Every four years, United Methodists develop high expectations that delegates to the top legislative body of the denomination will set policies and pass resolutions that address specific challenges in the church and society.

Similar expectations surround the 988 delegates and 4,000 volunteers and observers, who will attend the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church meeting April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla.

United Methodists around the world expect the assembly will take actions recognizing the denomination is a worldwide, and not just a U.S. church with overseas outposts.

Others are confident that the 11-day event will result in a new structure that will increase the number of vital congregations and address the four areas of focus embraced by the 2008 General Conference that met in Fort Worth, Texas. They are improving health globally, engaging in ministry with the poor, creating new places for new people, revitalizing existing congregations and developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world.

Others anticipate a time when the denomination will address injustices against indigenous people and other social justice issues.

“Each General Conference has a major impact on the life of our denomination and our role in the world,” said the Rev. Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist II, secretary of General Conference. “When the delegates decide where to invest our money and our talent, they also decide who will hear the Gospel and who will not, who will be welcomed into the life of the church and who will be turned aside. It is an awesome task and a high calling.”

Addressing the theme

The theme of the 2012 gathering is “Make Disciples of Jesus Christ to Transform the World.” Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, president of the Council of Bishops, will likely address that theme during the opening worship celebration at 4 p.m. ET, on Tuesday, April 24. United Methodists will be able to participate by live streaming at www.umc.org/gc2012.

On Wednesday, April 25, three addresses will provide a theological grounding for the delegates’ work.

The Council of Bishops elected Bishop Peter D. Weaver will deliver the Episcopal Address on behalf of 157 active and retired bishops from the U.S., Africa, Europe and Asia.

“There is a lot to celebrate as we try to live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world and continue our work around the four foci,” said Weaver. “It’s also a time of change and challenge, and we will invite the General Conference into prayer and decision-making that helps us be a more effective instrument of God’s mission in our world.”

The Episcopal Address is one of the few times bishops address the assembly outside of worship. While they attend and preside over the plenary sessions, bishops have neither voice nor vote on legislation and do not address the General Conference without special permission.

The Laity Address will be delivered by Dr. Steve Furr, lay leader of the Alabama-West Florida Conference; Betty Spiwe Katiyo, a graduate of Old Mutare Mission in Zimbabwe; and Amory Peck, lay leader of the Pacific Northwest Conference.

Presenting the Young People’s Address will be Krin Ali and Joy Eva Algodon-Bohol. Ali, 18, is a high school senior and a member of Park Hill United Methodist Church in Denver, Colo. Algodon-Bohol, 24, lives in Manila, Philippines, and worships at Holy Grace United Methodist Church in Cainta, Rizal. A freelance journalist, she is president of the national United Methodist Youth Fellowship.

Equal voice, vote

Annual conferences elect equal numbers of lay and clergy delegates to General Conference, the only body that can speak as The United Methodist Church. (Indiana will be sending nine clergy and nine laity delegates. See page 9.) Each conference elects at least two delegates. The Book of Discipline limits the body to 1,000. Elected in 2011, 988 delegates will serve in 2012.

Annual conferences in the United States will send a total of 606 delegates. Conferences in Africa, Asia and Europe will have 372 delegates (up 96 from 2008 and up 186 from 2004), including 282 from Africa. United Methodists in the Philippines elected 48 delegates, while those in Europe named 42. Ten delegates will come from “concordat” churches with which the denomination has a formal relationship.

The North Katanga Conference with 808,123 church members is the largest conference in the denomination. It will send 52 delegates. The next largest delegations are from Côte d’Ivoire, 40; North Georgia and Virginia, with 26 each; Florida and Western North Carolina, with 22 each; Texas, 20; and Indiana, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Ohio with 18 each.

Debating, discerning, deciding

General Conference’s main task is revising The United Methodist Book of Discipline. The denomination’s law book regulates how local churches, annual conferences and general agencies are organized and sets policies regarding church membership, ordination, administration, property and judicial procedures.

Each proposal for change originates with a petition sent to General Conference by individual church members, local congregations, annual conferences or general agencies. The Rev. Gary Graves, petitions secretary, expects to process 1,200 petitions. “I like to project the highest possible figure so delegates will be pleased if the final figure is below the anticipated number,” he said.

The longest petition comes from the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits and outlines a new retirement program (visit www.gbophb.org).

A majority vote in a plenary session makes most proposals church law. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote by the delegates, followed by a two-thirds affirmative vote of the aggregate members voting in annual conference sessions.

Delegates will begin reviewing the petitions later this month when they receive the Advance Daily Christian Advocate and available from Cokesbury.com for $45 a copy. At General Conference, each petition is assigned to one of 13 legislative committees. The group of 70 to 80 delegates reviews all petitions relating to a specific part of The United Methodist Book of Discipline. The committee’s recommendation on each petition goes to the full assembly for final action.

The Ministry and Higher Education Legislative Committee will receive the most petitions, more than 150. Graves estimates that about 70 percent address topics in the ministry study.

The General Administration Committee will deal with structure proposals stemming from the Call tp Action study. It will process more than 85 petitions.

Graves estimates two General Board of Church and Society legislative committees addressing social justice issues each working through about 85 petitions. One will review all petitions related to the nurturing community and social community sections of the Social Principles of the UMC. Among those will be petitions related to human sexuality, abortion, rights of immigrants and sexual orientation. Another will consider all other petitions concerning the Board of Church and Society and the Social Principles.

The General Council on Finance and Administration and the general church’s Connectional Table are proposing a budget of $603 million for the 2013-2016 quadrennium for general church operations, 6.04 percent lower than 2009-2012. This marks the first time a smaller budget is being recommended. The $603 million is three percent of the total expenditures of the denomination.

As it now stands, the proposed budget will mean “reductions in programming or staff depending on how the individual agencies react to reductions in funding,” said John Goolsbey, an executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration.

Delegates also will elect members of the Judicial Council and the University Senate, as well as revise The United Methodist Book of Resolutions’ collection of statements on social justice issues. The statements are considered instructive and persuasive but are not binding on church members.

The Rev. J. Richard Peck is a retired clergy member of New York Conference. He has attended 11 sessions of General Conference, including four times as editor of The Daily Christian Advocate, the official publication of the General Conference.

This story was reprinted from the January-February 2012 issue of Interpreter Magazine, a publication of United Methodist Communications.

UMNS photo.

The 2012 General Conference will be held April 24-May 4 at the Tampa (Fla.) Convention Center.

“Each General Conference has a major impact on the life of our denomination and our role in the world.”

– Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist II