The struggles of a global denomination

May 13th, 2016

General Conference has only just begun, and you can feel the energy. People are excited about the possibilities of this week and anxious about the perils. We've witnessed our first protest and our first controversial decision by the Judicial Council. Twitter is already abuzz and the exhibit hall tables are beginning to be emptied of their swag. Were the mood at the Oregon Convention Center not so electric, however, you might hear money being spent at an incredible clip. This ten-day meeting of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church is projected to cost over $10 million dollars. That's right: the people called Methodist are currently spending more than $700 every minute, and we will continue to do so until the closing worship service on May 20th.

This is my first experience at General Conference, where I am serving as a reserve delegate from the North Georgia Conference. To be here is to be surrounded by constant reminders of the global church. A large swath of the 864 delegates present this week come from the Central Conferences, primarily from the continent of Africa. As one bishop has said, we seem to be the only Christian denomination attempting to be both democratic and global. That's an important tension, and as the church grows in places outside the United States, General Conference costs are rising dramatically. More delegates from outside the United States means that travel costs are higher. More delegates for whom English is not the primary language mean translation costs are higher ($2 million higher than 2012, to be precise).
The problem is manifold, but much of the issue lies in that tension of global ministry and democracy. Let me be clear: the global nature of the United Methodist Church is to be celebrated! Those of us from the United States learn things from, say, our sisters and brothers in the Philippines, and we pray that they have things to learn from us. When we build relationships across cultures, we grow in healthy and helpful ways. But we don't build relationships at General Conference; we're too busy digging out from underneath piles of legislation and being interrupted by protests. What's more, much of the legislation we will debate this week applies only to the United States, meaning that we're spending millions of dollars to fly hundreds of people to General Conference so they can sit through debates about things that don't apply to them.
One answer, of course, is decentralization: create a Central Conference for the United States that mirrors the way the United Methodist Church is organized in other parts of the world. Let that U.S. Central conference debate U.S.-centric matters and interpret the Discipline for the unique context of the United States. Yet this solution is unlikely to pass the General Conference because there are political consequences to changing the decision-making structure of the church. In particular, the decisions about human sexuality that come out of a U.S. Central Conference would be significantly more liberal than the decisions that come out of a General Conference in which 30% of the delegates are from Africa, as is the case in 2016.
Instead, we continue on, winking about the cost of General Conference as we raid the tables in the exhibit hall. Meanwhile, the church continues to decline in the United States. Children continue to go hungry. People continue to need the salvation that comes from Jesus Christ.
This is my first General Conference, and in the short time I have been here, I find myself asking this question: if Jesus were to show up in Portland this week, would he be pleased? Honestly, I have to think he'd be pretty angry. And if we don't think that what we are doing here honors God, then why in Heaven's name are we doing it?
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