The General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) is, at least theoretically, reinventing itself. Headquartered on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., it serves by design as the main political arm of the United Methodist Church (UMC) and publically represents the social witness of the third largest religious body in the United States under the gaze of roughly 60 board members. GBCS has been tasked since its inception with promulgating the UMC’s Social Principles.
However, GBCS’ methodology for accomplishing this mission fluctuates. This came into sharp focus at the GBCS board meeting September 21-24 in Washington, D.C., and nearby Columbia, Maryland.
For starters, the agency has worked with French consultant Richard Amalvy during the previous year to refocus, reorganize, and rebrand itself. Staff, with the guidance of Amalvy, decided on their “brand,” centered on “advocating,” “educating,” and “connecting.” This included solidifying GBCS’ “issue portfolio” – the core topics the agency intended to emphasize. This portfolio included advocating for the welfare of women and children, economic justice, civil rights, environmental justice, the poor, healthcare, and peace.
Comments shared by board members and staff at the board meeting mirrored these priorities. Both staff and board members heavily emphasized the need for supporting racial justice, political advocacy done in the name of the poor, and including ethnically diverse voices within the UMC. Staff repeatedly highlighted how GBCS General Secretary Susan Henry-Crowe visited protests against Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.
Surprisingly, these conversations lacked much, if any, reference to religious liberty, at least while I was there. That was despite General Conference requiring the GBCS dedicate at least some of its resources to advocacy for religious liberty. Delegates at General Conference overwhelmingly voted to add the following language to the Book of Discipline regarding the GBCS’ mandate: “The board shall promote education, prayer, and advocacy on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who suffer persecution for their faith.”
The GBCS also submitted a resolution, approved by delegates at General Conference, which listed religious liberty among the most important human rights for Methodists to focus on. “Religious liberty forms part of the pantheon of human rights,” the resolution specified.
This followed a statement at the outset of the resolution: “We lift the following arenas for human-rights work to all United Methodists worldwide, and to the attention of all general agencies, particularly the General Board of Church and Society and the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church.”
During the time I attended, the rest of the human rights topics discussed in that resolution received attention at the GBCS board meeting. The apparent exclusion of religious liberty from the GBCS’ “issue portfolio” and scant meaningful discussion (if any) about the topic at the board meeting appeared to be a conspicuous oversight. If religious liberty indeed stands among the “pantheon of human rights,” it seems like the topic should have garnered more attention from the GBCS.
In addition to this process of refocusing the agency, GBCS board members have been involved in recrafting the Social Principles ahead of the General Conference in 2020. This process carries a wide range of potential consequences. Indeed, some view the Social Principles as a platform for advancing their own personal opinions on hot-button issues.
It remains impossible to tell exactly what the new Social Principles will look like when presented to the General Conference in 2020, since GBCS board members have yet to even select the writers who will be involved. The outcome of this process – whether the Social Principles undergo significant changes or remain relatively similar to the existing ones – will certainly be an important one for the UMC.
Ideally, the GBCS will include a variety of voices in this process, rather than relying only on its typical base of relatively progressive American Methodists. This process is intended to make the UMC more globally inclusive, a lesson which the GCBS will hopefully learn, too.
Indeed, the GBCS suffers from a stark lack of global diversity on its board. The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s United Methodist Director John Lomperis noted in January 2014 that “the 63-member board includes only three (less than five percent) African United Methodists, despite sub-Saharan Africa now being home to nearly 40 percent of the world’s United Methodists.” Although the final membership for the agency’s board is still being finalized for the current quadrennium, it appears that the dramatic underrepresentation of African Methodists will continue virtually unchanged, even as Africans become an increasingly large segment of the UMC.
In the interim between now and the next General Conference, observers should continue watching how the GBCS evolves. No doubt, the GBCS is changing. That much became clear at the agency’s board meeting. What’s less clear is whether the GBCS plans to reinvent itself or simply repackage existing structures and continue campaigning for the same progressive social causes as always.
Based on the agency’s reluctant withdrawal from the radically pro-abortion Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) earlier this year, the GBCS seems hesitant to depart from its progressive heritage, even when forced to do so by General Conference, much less embrace a greater biblical and theological rootedness along with traditionalist stances on such issues. So while Evangelicals should remain prayerful and hopeful for orthodox reform at the GBCS, these changes will likely come incrementally at best.Google+