November 29, 2012

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

(Photo credit: Fine Art America)

By John Lomperis

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.

Read more here.