General Conference from a missions perspective
BY THOMAS KEMPER
Thanks to the hard work of directors, missionaries, and staff the cause of mission was well represented at the recent General Conference in Tampa. We have many reasons to be joyful, thankful, and celebrate, on the attached pages called “Mission Celebrations in Tampa.” Much of the fine spirit of our March board meeting in Plano carried over into Tampa. The labor of directors across this quadrennium in forging a viable new Global Ministries’ governance structure was evident when at the 11th hour, the General Conference found itself without a plan for organizing general agencies. I will come back to this subject because I want to underscore its importance.
I was overjoyed about our presence and contributions to the 2012 General Conference. At the same time, I will admit that I hoped for more to celebrate, and in several respects Tampa has generated deep concerns for me about our beloved church and its global mission.
Apart from any of the competing plans for restructuring our institutional life, I had prayed that GC2012 would embrace the spirit of the Call to Action, with its emphasis on congregations and communities of vital and missional faith, pointing us toward dynamic change in our organizational values and style of operation. Rather than moving into the future with enthusiasm for the Good News of Jesus Christ, the proceedings in Tampa seem to have veered toward a kind of spiritual and structural status-quo, which if left unchecked will, I fear, do serious damage to our United Methodist self-image and discourage people, especially youth and young adults, from embracing our strong Wesleyan heritage.
Much of the energy at GC2012 focused not on developing vital congregations for a vital church, but on rearranging the denominational furniture, on building or destroying power bases supporting vested interests, and on clinging to what Tim McClendon described in an excellent post-Tampa blog as “irreducible positions.”
A great deal of the debate over structure focused on the general agencies and their relationship to one another and to hierarchical structure. Three competing plans for realignment came into the legislative process and jammed it leading to a negotiated compromise termed “Plan UMC.” That plan, after its approval, was found to be unconstitutional by the Judicial Council, throwing the conference into a state of confused anxiety only a few hours before adjournment. While not doubting the constitutional judgment that the General Conference cannot delegate its authority, I agree with McClendon that the Judicial Council decisions added to the sense of status-quo, erecting “an almost impenetrable wall around the agency silos” which leads me to wonder whether our church can ever change.
Need for Collaboration
I for one, as an agency general secretary, do not want to operate in a silo. I want Global Ministries to be an open, sharing organization, collaborating closely with other agencies and with mission partners around the world. I see Global Ministries taking a major role in promoting and implementing collaboration at every intersection of the church on its general level. We cannot, we dare not, return to “business as usual.”
In addition, I do not want to look only to the Council of Bishops, as the Judicial Council seems to think proper, for program oversight. I also long for some effective, constitutional denominational unit, composed of dedicated clergy and laity from around the whole connection, to provide insight from the grassroots and annual conferences to our configuration of general agencies. Self-reform plans devised by most of the general agencies and in the legislative pipeline at Tampa rescued GC2012 from stalemate over structure. These plans, including our own, had been self-initiated in the spirit of the Call to Action, and they saved the day in Tampa. They were combined into an omnibus petition that quite literally provides a tomorrow for general church operations. I felt so thankful for all those hours Global Ministries’ directors spent developing our reorganization plan.
I believe the agencies, in a spirit of collaboration, can help to find structures that free us from silos and build productive, unifying, approaches that serve congregations seeking vitality in mission and ministry. Opportunities for collaboration are manifold. I see great worth in finding ways for agencies to share services and support one another in the interfaces of mission, discipleship, education, and social justice.
We, in mission, have the opportunity in the next quadrennium to model the meaning of collaboration as Global Ministries and the current Women’s Division find our way as separate organizations connected in mission. The legislation for the organic separation was adopted in Tampa with almost unanimous support.
We also have an example of agency collaboration in what may seem like an unusual arena—the budget. Global Ministries went into General Conference expecting a 6.6 per cent reduction for the next quadrennium. We came out with a 10 percent decrease, as did the other agencies mainly because each agency gave up part of its allocation to fund two new initiatives, a 5 million dollar theological education fund for the Central Conferences, and a 7 million fund to prepare new, young clergy for the US. Yes, it is hard to give up dollars, but we must think of the welfare of the entire denomination, and we needed new, trained clergy. Clergy training is mission.
The four percent reduction means we must recalibrate our budget for the next four years. It may mean some reduction in staff and programs. Decisions on these matters will reflect our priorities as expressed in our strategic plan, and it is a positive challenge that we are able to control this process ourselves.
Global Nature of Church
Collaboration is a major challenge, and I see other opportunities emerging from Tampa. GC2012 showed that we need to give active, prayerful attention to the issue of the global nature of Methodism in general and of The United Methodist Church in particular. Difficult, often unacknowledged issues involve theology, governance, cultural influences, and the spirit of unity within the General Conference itself. There is cause to wonder whether we as United Methodists fully appreciate the fact we are part of—not the full expression of—the Wesleyan family. As the global mission agency of our church, we have a special responsibility to identify and address such matters. We are called to join with others who share this concern in renewing our consideration of the theoretical and practical aspects of the global nature of Methodism. Dare we dream of bringing a proposal to GC2016 built on the wisdom and participation of Methodists from all parts of the world?
Still another challenge involves youth and young adults. I am aware that many young adults—along with others—were disappointed, even disillusioned, by some actions taken and attitudes expressed in Tampa. Some wonder whether they want to continue within such a contentious denomination. We must hear these concerns, whether they entail social policies, sexual orientations, or mission opportunities. We must listen and together shape responses filled with grace, hope, and love. “Many of us, sisters and brothers, leave hurt,” said Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Germany, closing GC2012 as president of the Council of Bishops. “But we are called to go and make disciples in these mixed emotions we are in.” This is a clear message for all of us.
We have opportunities just ahead to affirm and encourage young adults in mission. In August we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the US-2 and the 35th birthday of the mission intern programs. New classes of each of these service groups are coming up, and we also have our first truly international class of Global Justice Volunteers.
Bishop Wenner ended the fractious 2012 General Conference with a powerful message of mission and reconciliation. She said that Jesus’ message to go into the world with the Gospel remains our central challenge, and continued:
We are sent forth to be the church of Jesus Christ at the various places around the globe. We are sent out to proclaim the good news in our local congregations; but even more challenging, out there in the cities and villages to where we are going tomorrow; out there in God’s world, the world full of beauty and wonders and full of suffering, brokenness and devastation. Jesus sends us to go.
Christ is there in the young Native American, longing to find his identity. Christ is there in the child fighting against malaria in the village in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Christ is there in my gay brother in the pew. Christ is there in the black American right here in this neighborhood in Florida, angry at a society in which racism is still a daily reality…
Anxious United Methodists gain hope. Disappointed General Conference delegates move on together….Let us listen as the risen Christ says to us, ‘Fear not! I am with you. And, therefore, follow me.’
We, as the General Board of Global Ministries, have roles to fill in listening and in spreading the message of confident reliance on Christ’s presence.
Mission Celebrations in Tampa
We have a great deal to celebrate in relation to GC2012, including:
- Commissioning. The commissioning of 23 new missionaries and 17 deaconesses put a spotlight on mission service, drawing more than 500 to the Sunday afternoon service on April 29 at Palma Ceia United Methodist Church. The new personnel were introduced to the General Conference that night at the conclusion of an event devoted to general church ministries. Despite the late hour, the General Conference was effectively reminded that Global Ministries is fulfilling its mandate to prepare and send missionaries in the name of Jesus Christ into all the world.
- Advance giving. More than $9,000 was given to The Advance for missionary support in a two-part offering, one part received at the end of a Sunday night celebration and another on the following Tuesday. Following the announcement of the total, a delegate offered a check to push the total over $ 10,000. Another $2,700 was offered during the Sunday afternoon commissioning service.
- Relations with Partners. A luncheon prior to the service provided an opportunity to interact with delegates and representatives from two-dozen countries. There was positive response to the explanation of how we see mission in the 21st Century as connection and facilitation among partners. A copy of my brief luncheon comments can be read online here.
- Women’s Division/Global Ministries. The proposal that Women’s Division become a structurally separate, but missionally related organization, was adopted with no detectable opposition. The affirmative action was reported from a legislative committee on a consent calendar. The division becomes the National Office of United Methodist Women, and the transfer process takes place in October.
- Racial/ethnic plans. The five existing racial/ethnic plans—three of which are administered by Global Ministries—were reauthorized. A new Pacific Islander Plan, developed in a process for which we had oversight, was approved and assigned to us.
- Act of Repentance. As a church, we repented for past violence and neglect of native and indigenous peoples, both in the US and around the world. This was one of the spiritual highlights of the conference, and has implications for our future relation with native communities.
- Resolutions. While many petitions that might have become General Conference resolutions were left unaddressed at adjournment, most of the proposals from Global Ministries and Women’s Division did pass, either on consent calendars, or in plenary action. These include measures on peace in Afghanistan, development in Haiti, the dangers of nuclear energy production, and peace in Israel/Palestine. Delegates readopted a measure opposing Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory; they modified a measure on investments to delete a call for the church to divest of stock in companies whose products strengthen Israel’s actions regarding Palestinian land.
- Focus Areas. Each of the four focus areas received attention, with special drama linked to Global Health and Ministry with the Poor. We were responsible for the latter. Mary Ellen Kris and the interagency task force with which she works did a wonderful job in several venues, including two plenary presentations and a noon “Break Bread with* Tampa.” The free box lunch (with voluntary contribution) drew more than 500 people from the conference and a number of homeless people from the downtown Tampa area. We are not sure what the next quadrennium holds for the focus areas, which was worked into the restructure plan ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council. There being no alternative to that plan, the focus areas will no doubt need to be considered by the Council of Bishops, the new Connectional Table, and the general secretaries of the general agencies.
- Immigration Rally. Another popular outdoor event was a rally on immigration, with special emphasis on opposing for-profit prisons. Staff from Global Ministries and the Women’s Division had pivotal roles in organizing the rally sponsored by the United Methodist Task Force on Immigration. Many of our missionaries and board members attending the conference were in the audience.
- New Global Ministries Governance. We were fortunate to have individual agency restructures on hand when “Plan UMC” was overruled. These were adopted in an omnibus measure. We continue with no disruption in our good operations. Our new board of directors will be a third the size of that of this quadrennium. Our revamped internal program structure is approved.
Thomas Kemper is leader of the Board of Global Ministries.