News and Views

BWC delegation reflects on General Conference and the future

Posted by on

In the wake of disaffiliation and the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Methodist Church saw 862 delegates descend on Charlotte, North Carolina for the postponed 2020 General Conference. The Baltimore-Washington Conference sent 12 individuals — six clergy and six lay members — to the quadrennial meeting this year. The delegates in attendance were: the Revs. Ianther Mills, Joe Daniels, Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, C. Anthony Hunt, Giovanni Arroyo and Sarah Schlieckert, and Cynthia Taylor, Melissa Lauber, Ken Ow, Daniel Colbert, Sarah Ford and Chris Schlieckert.

 Together, with delegates from across the world, they voted on historic legislation across a variety of issues: including repealing the bans on same-sex weddings, passing the denomination’s lowest budget in decades, divesting from Israeli government bonds, sacramental rights for Deacons, lower apportionment rates for churches and much more.

 Each delegate from the conference had their own personal story as to why they felt called to spend two weeks in Charlotte, working on new policies for the denomination. Silver Spring UMC lay member Daniel Colbert was motivated to become a delegate following the adoption of the Traditional Plan in 2019. At the previous General Conference, delegates passed the Traditional Plan in a narrow vote, which continued the denomination's ban on the ordination of LGTBQ+ clergy or officiating of a same-sex marriage.

“When the vote on removing the ban on LGBT clergy arrived at this session, it happened so quickly that it was hard to believe what had happened,” Colbert said. “It wasn't until the conference recessed for a break that we were able to celebrate. That's when I felt all the emotional weight of what we had accomplished and of all the work it had taken to get there.”

The General Conference struck down a bevy of anti-LGTBQ+ positions of the church/ With more than 75% of the vote, the General Conference eliminated a 52-year-old passage in the UMC’s Social Principles that “the practice of homosexuality… is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The delegates also voted down a 40-year ban on LGTBQ+ clergy.

The Rev. Sarah Schlieckert, superintendent of the Annapolis district, was an observer to the 2012 General Conference. She was rocking her oldest daughter to sleep under a set of bleachers, as delegates voted on a resolution to simply say churches within the denomination do not agree on human sexuality. 

The change over more than a decade from simply agreeing to disagree on human sexuality being voted down to repealing restrictive language against LGTBQ+ people was immense, the fourth-generation clergywoman said.

“It still seems surreal how smoothly the process of removing the restrictive language was,” Schlieckert said. “It had been so painful, so filled with vitriol, so brutal, having these discussions previously. Many people labored for years to get us to this point of removing the language.” 

But then more conservative churches started leaving. Twenty-five percent of United Methodist Churches left the denomination from 2019 to 2023, even with the passage of the Traditional Plan, according to the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary. That’s the largest schism within Methodism since 1844, when many Methodists left over slavery. 

Schlieckert described the build-up to the vote as a cresting wave. There was a buildup of anti-LGTBQ+ language, but then that wave crested. She did point out, though, that the work is not done. The legislation technically brings the denomination to a “neutral” point, she said. Many churches in Africa and the Philippines are not affirming.

“I think in the years ahead, it will begin to feel, for many, like the crash of a wave,” Schlieckert said. “The work continues, and we cannot be naïve about that. But this really was a watershed moment for us as United Methodists, and I pray that it opens the door to not only continue to work for greater inclusion, but also make space for other conversations about who we are, how we are in ministry together, and how God continues to call us forward.” 

In addition to — and as a part of — questions of social justice, delegates had to consider the dollars and cents of a United Methodist Church in a much different financial position from just five years ago. 

The General Conference Financial Administration Committee voted to reduce the budget by about 48 percent, due to disaffiliated congregations no longer contributing and a decline in collection rates from 90% to 70%.

Delegates also voted on divesting from Israeli government bonds due to their military occupation in Gaza, but narrowly voted down divestment from fossil fuels by a margin of 14 votes.

More pertinent to the local church — and quite divisive — were considerations on apportionment rates. The Financial Administration Committee voted in a narrow 32-30 vote to increase the base rate, the percentage used to calculate the apportionment to annual conferences and local churches, from a proposed 2.595% to 2.9%.

Ken Ow, a lay member of North Bethesda UMC, has experience in finances. The retired deputy budget officer at the National Institute of Health said a minority report proposed a 2.6 percent rate instead.

Eventually, the General Conference passed the 2.6% rate for the first two years, and 2.9% the following two years, “but only if a 90% collection rate was attained in the first two years,” Ow said.

“Disaffiliation accounted for lots of churches leaving,” Ow, who has served as a delegate to the 2016 and 2019 General Conferences, said. “Financial giving has been declining through the Covid pandemic and disaffiliation, but I believe we have now rounded the corner and folks will start giving more and be consistent in their giving.”

He felt the future of the denomination — financially and otherwise — is in a good position.

“With many laity in leadership positions throughout our denomination, we will have a strong voice in the direction and programming of the UMC,” he added. 

Colbert added that the changes in apportionment rates would help local churches.

“Our apportionments pay for important ministries, but local churches have struggled financially in recent years,” Colbert said. “I hope we were able to offer some relief to help churches serve their communities.”

In historic vote after historic vote, delegates reflected on their time in Charlotte — and the future of the denomination after disaffiliation and the pandemic.

One thing was for certain: many delegates felt that the vitriol and divisiveness that plagued previous General Conferences had given way to something better, and sacred.

“Overall, I feel we are in the midst of a new day where something historical and sacred is taking place,” the Rev. Dr. Ianther Mills, lead pastor of Asbury UMC in Washington, D.C., said. “I believe this is a kairos moment and God is forming us into a new people. I believe beauty is rising from the ashes of pandemic and disaffiliations.”

Kairos” is Greek meaning for a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of crucial actions. Mills served as the head of the Baltimore-Washington delegation to the conference.

Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, senior pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C., had been feeling a sense of “dis-ease” in the lead up to the General Conference, she said in an April 24 reflection. As Gaines-Cirelli arrived in Charlotte for the General Conference, she felt one word pop into her mind: tenderness.

“I’ve heard myself reflect on the way my experience of General Conference in the past has felt dehumanizing and disembodied,” Gaines-Cirelli wrote. “But what I’m experiencing as I enter into this 2024 gathering, is that the tenderness so many of us are holding and feeling seems to be creating space for us…to risk hope together, trusting that God really is doing something new among us.”

“There is beautiful coalition work happening across the conference. This coalition is the fruit of years of work to build trust and relationships across different perspectives, regions, and all the boundaries that so often cause division…It’s inspiring and encouraging to witness the spirit of collaboration at this conference,” Gaines-Cirelli added.

 A common theme from many of the Baltimore-Washington Conference’s delegates remained the same: there’s more work to be done in the present, but there’s much room for hope in the future