December 13, 2012

Why Was the 2012 General Conference so Unproductive and Dysfunctional? (Part 2)

[12/14 Editors note: Reading the “Why Was the 2012 General Conference So Unproductive and Dysfunctional” series for the first time? Here is Part 1, Part 3, and Part 4.] 

Running Out the Clock 

In previous General Conferences, as in many other spheres of life, when people realize they are behind schedule and running out of time, there is a natural eagerness to get moving and catch up, even if that means working a little overtime. But as crunch time approached in Tampa, our General Conference leadership did not even adjust the schedule to allow delegates to put in at least a full day’s worth of daily work. At one point the Agenda Committee chair, to his credit, informed delegates how little of their plenary conference business they had gotten through and urged them to make the most of their remaining time. But then on the second-to-last night of General Conference, when delegates were increasingly anxious about how much work they were leaving unfinished, the Agenda Committee apparently failed to even assign enough work to fill up the seven-hour work day, thus forcing delegates to end their day’s work a half-hour early. On the final day, the Secretary of the General Conference, Fitzgerald Reist (who is also an ex-officio  member of the General Conference Commission), twice went out of his way to use his immense clout to lobby delegates “not to think of getting through every petition, but of crafting every piece of legislative action well.” Between the important values of painstaking perfectionism on each petition considered and getting through as many petitions as possible, the General Conference leadership was rather lopsided in its emphasis on the former to the neglect of the latter. While I realize that noble motives drove many of the exhortations to avoid making overly rushed and sloppy decisions, we must not be naïve about the facts that (1) this could be overdone, and (2) theological liberals were vocal in their disappointment with the votes in the first, legislative-committee week, and were consequently eager to stem how much of the committee-passed petitions would make it to and through the second-week plenary sessions.  

So delegates associated with the liberal Common Witness Coalition (the Reconciling Ministries Network, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, and others) were only too happy to play along with such encouragements to not worry about leaving their work undone. Empowered by Dr. Miller’s commission, such activists aggressively pursued a cynical strategy of “running out the clock” to effectively defeat pending proposals they disliked by slowing the General Conference down to a snail’s pace. The head of RMN later admitted that in the second week, the Common Witness Coalition’s “legislative team adapted to strategically use” sympathetic delegates “to slow the system.” One MFSA chapter explained that in the second week, “it was clear that [MFSA activists] needed to switch to defense to block” petitions they opposed, and celebrated that “a great number of petitions and resolutions” they opposed “were not considered on the plenary floor as time ran out.”   

Legislative Committee Chairs and the Agenda Committee

One of the key General Conference administrative committees was the Committee on Agenda and Calendar, charged with, among other things, the now all-important task of determining the sequence in which the General Conference considered different petitions sent to the second-week plenary sessions.  The new Plan of Organization gave very broad guidelines for determining which petitions would be addressed earlier (prioritizing those with global implications, financial implications, and/or minority reports), but great freedom within these often debatable criteria was afforded to this Agenda Committee. Thus, this group of ten people, working with the thirteen legislative committee chairs, was empowered to work behind the scenes to effectively kill a large amount of petitions disliked by some of them, by simply preventing the nearly 1,000 delegates from voting on them, even if they had been overwhelmingly supported in committee. As with the General Conference Commission, the Council of Bishops gave disproportionately large representation in this committee to theological liberals. 

In its daily meetings, the Agenda Committee bestowed great power on each of the legislative committee chairs, who met with them, to more or less unilaterally determine the relative priority of the petitions from his or her committee. Thus, if one petition was especially favored by the relevant committee chair, s/he could help ensure that it would indeed be considered in the plenary session by moving it towards the top of the agenda, even if this petition had been decisively defeated in committee. Or if the chair was especially opposed to a petition assigned to his or her legislative committee, s/he could single-handedly kill the petition in question, even if it had received overwhelming majority support in committee, by deliberately moving it to the end the agenda so that the plenary session would be unlikely to ever get to it. In either case, a single individual (the legislative committee chair, but not any of the other elected committee officers) was given tremendous power to determine if the full body of delegates could even consider a petition, based on little more than whether s/he personally supported or opposed it. Neither the rules designed by the General Conference Commission nor the practice of the Agenda Committee ensured that any petition passed in its committee would be given a plenary vote, or even be prioritized over committee-rejected petitions.                                   

As previously noted, the Agenda Committee did ensure that as much plenary time as possible was eaten up for debate on the top-two legislative priorities of the liberal caucus groups, anti-Israel divestment and liberalizing the UMC’s Social Principles statement on sexual morality. Even though both measures were decisively defeated by the legislative committees of delegates who had had the most time to prayerfully study and discuss them. And even though these petitions were predicted to eventually be defeated in plenary session anyway (which they were).  To be fair, the new rules arguably bound the Agenda Committee to prioritize the Israel divestment proposal (since it had financial implications). But with advocates of sexual liberalism having already loudly drowned out other important concerns at each of the last several General Conferences, one wonders how many more General Conferences we will see in which other pressing issues cannot even be discussed because of some activists’ increasingly childish antics to selfishly hog a disproportionate amount of attention.  

A Case Study

I was an observer of the Church and Society #2 legislative committee, whose leadership was extremely liberal.  The chair was the Rev. Molly Vetter, who appears  to be  active in the California-Pacific MFSA chapter.  I observed the sub-committee chaired by Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, an outspoken supporter of the Common Witness Coalition, and a very passionate defender of abortion (the subject of many petitions in her sub-committee). In both the sub-committee and full committee, the respective chairs managed the discussion in such a way that they nearly ran out of time to address a petition to end our denomination’s formal affiliation with the militantly, uncompromisingly pro-abortion political group, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). Both Bigham-Tsai and another delegate at different points tried to have an RCRC-supportive church official come and lobby delegates under the pretense of “providing information.” In the sub-committee, when a delegate suggested that such testimony be balanced by hearing from the Rev. Paul Stallsworth, the head of Lifewatch (our denomination’s pro-life caucus) and an elected Jurisdictional alternate delegate, Bigham-Tsai falsely claimed that that was not allowed. 

Having now been to the last three General Conferences, I can say that the Rev. Bigham-Tsai’s leadership was by far the most heavy-handed and blatantly manipulative that I have seen of any legislative committee or sub-committee chair. The majority of the sub-committee’s bioethics-related petitions would have at least nudged the UMC in a life-affirming direction. But this was contrary to the values of Bigham-Tsai, who successfully prevented most of these petitions from ever being discussed by insisting on devoting the first several meetings to very, very lengthy and needlessly repetitive personal sharing by delegates about “their hearts,” by calling needlessly frequent and early breaks, and after she did not like the way some votes were going, launching into an angry, self-righteous, and not completely coherent tirade about how she suspected that something nefarious was afoot. In the debate over revising the UMC Social Principles’ somewhat muddled statement on abortion, the Rev. Bigham-Tsai tried to strong-arm the sub-committee into hastily accepting, as a starting point, the language of the only one out of the seventeen relevant petitions that would have moved that statement in a more liberal rather than life-affirming direction, thus needlessly injecting a time-consuming fight over process. She used her power over the petitions’ order of consideration to crassly manipulate sub-committee delegates into ultimately giving up on even considering the majority of petitions that would have moved the UMC in a more pro-life direction, because of the hope she teasingly held out that they might get to consider RCRC if they had time.  She also used her power of having the last word before the sub-committee vote on RCRC to make the very demonstrably false claim that RCRC’s political activism (which supports the morality of abortion in all cases and opposes any mild restriction on the practice) was consistent with the UMC Social Principles’ statement on abortion – even after that sub-committee had amended that statement to expressly limit support for abortion to only cases of danger to the physical life of the mother (an amendment that was later narrowly overturned in the full committee).

The same tools and potential for abuse were present in the conference’s other legislative committees and sub-committees.  Through such tactics, a small number of well-placed individuals were able to achieve for the Common Witness Coalition what it simply did not have the support to have achieved through an honest and substantive debate among the delegates. 

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