By Marta W. Aldrich

FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS) - When United Methodists convene this spring for their worldwide legislative assembly, they can expect wider international representation, a denominational budget built around four new areas of focus, and carefully choreographed opening sessions aimed at fostering unity through common ministry instead of gridlock over divisive social issues

The 2008 General Conference will meet for 10 days - two fewer than the 2004 gathering in Pittsburgh and with no break - but still must sort through more than 1,500 petitions, which is about the same amount of business conducted at the previous assembly. In addition to hearing opening addresses from a United Methodist bishop and lay person, delegates will hear the first-ever Young People's Address - delivered jointly by six teens and young adults who promise a presentation "different from anything that's ever been presented to General Conference before."

The new approaches are among a bevy of changes outlined during the United Methodist Pre-General Conference News Briefing, an informational session attended by more than 200 delegation representatives and church journalists. The Jan. 24-26 briefing, sponsored by United Methodist Communications, was held near the Fort Worth Convention Center, where General Conference will open on April 23.

"This is going to be an historic event," said Mary Brooke Casad of this year's opening sessions, which will feature intricate staging and multimedia effects in delivering a message of unity and hope in mission and ministry.

"We've never done it this way before. It's not going to be just business as usual," said Casad, executive secretary of the Connectional Table - itself a new entity formed by the last General Conference to coordinate mission, ministries and resources for The United Methodist Church.

A new agenda

Weary of decades of the church's top legislative meeting being consumed by debate over homosexuality and other hot-button issues, the Council of Bishops and other denominational leaders have shaped a new church-wide agenda with the overarching purpose of "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." The agenda includes four areas of focus:

  • Engaging in ministry with the poor; and

  • Fighting the killer diseases of poverty such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

  • Creating "new places for new generations" by starting new churches and renewing existing ones;

  • Developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world;

Church leaders believe this approach will help United Methodists unite to address the world's core needs, reclaim the church's Wesleyan heritage, start a movement and, as a bonus, reverse decades of declining membership trends.

"This is about alignment - with the Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table, what's happening in annual conferences - and saying we're going to coalesce (and) combine to make a difference," said the Rev. Dr. Jerome Del Pino, chief executive of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, which will oversee the leadership initiative.

It also is hoped that, when the 992 delegates leave General Conference to return to their home districts and churches, they will know the four areas of focus by heart and, with a new clarity about "what my church is doing," spread that vision and sense of identity to the people in the pews.

Delegates at the briefing said it's time for Jesus Christ to "do a new thing with our church."

"I'm not hearing as much about the more controversial issues so far," said the Rev. Henry Frueh, a second-time delegate from the Troy Annual Conference in New York. "There's more talk about the church positioning itself to be more effective in the world. I think there's a sense that if we don't change the way we do church, we're going to lose the opportunity," he told United Methodist New Service.

The Rev. Tom Berlin, a delegate from Herndon, Va., said many people in his generation (ages 30 to 45) are disenchanted by past General Conferences that have focused on discordant social issues that "are so predictable in their outcome" - and not enough on substantive issues of need in the world. The result, he said, is that ordained and lay leaders are tempted to cocoon themselves in their local churches "because it's just not worth the emotional energy."

Berlin told one panel group, "Friends, we're going to have to lay down our arms on these other issues if we want to deal with the (new) ones."

Building a better budget

The briefing featured a session on the $642 million, four-year spending plan for the denomination beginning in 2009 - and the new processes and criteria for developing the budget proposal. For the first time, the plan was built on an "outcome-based" model that much of the business world already follows. Church agencies were asked to shape their funding requests around the four new areas of focus. Also for the first time, the General Council on Finance and Administration shared the budget-building process with the Connectional Table.

"We're trying to do something different," said Bishop Lindsey Davis of the North Georgia Area, a member of the council's board. "We're trying to do something in a more collaborative fashion together."

Davis said the previous budget process was "more competitive than it should have been" among various groups within the church contending for their "fair share" of the pie.

"What we're trying to do . is to begin to align this budget not only with the areas of focus . but with a church that is beginning to think very specifically about outcomes, about being productive and effective and actually changing the world," he said.