitions were over FIVE times as likely to be ones supported by the Renewal and Reform Coalition (a coalition of six unofficial evangelical caucus groups within our denomination, including IRD’s UMAction program) as they were to be petitions that we opposed. The petitions in this unfinished-business list included such major longstanding goals of our denomination’s evangelical renewal movement as a strong, Wesleyan affirmation of the authority of Scripture, allowing congregational women’s ministries greater freedom from the domination of the liberal New York headquarters of United Methodist Women, better accountability for our denomination’s general agencies, ending the UMC’s affiliation with the extremist Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), injecting some much-needed nuance to the collection of official UMC statements on the Arab-Israeli conflict and on the role of government, and defending pastoral discretion in church membership while providing a safeguard against abuses. In historic votes, ALL of these proposals were supported in their respective legislative committees, in most cases by wide margins, only to be killed by never being brought up for a vote in the plenary session of all delegates.

Meanwhile, NONE of those unfinished-business petitions for which the plenary “ran out of time” appeared to be viable priorities for theologically liberal caucus groups like the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) or the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), again, leaving aside issues related to sexuality and restructuring. In fact, the schedule was arranged so that for what appeared to be the liberal-caucus coalition’s two biggest priorities for changing our denomination (outside of the complex restructuring debate) – committing our church to an anti-Israel “divestment” campaign and liberalizing our Social Principles biblical teaching that sex is for marriage – progressive activists were given all the time they could have possibly wanted to (unsuccessfully) make their case in the full plenary session, even though both of these proposals had already been decisively rejected in their respective legislative committees.
They failed to persuade a majority of delegates, however the liberal minority faction enjoyed plenty of manipulation of the process that aided the causes they favored and derailed ones that they opposed.

Again, how did this happen?

 

The Commission on the General Conference and Planned Incompleteness

Chiefly responsible for planning, updating the rules of, and arranging the schedule for General Conference is an elite leadership body called the Commission on the General Conference. Commission members are NOT neutral referees, but rather current and/or former General Conference delegates who are just as eager as anyone else to see certain petitions pass or fail. In appointing individuals to this body, the Council of Bishops created a strong theologically liberal majority. Those appointed within the last eight years (to eight-year terms) include an officer of a group now affiliated with MFSA, a board member of an RMN affiliate, and a musician prominent in United Methodist pro-homosexuality circles. Furthermore, the chair of the commission for this General Conference was Dr. Randall Miller, a professor and gay activist from the San Francisco Bay Area. Miller recently completed a term as a board member of RMN, a group which along with MFSA has loudly and consistently encouraged liberal UMC leaders to advance the cause of sexual liberalism by blatantly breaking the church rules they have promised to uphold. Meanwhile, to my knowledge, our bishops have avoided appointing a single commission member similarly involved in any of the UMC’s evangelical renewal groups. Last summer, the leadership of the Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions in the United States (both overrepresented on the commission) overwhelmingly adopted resolutions encouraging UMC authorities within their respective regions to defy UMC policies upholding biblical standards for sexual self-control. The fast-declining Western Jurisdiction is especially notorious for its complete dominance by rule-breaking theological radicals and harsh repression of evangelical United Methodists.

So it is important to keep in mind that the commission running General Conference was a non-neutral group disproportionately populated with sympathizers and activists of a minority faction that not only promotes liberal goals that are increasingly out of step with the mainstream of our denomination, but is very open in shamelessly promoting Machiavellian manipulations of the rules and abuses of power by strategically placed denominational leaders in order to advance these goals.

The expressed intent of the General Conference Commission was to arrange the schedule and rules so that delegates would NOT feel the need to address every petition. I certainly commend the concern for delegates’ physical wellbeing and agree that better decisions generally get made when people are well-rested and not under unreasonable amounts of pressure (the two main reasons I’ve heard given for the commission’s new philosophy of making this an intentionally incomplete General Conference). But despite this banner of “quality over quantity,” few who were in Tampa would disagree that this General Conference was ultimately an embarrassment in both the quantity and quality of its work.

General Conference alone has been entrusted (and paid!) by 12 million United Methodists to serve as our denomination’s top governing authority. The Commission could have carefully scheduled General Conference to allow delegates to get reasonable nightly sleep while otherwise making the most of the available time for the sake of the important business that could ONLY be done during this 11-day global gathering. The commission could have at least made an earnest effort to approach, within the limits of realism, the ideal that General Conference can offer United Methodists of all perspectives the chance to not necessarily achieve the changes they would like, but at least get a fair hearing for their concerns.

 

But that’s not what happened. In the first week, when petitions were initially considered in legislative committees, the commission imposed strict time limits that ensured that much of the committee work would remain permanently unfinished. This was a dramatic departure from the last several General Conferences, in which legislative committees were required to take the time needed to act on every petition assigned to them. The subsequent plenary business sessions of all delegates are the ONLY times when petitions can be ultimately adopted. So if the plenary runs out of time to consider a petition, the petition dies, even if it was supported by its committee. Overall plenary business time was slashed by over 20 percent from the previous General Conferences. While this was apparently done, at least in part, as a cost-saving measure (given the growing need for paid translators), when our General Conference meets only once every four years (quite less frequently than most other major denominations) it is simply self-defeating to not have a whole-hearted devotion of resources to make sure that it can get its job done.

Most delegates are used to working at their jobs for eight hours a day, and longer in busy seasons, versus the average of six-and-a-half hours of actual plenary work scheduled for delegates in the second week. Many were understandably frustrated about how much valuable time was lost by their not even having full-time days of actual work, the scheduled breaks being needlessly long and frequent, their being prevented from working late, and all the time eaten up by the lengthy presentations and honoring of various individuals. Delegates came from around the world primarily to do a job that could only get done there in Tampa, not to listen to some nice presentations of information they could have gotten in another time or place.

The intentionally cramped schedule resulted in a ruthless zero-sum game in which time was an especially scarce resource, so that spending a few minutes doing one thing inevitably meant preventing other business from ever getting done. Thanks to the General Conference Commission, it was a pre-arranged conclusion that a huge portion of the petitions on which so many United Methodist leaders and member had worked very hard to craft and submit would simply not get a hearing.

Such a system could hardly be riper for abuse. The commission created the dynamic in which a very small number of delegates opposed to a particular petition could effectively kill it without needing to convince a single other delegate to agree with their position, no matter how strong a majority of delegates would have supported the proposal in question, and even if the petition was passed overwhelmingly in its committee. Petition opponents simply needed to make sure that other business would be prioritized first so that the conference would end up “having no time” to get to the petition. To the already tense environment of General Conference, the commission thus injected an additional animosity-promoting fault line between delegates: whose concerns would be heard and whose would not. These were extremely predictable results of the commission’s new way of “doing General Conference.”

There are two ways in which valuable business time was eaten up in the first week that especially merit mention.

The General Conference Commission arranged for delegates to break into small-group “holy conversations” about their respective support for or opposition to the UMC’s biblical position on sexual morality. Any “dialogue” whose core question is whether or not we believe the UMC’s teaching is wrong, and whose format inherently treats all beliefs with relativist equivalency, necessarily demotes the authority of the church’s position and related policies while giving those seeking change yet another opportunity to make their case. Also, the format of the “holy conversations,” with the focus on giving all delegates a chance to share their personal stories in small groups, dovetailed neatly with the massive, well-funded campaign of the pro-homosexuality caucus groups in the months leading up to this General Conference to train activists to share their personal stories in a way designed to manipulatively “pull at the heartstrings” for the sake of convincing moderate and conservative General Conference delegates to liberalize their views on sexual morality. While some liberal activists led by Mark Miller of New Jersey (who I’ve found to be a very pleasant person in one-on-one conversations) later staged a protest over these conversations being, in some vague way, harmful to gay and lesbian delegates, it is unclear if they were protesting much more than the fact that some people did not agree with them. In any case, the General Conference Commission chose to not offer any comparable opportunity for conservatives to make their case on any issue in which they are the ones seeking change.

The commission also bears much responsibility for the notably prolonged plenary debate over its proposed Plan of Organization and Rules of Order for this General Conference, given the number of provocatively questionable things they chose to include. Their new structure was challenged over how it would prevent important petitions from being heard (and the procedural safeguards against this proved utterly ineffective). Many delegates were concerned that the commission’s changes to the procedure for handling minority reports paralleled complaints by pro-homosexuality activists about specific details of the parliamentary handling of a key pro-homosexuality proposal at the last General Conference. And many were upset by the commission’s opposition to even partial attempts to correct the injustice of requiring that the General Conference administrative committees, charged with important day-to-day work in running the conference, over-represent small, liberal-leaning regions of our denomination. (And we are expected to trust that this has absolutely NOTHING to do with the fact that the majority of commission members were from regions benefiting from this imbalance). Such things undermined delegates’ trust in the commission’s new Plan of Organization and Rules of Order, provoking an unexpectedly lengthy debate. This in turn ate away precious legislative committee time, ensuring that a larger number of petitions would never even be considered in committee, thus dying there.

So the 2012 General Conference was run by a commission whose members were disproportionately drawn from leadership groups that openly advocate church officials dishonestly breaking their word and abusing their power in order to advance theologically liberal causes while treating theologically moderate and conservative United Methodists extremely unfairly. This commission arranged the conference in a way that turned out to be demonstrably beneficial for the factional perspective of those who dominated the commission.

Given these facts, is it really reasonable to expect observers to blindly trust that there was no intentional effort whatsoever among anyone on the commission to be at all favorable to their own very public biases?

To be fair, the Commission on the General Conference was not solely responsible for the dysfunctionality of this General Conference. You can read the whole story by continuing on to Part II, then Part III, and finally Part IV of this series.


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