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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Bishop Jack M. Tuell is a retired United Methodist bishop living in Des Moines, Wash. Prior to becoming ordained as a United Methodist elder, he was a practicing attorney and is considered a pre-eminent expert in church law.