Viewpoint: 2012 General Conference

New Definitions of Inclusiveness: Reflections on General Conference 2012

By Bishop Forrest C. Stith

 

For much of my life as a member of the United Methodist Church, I, and many others have struggled with the goal of inclusiveness. Whereas the dream seemed elusive in secular America, many of us believed we were on the road to fulfillment in the United Methodist Church. Scores of books, journals, and diaries have shared the dream, that “when we all get together what a day of rejoicing that will be. When we all see Jesus, we will sing and shout the victory.”

 

Specifically for the last 40 years, this goal of inclusiveness through full participation of a diversity of groups in our church seemed almost within grasp. The priority of General Conference, the Jurisdictions, boards and agencies seemed intent on fulfilling this dream. It has been most evident in the make up of all

our entities to insure proportional and representation in all ways. To be sure, in the process of including African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and others, we also assured a fair place at the table for women, men, young, old, town, country, urban, etc.

 

Imagine the shock of many of us after the last General Conference, when it seemed that the church had by de facto changed the definition of inclusiveness to mean: Proportional representation, based on numbers of people in a given conference. It was as if the church had changed the rules in the middle of the game, ala Lucy pulling the ball away before Charlie Brown can kick it.

 

Specifically, if as stated, the boards and agencies will hereafter reflect 30 percent of our total membership which is from the Central Conferences, and another share from fast growing churches in the southern U.S.A. So, in a sense it’s a circle. Early Methodism held that membership of the general and annual conference would include ONLY full elders and members of the church. Since churches were just springing up in the south and west had few such members, their participation was limited.

 

We assumed the church had moved beyond that kind of mathematics over the span of 200 years. In a complete circle, the 2012 General Conference rationale disenfranchises many American churches, especially ethnic minority groups.

 

From our first experience as short term missionaries to Liberia in 1974, and the 4-year experience as a retired missionary Bishop in East Africa, from 1996 to 2000, my wife and I have been engrossed in a passion for the continent of Africa, its churches and a yearning for full partnership as a global church.

 

I have watched our denomination struggle with the specific issues of globality; namely ending dependency, eliminating paternalism and patronizing attitudes. I have offered myself as a conduit towards that goal and have often met resistance from both sides of the ocean, but still to this day I persist.

 

I still remember, several quadrenniums ago, the plea from Bishops Peter Borgen and Emilio deCarvalho to create regional church structures, so that the African churches might be able to concentrate on their agenda, and not be diverted to an American-only agenda. I witnessed the Council two quadrenniums later take such a proposal to the 2008 General Conference, receive its support, only to lose the

constitutional vote in annual conference settings due to gross mis-information. Whereas I did not see that as a final solution, I believed then and now that it was the best hope for a full partnership.

 

Therefore, I was amazed when I witnessed the 2012 General Conference address the issue of globality again, but this time with a solution of numerical proportional representation, and thus re-define inclusiveness. Whereas, such a solution “feels good,” and may appear to accomplish much, my heart is heavy, primarily because it does not affect the greater systemic issues of globality and full partnership.

 

With this mathematical device, beyond re-defining inclusiveness, it created several dilemmas without

accomplishing the reality of a global church. Proportional representation does not equal full partnership, for as long as resources, communication, contacts, and accessibility are unequal, the basic obstacles to full partnership are not satisfied.

 

I have listed some practical dilemmas that will need to be addressed if this proportional representative model is to be functional.

 

1. History. The present structure of the UMC, its boards and agencies are the concomitant result of over 200 years of interaction, principally within the United States, its culture, demographics and politics. To assume that such a history can be transformed or adapted by superimposing a proportional

representation, is not to perceive the dynamics and intricacies of organizational development and process. If numerical representation was valued, then the General Conference also should have addressed a review of the purposes, goals, and functional patterns of the various entities of the Church.

 

2. Cultures. Such an assumption is to deprecate the rich history and culture of the African continent, thousands of years older than the United States. To assume that members representing such great rich civilizations and culture would be interested and enthusiastic in subjugating their natural interests and priorities from various cultures, while embracing the issues of Euro-centric cultures, and background, is almost ludicrous. This is precisely what Bishops Borgen and deCarvalho feared. Quite often in our Council of Bishops meetings, Bishops from Africa and the Philippines characterize a specific item as “...

an American dilemma.”

 

3. Global Boards and Agencies. The option to radically convert ALL boards and agencies to practical GLOBAL boards and agencies, is fraught with dilemmas of logistics, personnel, and finances. To accomplish this, would be impossible for individual units to accomplish. Further, to even develop such a

model, would require two or three quadrennia. Granted, all geographical regions have much to learn from each other, but to re-create boards seems a clumsy, expensive method to accomplish such transfer of training.

 

4. Finances. It is not simply that the African churches support the apportionments by only 1 per cent. Rather it is that global representative participation increases the cost of every agency or entity by at least 3 times. And if translation costs are included, the cost is even more. Where are the funds to come from?

 

Probably a reduction of staff, programs and eventually a reduction of board member meetings and participation. Even with the reality of webinars, teleconferencing, etc., the costs may prove prohibitive, and co-incidentally reduce funds heretofore allocated for the Central conferences.

 

5. The 40 year old inclusiveness model reflected a variety of constituencies within the church. This unwritten policy insured that decisions made by the denomination reflected the interests and needs of our great diversity, one which we often brag about in ecumenical and secular circles. Although it may have

been expensive and sometimes awkward, diverse representation was a positive gift. This model is now over. Since the western jurisdiction is our most ethnically diverse of our jurisdictions, and is the most dramatically affected in reduced participation, we can assume that some of our ethnic minority groups will

be marginalized or completely absent.

 

I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. Although I was a member of the Central West conference of the Central Jurisdiction, I often interacted with members of the all white Nebraska Conference. I was in awe at their strength and vitality. Literally, every town in Nebraska had a post office and a Methodist church. Most of

these churches had less than 300 members. Nevertheless, most were full time pastorates, considered vital with ample parsonages and high pension rates. Sadly, I watched this month the decimation of a Nebraska sense of identity, as Nebraska merged with the two Kansas conferences, principally due to financial resources. My sadness is that I wonder if the denomination and the new conference will reflect the committed people of hundreds of small towns of central and western Nebraska. Under a new understanding of representation, the states to the south of Nebraska, and across the oceans, with large populations, will determine the destiny of our denomination.

 

In that vein, as a member of the Central Jurisdiction, though limited in total dollars, most of our congregations of all sizes, proudly and sacrificially paid apportionments in full, and gave to all categories of denominational askings. Thus, it was a proud constituency that moved towards “one church” in 1968.

 

Now, many of these 2,100 congregations and 440,000 members, wonder if their sacrifices were in vain. In 1939 we were placed on the altar to create a UNITED Methodist Church. As we attempt to create a global church, are we to be sacrificed again? The removal of the football by Lucy makes us wonder. The difference is, we “know who holds the future”, Jesus Christ our Lord. Though “sometimes up and sometimes down, and sometimes to the ground, our souls are still heavenly bound.” We have persevered within the denomination, through slavery, segregation, discrimination and abuse, because we believed, “except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who.... (attempt to).. build it.”

 

Forrest C. Stith, Retired Bishop

July, 2012