For nearly 200 years, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have been viewed as the religious mirror of American society. The way the church governs itself bears out this image.
Just as the U.S. Congress makes laws that govern all American citizens, the General Conference makes the rules that govern The United Methodist Church. Decisions made by the General Conference affect every United Methodist, from the most senior bishop to the newest member in the pew. General Conference is the only church body empowered to speak on behalf of the entire denomination, and thus wields enormous (though not absolute) power over the fate of The United Methodist Church.
Section 2, Article 2 of the church's constitution provides that General Conference is to be composed of not less than 600 nor more than 1,000 delegates, half ordained clergy and half laypeople. Just as congressional representatives are elected from districts and states, delegates are chosen in open elections by regional bodies known as annual conferences. Delegates are elected during sessions held the year preceding the scheduled conclave.
Why Bother About This Body?
As with Americans' general ignorance of the hundreds of laws passed by the U.S. Congress, few rank-and-file church members pay much attention to the proceedings of General Conference except on certain hot-button issues such as abortion and homosexuality. What's more, most United Methodists would be hard pressed to say who the General Conference delegates from their region are, let alone contact them on matters of concern as many Americans now contact their federal representatives through websites.
Yet knowing the delegates from one's annual conference and their perspectives on various issues can be important to local congregations. That's because delegates determine the shape and function of United Methodism for the four years following each General Conference session. Pastors and lay leaders alike in each United Methodist congregation are bound by the rules that General Conference sets. These rules, along with the church's constitution and statements of faith, are contained in a document known as the United Methodist Book of Discipline.
Once again mirroring the U.S. Congress, General Conference's legislative work occurs in various committees, which review thousands of petitions and recommend them for action by the full body. Committees are organized according to the sections of the Book of Discipline that petitions would affect. For the 2012 session, there will be 13 legislative committees, plus the Standing Committee on Central Conferences, which deals with all petitions related to areas outside the United States. Petitions come from the committees to the full body of General Conference, which then votes them up or down.