General Conference 101

March 11th, 2012
Photo Credit: Mike Dubose, UMNS

A Gathering of Preachers

From April 24 through May 4, 988 delegates from around the world will gather in Tampa, Florida, for General Conference. The two week meeting brings together clergy and laity to act as the decisionmaking body of The United Methodist Church. It is, in fact, the only “body” that can speak officially for the denomination—bishops cannot, pastors cannot, annual conferences cannot, nor can any one organization or individual. General Conference, which meets every four years and has met in that interval since 1792, is the legislative body of the church, handling thousands of pieces of business and guiding the future of the church.

General Conference began out of the tradition of conferencing in the early Methodist Church. The first such conference of Methodist preachers in the United States took place in Philadelphia in 1773. At that meeting, the group—all laypersons—agreed to pledge allegiance to John Wesley’s leadership and not administer the sacraments. According to The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2008—our denomination’s “rule book”—“a system of regular conferences of the preachers was inaugurated similar to those Wesley had instituted in England to conduct the business of the Methodist movement.”

The Christmas Conference

General Conference has its roots in the 1784 Christmas Conference, so called because it occurred over Christmas in Baltimore, Maryland. Held at Lovely Lane Chapel, participants planned the future of the Methodist movement in America and organized themselves, for the first time, as The Methodist Episcopal Church in America. Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, two British preachers John Wesley had sent over to America to supervise the fledgling church, were elected as “superintendents,” which we now call “bishops.”

At the Christmas Conference, Methodists in the United States began what is a long tradition of taking strong stands on social issues: There, they took a forceful stand against slavery. They also accepted a new hymnbook that John Wesley had prepared and adopted the Sunday Service and the Articles of Religion. Following the Christmas Conference, The Methodist Episcopal Church published its first Discipline in 1785, which contained its polity, or form of church government. A new church was born.

The First General Conference

In the years after 1784, “traveling preachers” met every year to worship, fellowship, and conduct business. As the church spread across the land, however, it became impossible for all the preachers to get together every year. A decision was reached to divide the church into regions that met yearly and to hold one “general conference” every four years, where all preachers were expected to attend.

And so it was that the first General Conference was held in 1792. It resulted, perhaps not surprisingly, in the first split in the church. The question was if bishops had the authority to appoint preachers to their charges. James O’Kelly challenged this authority by making a motion that every preacher had the right to appeal his appointment if he was not happy with it. The motion was defeated after heated debate. As a result, O’Kelly and his supporters walked out of the meeting, taking about 20 percent of the membership of the church with them. Shortly after that first General Conference, the church drafted a Constitution (in 1808), established a publishing house (it actually began in Philadelphia in 1789 as the Methodist Book Concern), and began its spread of scriptural holiness across America.

Impact on Local Churches

Over the years, General Conference has changed with the times, and the times have changed because of its actions. Local churches have experienced the impact of these changes. For example, the creation of The United Methodist Hymnal, our current hymnbook, was approved by the 1988 General Conference. General Conference has made key decisions that have made it possible for women to serve the church as delegates and as ordained clergy who serve as pastors, district superintendents, and bishops. Women were excluded from participating in General Conference until 1904. In 1888, Frances E. Willard, president of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and four other women were elected lay delegates to General Conference. They were refused a seat after an ad hoc committee ruled that the church’s Constitution and laws did not allow it. The issue was voted on again in 1892 and passed by the lay vote (laity having been granted the vote at General Conference in 1830), but the ministerial vote defeated it. In 1896, both groups passed the resolution, and female delegates were allowed to be seated at the 1904 General Conference of The Methodist Episcopal Church.

Full clergy rights for women were not granted by General Conference until 1956, when Maud K. Jensen was given full ministerial membership. However, The Methodist Episcopal Church granted Margaret Newton Van Cott a license to preach in 1869; and Anna Howard Shaw was ordained in 1880 by The Methodist Protestant Church, which split from The Methodist Episcopal Church in 1830. In 1889, Ella Niswonger was the first woman ordained by The United Brethren Church, a forerunner of The Evangelical United Brethren Church, which united with The Methodist Church at the 1968 General Conference to form the denomination we have today.

General Conference has also taken stances on other social issues such as war, the economy, poverty, homosexuality, and environmental issues. These official church positions are found in the Social Principles of the Book of Discipline. The Social Principles are not considered church law, per se; rather, they are “intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit.” Other social issues are addressed in The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church, which contains all the current social polices adopted by the church. The book is intended to guide the work and ministry of the church.

How the Conference Makes Decisions

General Conference, comprised of one-half clergy and one-half laity, all elected by annual conferences, votes on petitions to change the Book of Discipline. Petitions may be sent in by general agencies, annual conferences, local churches, and individual United Methodists. Each of the several thousand petitions sent in for General Conference is sent to the petitions secretary, who then assigns each one a number. The secretary also assigns each petition to a legislative committee. Petitions are printed in a bound book called The Advance Edition of the Daily Christian Advocate.

The reference committee then goes to work, reviewing the work of the petitions secretary and combining similar (or identical) petitions. Legislative committees—comprised of about 80 to 100 delegates who meet mainly during the first week of the conference—debate, amend, and vote on the petitions assigned to them. Their votes are recommendations to the full body—the plenary session. At the plenary session, delegates may amend the various petitions that come before them, after which a vote is held. A simple majority is enough to pass the petition into church law.

All the action of the plenary sessions is recorded and published in the Daily Christian Advocate, which is delivered to the delegates first thing each morning during General Conference.

What Does Not Change at the Conference

A lot of ink and verbiage will be spilled in Tampa as delegates experience “holy conferencing.” On the surface, it might appear that everything is on the table; however, some things do not change. In the basic organization of The United Methodist Church, “Restrictive Rules” are followed that impact General Conference. For example, Article I of the Rules states, “The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion. . . .” Article II states that General Conference “shall not revoke, alter, or change our Confession of Faith.” Other articles in the Rules state that the conference “shall not” change our form of church governance by doing away with the office of bishop, “shall not” do away with the “right of trial by committee and appeal” for clergy, and “shall not revoke or change the General Rules of Our United Societies.”

It is important to remember that what is at the core of being United Methodist will not change. We are a connectional church. As the 2008 Book of Discipline states so well, “The United Methodist Church is a connectional structure maintained through its chain of conferences.” It is through this connectional structure that we seek to fulfill our mission, which is grounded in the gospel.

The first paragraphs in “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task” begin with this sentence: “United Methodists profess the historic Christian faith in God, incarnate in Jesus Christ for our salvation and ever at work in human history in the Holy Spirit.” This opening section expresses our hope in the full realization of God’s coming reign; recognizes the sovereignty of God and God’s love in all of life; affirms the authority of Scripture informed by Christian tradition, enlivened in experience, and tested by reason; and articulates our call to proclaim God’s salvation to our world.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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