2016 UMC General Conference

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Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone preaches May 19 (Photo: Mike DuBose / UMNS)

May 21, 2016

GC2016 Recap: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

As I type this, I am extremely exhausted from the hectic last couple weeks of General Conference work. But knowing how eager many of you readers are for news, here is a non-comprehensive summary of key highlights from the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

 

The GOOD:

  • On sexual morality, we maintained our church’s biblical standards on marriage and sex. While some liberal delegates may have felt optimism for their cause as early as the beginning of this General Conference, committee voting in the first week made clear that the votes were not there to liberalize our standards.  So liberal delegates, in cooperation with an extraordinary intervention with our bishops, narrowly rushed through a little-understood motion that involved tabling all “sexuality” matters, which meant keeping our present, orthodox standards.  Contrary to some misunderstandings and rhetorical smoke-blowing, this motion to refer such matters to a special commission did NOT call for a moratorium on enforcing our Book of Discipline’s standards.  Rather, it simply used similar language to what bishops routinely say, and the Discipline itself says, about wanting to avoid complaint processes and treating them as last resorts, but then also expressed an explicit commitment to uphold our Book of Disicpline. While there are many good reasons to be skeptical of this whole process, it is worth noting that this special commission to be appointed by our bishops will only have authority to make recommendations rather than actual changes in church teachings, and that when similarly called commissions or study committees have recommended liberalizing our sexuality standards, the church has rejected their advice. For one less-than-elated liberal reaction to this development, see here. We also allowed the expiration of an embarrassingly bad resolution passed by the 2008 General Conference decrying “heterosexism and homophobia” so that that is no longer an official UMC statement.
  • On pro-life issues, we overwhelmingly voted to end our denomination’s scandalous 43-year affiliation with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), voted by an even larger margin to delete an official UMC resolution expressing appreciation for RCRC, and in other actions, we voted decisively to repeal a 40-year-old official “Responsible Parenthood” resolution very broadly defending abortion and endorsing the infamous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, re-adopted a resolution decrying sex-selective abortion while describing abortion as “violent” and criticizing those done for “trivial reasons,” and allowed the expiration of a 16-year-old official UMC resolution bewailing an alleged “crisis” of some hospitals not offering abortions. The petition to withdraw our membership in RCRC was submitted by several annual conferences from the Northeast to the Midwest to the South: Western Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama-West Florida. We also strengthened and re-adopted an existing resolution on human cloning and bioethics. And we re-affirmed our church’s opposition to “mercy killing,” while a dangerous petition from the California-Pacific Conference to promote the pro-assisted-suicide “Death with Dignity” movement died in committee. While much work remains in more firmly establishing a clear pro-life commitment in our denomination, these were HUGE steps in the right direction.
  • In terms of other harmful agendas, we decisively defeated variations of the “Global Segregation Plan” to create a new US-only structure in which peskily orthodox overseas delegates would have been excluded (including one proposal advancing this from the once-formidable Connectional Table), rejected fossil-fuel divestment, protected guaranteed appointments for clergy, and did not adopt any of the liberal resolutions that would have put our church on the wrong side of recent religious liberty controversies we have seen in America.
  • With accountability, we adopted a package of reforms to make bishops more accountable to the global connection, rather than only to their respective regions, to end the impunity with which some bishops have flaunted our denominational covenant. We also adopted petitions to bring a little more transparency in our judicial accountability processes, and to require those appointed as counsel for the church to be willing to uphold our church law in pursuing charges against wayward clergy.
  • On Israel, anti-Israel divestment petitions were soundly rejected in their legislative committee, an 11th-hour attempt to resurrect this cause in the final day’s plenary session was rejected in a vote of 559-167, or 77-23 percent (an even more lopsided margin than the 2012 General Conference’s 2-1 vote rejecting divestment), a run-of-the-mill UMC petition to criticize Israel was gutted by an amendment, and much to my pleasant surprise, we actually adopted a petition calling on the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) to end its affiliation with an extreme anti-Israel group the GBGM itself helped establish – and the 60-40 vote on that was not even close.
  • On the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), we amended the Discipline to require that our denomination’s notoriously liberal DC lobby office begin doing some work to advocate on behalf of Christians persecuted for their faith around the world.
  • On Proportional Representation, we adopted a plan that will add five new bishops in Africa by 2020 (partially addressing some serious imbalances), added a few more African members to the powerful Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters as well as to the General Commission on Communications.
  • On Men’s Ministry and Reclaiming Wesleyan Spirituality, we adopted a resolution encouraging men’s groups to adopt the “class meeting” format as outlined by Professor Kevin Watson, modeled on the historic Methodist class meetings.
  • On Women’s Ministry, we amended the Discipline to explicitly encourage a variety of women’s ministries without treating United Methodist Women (UMW) as an absolute monopoly. Such explicit support for supplemental women’s ministries has been a longtime goal of our friends at the Renew Network, as you can read about here. Perhaps finally succeeding on this matter after so many years could be attributed in part to the Manhattan national headquarters of UMW finally overplaying its hand, not just in its longtime disregard for the values of non-liberal women in our churches, but also with its (failed) petitions submitted to this General Conference on the “crisis” of abortion-free hospitals and to make the “Responsible Parenthood” resolution even more callously pro-abortion.
  • Also from the Local Church committee, we adopted one petition allowing for more flexible structures for our local churches for the sake of reaching new people for Jesus Christ, and another petition, submitted by Rev. Riley Case (Associate Director of the Confessing Movement and UMAction Advisory Board member) to promote “awareness of and concurrence with” our church’s Doctrinal Standards within each of our congregations.
  • In distribution of resources, we doubled the funding to support theological education in our overseas central conferences, from the officially planned $5 million to the $10 million for which we pushed strongly.
  • On inclusion of non-US delegates, who constituted some 40 percent of all delegates, we saw a perhaps unprecedented level of non-Americans being engaged in discussions and elected as officers of legislative committees. The 71 elected committee officers included three Filipinos, three Europeans, and sixteen Africans. Furthermore, we adopted a petition requiring that from now on, the most important information that has been printed only in English in the Daily Christian Advocate to guide delegates in what we are doing each day at General Conference, will now also be translated and made available in French, Swahili, and Portuguese. In practical terms, this last change means that beginning in 2020, we should expect a new, unprecedented level of informed engagement on the part of African delegates, significantly beyond even what we saw this year.
  • In elections, evangelicals handily swept the elections for our denomination’s Judicial Council (Supreme Court) and University Senate. Now the nine-member Judicial Council includes three Africans, one Filipino, one European, one African-American, one Vietnamese American, and two white American women – and eight of these nine were elected with the support of evangelicals because of their commitment to fairness, integrity, and upholding our Book of Discipline. Furthermore, while the powerful Commission on the General Conference has traditionally been stacked with liberal appointees of our Council of Bishops, a new rule allowing nominations and elections allowed us to elect three strongly evangelical Americans to this important body, in addition to the numerous non-Americans now serving on it.
  • On General Conference, we changed the Discipline to clearly mandate democratic processes in delegate elections (pending ratification of this Constitutional amendment), and also adopted a petition submitted by the Indiana Conference to require future General Conferences to actually take action on the petitions submitted to it. The latter means that liberals will no longer be able to rely on the cynical “filibustering” weapons they have used against us at this and the previous General Conference. In other words, in future General Conferences, when the orthodox majority has key petitions that we really want to pass, they now have much less ability to stop us.

 

The BAD:

All of the major losses for evangelicals were “offensive losses” – as in we failed to gain as much new ground as we had hoped in some cases. I cannot think of a single major area in which progressives actually gained ground at this General Conference.

But I had been particularly hoping that we could have gained more ground in proportional representation (reversing how declining liberal regions of our church are over-represented while more faithful and growing areas in the USA and globally are under-represented in denominational leadership structures) and accountability for wayward clergy. On the latter, the outgoing, liberal-dominated Judicial Council issued several frustrating rulings disallowing several of the key accountability petitions we supported.

Several silly, far-left political resolutions were passed, as at every General Conference, but that is nothing new – every General Conference does that.

The General Conference failed to take time to even consider serious reforms to our U.S. seminary education system or our geographically unequal distribution of U.S. bishops, aside from establishing a group to study possible “changes to the jurisdictional conferences’ and episcopal area boundaries.” A petition to establish term limits for all UMC bishops failed to get the needed two-thirds super-majority for such a Constitutional amendment. But it did get over 59 percent support, suggesting momentum since a similar motion received only 50.05 percent at the 2012 General Conference.

 

The UGLY:

I will probably write another article or two about this section later.

There was so much rather unhinged anger and stridency among protesters at the conference, in illegally storming the delegates-only area, in social-media trolling, and elsewhere. And it will be hard to forget that liberal clergy delegate who took to the microphone to angrily and confidently accuse a presiding bishop, who is known for having twitchy hands, of “telegraphing” how to vote on something with his alleged secret hand signals.

Some liberal delegates and surrounding activists stooped to rather blatantly misrepresenting the truth, particular on issues related to abortion or Israel.

Our bishops take turns serving in the chair to preside over each couple-hour segment of the General Conference plenary meetings. Our system was clearly broken when there was such a lack of consistency between how the rules were applied from one presiding bishop to another.  This led some to quip that the only governing rules we effectively had were whatever the individual in the presiding bishop’s chair wanted them to be in that moment. Most of this I am willing to chalk up to parliamentary procedure not being something most of our bishops understand well, which highlights the importance of a proposal made to hire a professional parliamentarian for future General Conferences. But there were several instances of liberal bishops rather blatantly disregarding the rules, or dramatically breaking with the consistent pattern of how the conference had handled similar parliamentary situations, in ways that clearly prevented conservative delegates from promoting perspectives with which these bishops are known to disagree. It was particularly bizarre to see how the new Council of Bishops president, Bishop Bruce Ough of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, rather forcefully shut down a valid motion from the Rev. Mike Childs of Mississippi, later made a public show of seeming to apologize to Mike, but then did not actually give Mike the opportunity to make the motion Ough had illegally prevented him from making.

 

Overall, I am beyond elated and thankful for the great things He has done in this General Conference, not only in the great actions taken but also the clear “writing on the wall” of the newly emerging global orthodox majority in our denomination, and the apparent inevitably of future General Conferences being able to establish even firmer standards of doctrinal and moral accountability.  I look forward to seeing what He will do with our future.

(Note: This article has been updated since its original posting.)


  • JohnEpiscopal

    I could not disagree more with dismissing progressives, liberals, and moderates as ‘trolling’ or with the unfair misinformation spread about the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Additionally, the European, Filipino, and South American delegates showed signs of growth for the liberal-wing of the denomination.

    • Carlos

      How has the Episcopalians’ embrace of feminism and homosexuality paid off? Last time I checked, your numbers are down and pretty certain to stay that way. Sounds like you are hoping the UMs will follow your church and the other liberal churches down the path to extinction.

    • Joan Watson

      I guess the “trolling” concept depends on your perspective. And as far as I have been able to determine the liberal/progressive gains you talk about are minimal. And Carlos asks a good question re the current state of The Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations who have followed that church down the same path. And to that I add this question: In the face of the decline of the Episcopal Church here in America, how do you explain the continued growth of the conservative/orthodox Wesleyan Church?

      • Donald L Scoggins

        All mainline protestant churches have had significant decreases in membership since the 1970s, including the UMC. Throughout this decline, the UMC Book of Discipline has declared that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” For those who posit that the decline in membership in other mainline churches must be tied to those churches’ liberalizing their policies, how do you explain the steady decline in UMC membership, when UMC has held on to its conservative stances?

        • Mark Brooks

          Supporting abortion on demand? Not conservative at all. There is more to the liberal sickness of the mainline than their attitude towards homosexuality.

          • Donald L Scoggins

            So you’re expecting with the recent change on abortion at the General Conference, UMC membership will be skyrocketing soon? Don’t count on it. The Catholic Church has been a bulwark of conservatism on both abortion and gay rights. And their pews are emptying out as well. In fact, the only reason the numbers appeared to remain steady in the US during the reign of John Paul II was that Hispanics were pouring into the US and replacing the disaffiliating white parishioners. But Hispanic immigration has leveled off, and now the actual numbers are going down for the Catholic Church. And what has become of the defecting Catholics? They’ve either become unaffiliated with church OR they have joined liberal protestant churches. They have not flocked to the Evangelical churches, which champion conservative issues. John Paul II’s staunch position on conservative issues has ultimately emptied the pews in the American parishes.

          • Xerxesfire

            You have left out the number of Hispanics who left the Catholic church for evangelical denominations that are either Baptist or Pentecostal / charismatic. The latter church movement represents growth for the Latino population.

          • Mark Brooks

            Certainly a much, much larger number than “defecting Catholics joined liberal protestant” churches.

          • Mark Brooks

            Defecting Catholics joining liberal protestant churches? I think there is much of frustrated fantasy in your posting.
            The issue is one of Biblical authority. No church that upholds anything else will prosper, because it is God speaking.

        • ken

          You’re overlooking the fact that numerous UM churches openly support homosexuality in spite of what the Book of Discipline (and the New Testament) say. Even though, technically, the UM has not condoned sexual deviance openly, as have the Episcopalians, ELCA, UCC, and other mainlines, in practice many UM congregations hang out the rainbow flag and make it clear on their web pages that they welcome homosexuals and have no intention of telling them that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” In short, the Book of Discipline is a dead letter. It’s not enforced, so what it says about homosexuality is a scofflaw. The gay activists seem to take pleasure in pointing out what the Book of D says, because it seems to disprove the harsh reality that liberal churches are all in serious decline. Nope, there are lots of liberal UM churches, and they are responsible for the denomination’s decline, just as the sexual activists in other denominations are responsible. The UM is emphatically NOT a conservative denomination, not when its seminaries are overwhelming left-wing, and its officials will not enforce the Book of Discipline.

          • Railroad Lover61

            Wait, you forgot the OLD Testament. The BEGINNING of life starts there, Not in the NT.

      • JohnEpiscopal

        The Southern Baptist Convention and Roman Catholic Church, both conservative denominations in the US, have reported decline. Decline is a reality that all denominations must face.

    • With all due respect, that is a lot of wrong info in one comment. The only misinformation about RCRC was spread by its supporters. There are NO “South American delegates” because there are no South American UM churches. European and Filipino UM churches are not growing much, but I know many folk in those regions, and it is wrong to blanketly characterize them as “liberal” (especially the latter).

      • JohnEpiscopal

        That’s interesting considering that the article blankety seeks to mischaracterize the RCRC and the US regions. There is hardly anything good or objective about what was said in the article, and continuing to spread misinformation about the RCRC is completely wrong.

      • JohnEpiscopal

        Also, there were South Americans present and active. The Bishops of Evangelical Methodist Church in Argentina, a UM affiliate, were present and they support equality.

  • David Goudie

    Thank you for the update.

  • John S.

    This is a far more optimistic and comprehensive update than any I had gotten to this time. Thank you. I still think the passing off to the Bishops will be a problem given their history of using or ignoring rules at a personal whim.

    • Macy Rivera

      LOL! That describes the pastor in the church I moved from, who selectively used or ignored rules at his personal whim. Sad, but very true. Time to get some firm rules in place that get followed, under penalty.

  • Stephen Rhoades

    God bless you, John. Know that a lot of us “in the trenches” are grateful for your work, before, during and after General Conference.

  • I can’t find a single reason for the special commission except for finding a way to pave the way for the inevitable break-up of our connectional church into something that will include fancy words such as “unity” and “locally adapted” and whatever that in reality is nothing more than a schism…methodist style (Google “How many methodists does it take to change a light bulb).

  • Bob Johnson

    Thank you John! Your hard work now and in the past is inspiring, a ray of hope. I pray the UMC strengthens and grows in a righteous way. May God bless you John!

  • Bill Payne

    Great Report! Very glad that you were on the ground. Can you say more about the University Senate? Those of us who teach at evangelical seminaries on the approved list are always worried about getting kicked off. Plus, the last University Senate passed a rule that UM seminary students had to take all off their online classes through a UM seminary. I would like to see that rule changed.

  • juco42

    I am so relieved and it is great to regain some faith in your church again. It is great the BOD now allows Women’s Groups other than just UMW. We had already done that at church though, just couldn’t support UMW anymore.

  • Ron Barnes

    Thank you, John. I have personally been so disheartened about the direction of the UMC so I found some reasons for hope in your reflections from the conference.

  • Xerxesfire

    Thanks John for this excellent summary of GC. Like many others, I had a certain amount of trepidation about the Connectional Table liberals and their proposed changes, but am pleasantly surprised by the positives I have read about. Now, I wish we could totally clean up the church and its seminaries of the liberals and be able to do “church” where the whole Gospel is preached and revival renews our churches again. Wouldn’t that be something?

  • Wizard Hoffer

    Thank you for the update. The UMCGC turned out better than I thought it would. It’s nice to hear good news. There were so many stories of willful disobedience and schism in these past months.

  • the_enemy_hates_clarity

    Mr. Lomperis, I really appreciate this update, and the work you have done.

    There are 2 agencies/committees in our church that I don’t really understand.

    1. The Commission on General Conference.
    2. The University Senate

    I understand that from an orthodox perspective, GC2016 made both better. I would really appreciate an article from you educating us on what these 2 entities do, how that might change after the recent votes, and what we as active pew sitters could do to help. I have long been concerned about how General Conferences are run and particularly how are seminaries educate our future pastors. Anything you could do to clear up some of these issues would be wonderful.

    Thanks again for all your work in the trenches.

    In Christ,

    The enemy hates clarity

    • Xerxesfire

      Good questions, TEHC! I too have noticed over the years how the seminaries seem to espouse liberal thinking. Some UMC pastors are very spiritually weak as a result. Also, if the UMC is to avoid going the way of TEC, ELCA, UCC, PCUSA, etc., it must reverse course STAT and get back on track spiritually. GC2016 is a step in the right direction. May it continue going forward!

    • Good question. Hard to answer well in a succinct comment. But briefly: 1. The Commission on the General Conference basically sets the rules and schedule. This body has traditionally been stacked with liberal activists, who over the years have found all sorts of ways, from who they select to lead worship to how they arrange the rules of debate (remember, this is the body that proposed the infamous, thankfully rejected Rule 44), to arrange things in ways that seem to advance their biases. 2. The University Senate has a whole bunch of members selected in different ways, only 4 of whom are elected at General Conference. They review UMC-affiliated colleges and universities and also get to decide which non-UMC seminaries we let UMC ordination candidates go to. Over the years, the University Senate has courted controversy for removing a number of seminaries from the approved list, including (but not limited to) some high-quality evangelical seminaries, for the nakedly stated purpose of insitutional turf-protection: wanting to steer students towards more liberal official UMC seminaries who have been struggling to attract students on their own. Hope this very non-comprehensive summary is helpful.

      • the_enemy_hates_clarity

        I just saw this. Sorry I didn’t check earlier. Thank you for the response. In looking at the University Senate, it seems badly in need of reform. At least half are presidents of colleges/universities whose institutions directly benefit from the Senate’s decisions. The fox is guarding the hen house, and it is ripe for abuse.

        In Christ,

        The enemy hates clarity

  • eric pone

    For moderates such as myself and liberals the writing is on the wall, we are no longer welcomed in the UMC connection. It was coming sooner or later but at least now we have a timeframe for when we will be formally excused from the connection. I had hoped somthing would happen to find a middle way but its not to be. Oh well its been a good run.

    • Canbuhay

      There’s a third option, why not embrace the biblical, life-affirming view that welcomes all people, including preborn children? Biology and biblical teachings all point to one conclusion – human life begins and should be valued starting at fertilization. It’s really the only Christian worldview.

    • JohnEpiscopal

      Do not lose hope; the UMC congregation with which I have had a relationship is very progressive and I believe that to be true of many congregations. Also, as the regions abroad industrialize and modernize, they too will begin to move toward acceptance of more moderate positions.

  • JohnEpiscopal

    It is always interesting that this and other conservative articles leave out the growing progressive areas that will continue to represent a voice for change and acceptance. There were more than 30 delegates and representatives of South American delegates and the churches in Uruguay and Argentina, both affiliated autonomous churches, support equality for LGBTQ members. The accepting conferences in the Philippines and Germany are also growing.

    • With all due respect, please check your facts before posting.
      1. Liberal German United Methodism is shrinking, and has been for some time: http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/2013-2013-south-germany-annual-conference
      2. I question the claim that non-UM Methodist denominations in South America are growing, but in any case, that’s not our UMC. South American Methodists do not send a single voting delegate to our General Conferences, since they are independent of us. They may send observing guests (not delegates), but they have no voice or influence in our internal affairs.
      3. I know Filipino United Methodism, have traveled there. It is more conservative than USA, with a liberal minority. Can you name a single one of the 25 annual conferences there that has formally taken a permissive stance towards sexual sin?

      • JohnEpiscopal

        With all due the same respect, check the same sources before condescending with incorrect or inadequate information. Those of us who are Hispanic are acutely aware of our cultural sphere’s presence via the delegates/reps. of various countries. Bishop Frank de Nully Brown even gave an opening prayer and there were at least 30 reps. or delegates present. http://hispanic.umc.org/news/iglesias-metodistas-del-mundo-buscan-la-unidad

      • JohnEpiscopal

        And not all German churches are shrinking. Some have been growing. http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/membership-climbs-at-german-church

      • Correction: I meant to say that I question the idea of multiple non-UM Methodist denominations in Latin America adopting a revisionist, denomination-wide stance on sexual morality. I realize some are indeed growing.

  • JohnEpiscopal

    If the author, in the comments, is dishonest about the present of South American UM affiliates as delegates, then changes that to he doubts it, what else is the author and the IRD dishonest about? I do not appreciate being condescended to for sharing verifiable facts about the South American UM-affiliated churches and their delegates, but I am no longer surprise when RMN or RCRC complain about the blatant misinformation spread by IRD. Bishop Frank de Nully Brown and more than 30 delegates/representatives were present at GC. They also bear the UM logo as affiliated autonomous churches. They are also affirming of LGBT people. http://hispanic.umc.org/news/iglesias-metodistas-del-mundo-buscan-la-unidad