GC reflections: Moving beyond the trauma and dysfunction

Bishop Jack M. Tuell

By Bishop Jack M. Tuell*

Has the General Conference become dysfunctional? Many outside observers, watching almost 1,000 delegates struggle in a cavernous, dimly lit hall in Tampa trying to make informed and intelligent decisions together, may well have wondered. Very little was accomplished, even though there was much to be done.

The United Methodist Church has undertaken a bold challenge in the way we govern our denomination. We are the only major Christian church in the world that seeks to do two things: (1) Be truly a global church; and (2) be a church that is truly democratically governed by its ordinary lay and clergy members. The Roman Catholic Church is global, but obviously does not pretend to be democratically governed. Other major Protestant churches are all essentially national churches, though some are bound together by loose international ties.

This twofold challenge is daunting and helps explain some of the trauma and dysfunction evident at the 2012 General Conference. It is hard to make democracy work in a legislative body with members from such disparate cultures. The language issue is a big one, but not as big as the deep differences of history, sociology and culture out of which our delegates come. To expect them in a 10-day meeting once in four years to arrive at a consensus on the vast array of structural, pastoral, economic, social and spiritual issues confronting them is truly unrealistic.

We have managed to get by in the past because, although we have been global, the membership figures resulted in a heavily U.S.-dominated body that tended to decide matters out of a shared U.S. cultural background in ways prescribed by U.S. methods. This has now dramatically shifted and will shift further.

So what do we do and where do we go?

I am convinced of three things:

  1. We are essentially doing the right thing in our twofold approach to governance (being global and democratic), although some tweaking is called for. The Church of Jesus Christ is global and calls for a structure that is global. There is something contradictory about a national church because the Word of God in Christ is so clearly to all people everywhere. And, God has put the mark of worth and dignity and freedom on every human being, so arrangements for governance of human institutions, whether secular or religious, should incorporate means for the voice and will of their ordinary membership in determining direction and policy. We call this democracy.
  2. We need to have the General Conference be a body that deals essentially with broad matters of the Articles of Religion, the Constitution and other distinctly global concerns. It might meet only every eight years. A large portion of the “nuts and bolts work” that the current General Conference does would be delegated to regional conferences, which would continue to meet every four years.
  3. The big gap in our structure is a regional conference structure that would include the United States as one of its regions. The rest of the world already has its “regional” conferences in the form of the central conferences. Both our Constitution and Book of Discipline already grant to these conferences certain freedom to write their own “Disciplines,” provided “that no action shall be taken that is contrary to the Constitution and the General Rules of The United Methodist Church, and provided that the spirit of the connectional relationship is kept between the local and the general church.” (Paragraph 543.7, 2008 Book of Discipline)

These ideas are not new. They have, in fact, been the subject of major discussion and debate among leaders, both lay and clergy, from all parts of our church. They are big ideas and not subject to easy resolution. But if we keep an open, contrite, listening and searching spirit, God will surely open the way toward being the church God is calling us to be.

*Tuell is a retired United Methodist bishop living in Des Moines, Wash.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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  1. Anonymous

    It seems that the whole world is in controversy today, and the UMC is just another victim. Consider Congress – almost impossible to pass laws and bills today. Consider the world scene – muct conflict over what to do on global economy and peace. As Christians, the most important thing is to be true to God – we cannot obey both God and man.

  2. Wesley White

    Obviously we need a vehicle for sustained conversation about how we are called to engage the world – perhaps one of the things the spirit is to lead us to as it was too difficult for us in the past to envision a new way.

    I expect this goes beyond what our institutional communication structures can do for us. John Wesley was visiting with the Moravians and listening to Luther when he had his energy revived by a new vision and appropriation of grace. We may need to listen to folks in other disciplines as well as denominations or faiths to aid us in this. I would far prefer spending the money we spent on consultants about restructuring on folks who could lead us in talking about our “deep heart’s core” so we might cultivate the openness wherein we would plant processes that could be cultivated and eventually bear the fruit of “loving one another” (Jesus’ mark of discipleship).

    Peter Block is one such person, but there will be others needed to join him as no one category (bishop, board) of leadership that will do – this is an issue beyond our leadership. Developing a new-to-us communal ethos will push us to listening again to the prophets among us and not simply to our usual priests of power.

  3. Anonymous

    I believe that Bishop Tuell is right on. I told my spouse after General Conference that we needed a US Conference do deal with issues particular to the US church.

  4. Dr. J. D. Abbott, Jr.

    Dear Bishop Tuell, the potential problem with regional conferences is obvious:They could reach very different positions on extremely substantive issues. I believe that could/would be very harmful to the global church.

  5. Anonymous

    Thank you for being a voice of reason.

  6. Karl C Evans

    Bishop, You seem to be speaking the language of the entire world. I have many internet friends in equatorial Africa. They are very strong in their wish for a Global Church. Among the simpler things which could be done is to hold General Conference as a rotation among the continents of the world (except, possibly, Antarctica). I try to give support to this whenever I communicate with Bishop Daniel Wandabula of East Africa Annual Conference. I believe all of us should at least communicate our support to the EAAC and others in this matter.

  7. Brenda Wills

    Thank you for your witness and wisdom.
    Rev. Brenda S. Wills, ordained Elder by you in OR ID in Salem, in 1980!
    Serving now as Chaplain at Newport OR Hospital and Hospice.

  8. Robert Hinklin

    YES! but with the U.S divided into two Central Conference– A Confessing Conference and a Progressive Conference… Creating overlaping regional annual conferences for each and alowing clergy and churches to move in and out of each–sharing esential boards and agencies as Publication and pensions etc…

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