On Saturday, June 23rd, I presented a report on General Conference to the Virginia Annual Conference. This is the transcript of that report:
General Conference Report 2012
Virginia Annual Conference
Rev. Tom Berlin
I. THANKS TO OUR DELEGATES – I would like to recognize our delegates and alternates and have them stand. These individuals were entrusted a great privilege and responsibility on your behalf. They will invest days of preparation and weeks of participation. They will easily devote a month of their year to General and Jurisdictional Conference along with hours and hours of reading, conversation, and prayer to this task. I want to publicly thank them for their diligence.
The call for restructuring grew out of a desire to:
- Foster and sustain congregational vitality in a denomination where our members are between 58-60 years of age on average and where we are diminishing in size and our ability to reach new persons for Christ.
- Redirect the flow of denominational resources to focus on the vitality of the local church
- Institute and report measurable performance results in all sectors of the Connection, including our Boards and agencies, on an ongoing and regular basis, enabling us to learn and adjust the ways we invest and use our talent, time, and money.
The desire of the Call to Action plan was to move the church in such a way that the individual work of churches, Conferences, and denominational Boards and Agencies, would be unified so that we could gain the power of alignment and synergy. The Call To Action identified what it called:
The Adaptive Challenge:
To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
To this end, The Call to Action report was championed by the task force commissioned by the 2008 General Conference. It was heralded as the heavyweight favorite. But the champion would not go uncontested. Two other contenders, created by constituency groups in the UMC, entered the arena by the time of General Conference:
- Call to action
- Plan B
- Plan MFSA
These three plans were put in a ring by their committee where they battled it out round after round for the first week of General Conference. They went the distance, and the match stopped only when the final committee bell rang and it was discovered that the three plans had successfully knocked each other out of the competition. It was then we learned the meaning of the expression, it’s not over until it’s over. The crowd at General Conference demanded a champion. A team of delegates soon emerged with a new challenger by the name of PLAN UMC. The other contenders were too weary to challenge and Plan UMC was soon declared the winner. Many in the crowd were jubilant that some victor, any victor, could be celebrated. Plan UMC was both admired and scandalized throughout the second week of GC until a delegate demanded one final bout with an experienced boxer who goes by the moniker, Judicial Council. The General Conference was shocked when their new champion was soon on the ropes and could only gasp in horror, when, late on the last day of General Conference, Judicial Council delivered a round-house punch that dropped Plan UMC to the floor.
There are three basic results from all this work on restructuring:
- Nothing changed about the current structure. In a word: unbelievable.
- The governing boards of most UMC Boards and Agencies were reduced in size.
- There will be no set-apart Bishop, as the Call to Action plan had proposed.
- A $603,100,000 budget was approved for the seven church funds during the 2013-2016 quadrennium including:
- $5,000,000 for theological education in the Central Conferences
- $7,000,000 to recruit and train young clergy in the U.S.
- This is a 6.6% decrease from the last quadrennium. Due to inclusion of the combined $12,000,000 for theological training, some boards and agencies saw budget decreases up to 10% as the General Secretaries worked together to find these funds within the proposed budget rather than asking for additional funds for the church. This level of cooperation can be celebrated as a positive result of General Conference.
- The UM Pension fund was modified to reduce the Defined Benefit portion of the past CRSP. The plan is funded annually by contributions from churches. While the new plan, which is being called Modified CRSP, has greater dependency on DC, it still carries potential future liability for the church. If there are future fluctuations to the plan’s assets by variances in the stock market, increases to clergy lifespans or other factors, the local church and Annual Conference will still carry the responsibility to pay the unfunded portion of the plan should it present itself in the future.
- The motion requested by the Virginia Annual Conference to have the clergy pension fund structured as a Defined Contribution Plan was presented to General Conference as a minority report, but was not accepted.
- Please be aware of the following changes the Pension Plan:
- Reduced pension benefit for clergy. Future benefits accrued under the Modified CRSP, the new plan, will decrease up to 15% for single individuals and up to 25% for those who are married as compared to the current CRSP. The longer you serve under this Modified CRSP, the higher that percentage. In a few weeks the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits website will reflect the change to the new Modified CRSP. Clergy need to consider their long term savings for retirement. It is very important that you seek the council of a financial advisor to consider your savings for your future income. Clergy are advised not to be a part of the 80% of all Americans who fail to consider their retirement in this way.
- Lower cost for local churches. Decreased pension benefit to clergy will mean real savings for local churches in the coming year, especially when compared to what the cost would have been under the current CRSP. These savings will not be seen until 2014.
- The cost reduction to the Virginia Annual Conference is approximately 20% compared to the current plan. You will see this in 2014.
- Benefits that are already being paid to retired clergy are not reducedThere is no change to the amount that active clergy have already accrued.
4. United Methodist Women – will have a new, independent structure separate from the General Board of Global Ministries and will no longer be known as the Women’s Division.
5. Divestment – General Conference did not support motions of divestment of Pension funds currently invested in three corporations related to Israel and Palestine.
6. Sexuality – there was no change in the church’s stance on homosexuality, same-sex marriages, or ordination. No compromise was reached on a motion to state in the Book of Discipline that United Methodists have differing opinions on these matters.
7. Security of Appointment – a proposal to remove the security of guaranteed appointments passed on a consent calendar.
- Bishops and cabinets can give less than Full Time appointments to elders
- Bishops and cabinets, with the approval of the Board of Ordained Ministry and Annual Conference Executive Session, can put elders on unpaid transitional leave for up to 24 months
- Annual Conferences are asked to name a Task Force to develop a list of criteria to guide the Bishops and Cabinets as they make Missional appointments.
Historically, the guarantee of appointment was necessary to ensure that women and persons of color would be fairly appointed in the UMC. The question is whether the value of diversity and fairness in appointment making is a shared value of our denomination that no longer requires this mandate. The reason the guaranteed appointment was removed arose out of the desire to enable ineffective clergy to transition to vocations where they could be more productive.
This matter has been referred to Judicial Council, which has been asked to rule on its constitutionality and whether it was adequately approved as an item on a consent calendar. Since this time, new reports have arisen that the guarantee of appointment remains due the oversight of General Conference, which did not consistently address this matter in multiple paragraphs of the Book of Discipline. Stay tuned.
III. THOUGHTS ON GENERAL CONFERENCE:
The following portion of my report reflects my thinking on General Conference 2012, and not that of the delegation as a whole. Some thoughts for the Annual Conference and for future delegates, wherever you may be:
1. Institutional survival vs. Missional effectiveness
It is clear that the UMC is not widely achieving its stated mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We are currently shrinking in size. We are nowhere close to reaching enough new disciples to replace those that are leaving our denomination due to death, much less for other reasons. Of course this lack of missional effectiveness will impact the bottom line of our budget and our membership numbers. However, this is not the primary concern most of us carry for the UMC. Our primary concern is whether we will fulfill the Great Commission, go into all the world and make disciples of all people, and the Great Commandment, love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.
Faced with such a huge concern and data that fully details our lack of effectiveness, after two weeks working hard together, United Methodists in Tampa did very little—one could say virtually nothing — to address these issues. This is simply amazing to me. When are we going to fall on our face in repentance for our lack of devotion to this mission rather than spending our time refusing to change anything that might lead us to a more fruitful future? The primary reason we did not reorganize our life together were the fears of those who simply do not want to significantly change our current structure and the complete lack of trust of participants in our connection for each other. General Conference functions at the lowest levels of trust between constituency groups who often begin conversations by assuming the very worst about each other. It is no wonder, then, that little is accomplished in the arena of change.
One thing is certain: what we are doing now is not working. We are not bearing the fruit our current mission statement describes. At some point we must set aside institutional survival for the sake of missional effectiveness. Change will come. It will be change that we choose or change that comes as a consequence of our inability to create a new future together.
2. Simplicity vs. Complexity:
I am holding in my hand the 1886 copy of the Discipline of the Methodist Protestant Church. Please note its size compared to the 2008 Book of Discipline of the UMC. What is interesting is that if you look inside the 1886 copy, you can see that it contains similarities to the current Book of Discipline and Book of Worship. It holds nothing comparable to the Book of Resolutions. Apparently we did not make resolutions in those days. Look at the size of the 2008 Book of Resolutions alone, a ponderous document that is not binding and a regular source of conflict in our denomination. In 1886 our rules were geared toward simplicity and we were a revival movement in America. In 2012 our documents have never been so complex and any student of organizational development would place us in the category of late-stage institutionalism.
As I look at the relational size of these books, it occurs to me that we have grown far more comfortable making resolutions that describe the world than making disciples who change the world. This is a huge loss to our tradition, to the vibrancy of the Christian family, and to the broken world in which we live.
3. Participation in voting vs. Participation in budget income
This year our General Conference was the most inclusive worldwide gathering in history. Due to the explosive growth of the church in Africa and Asia, US delegates were approximately 60% of the total while Central Conference delegates were approximately 40% of the total delegate count. However, when one looks at the income that supplies the church budget, the U. S. Conferences pay 99% of total church funds. The Central Conferences pay 1%. At the next General Conference, Central Conferences will probably hold greater than 50% of the votes. In my opinion, we simply must find ways for each area of the church to deal with the particular issues that are uniquely their own and define what issues belong to the connection as a whole. If we do not, the issue of how money is used related to theological education, pensions, and other issues, will become very divisive.
4. Despair vs. Hope
GC produces a load of cynicism and even some hopelessness in many. It is helpful to recognize that the greatest good that United Methodist pastors, members, and churches do to make disciples for the transformation of the world requires absolutely no General Conference action. Faithful disciples who are United Methodists need no majority vote, no referral to a committee, no perfecting amendment, and no affirmation from General Conference. There are so many ways we can bless the world as United Methodists. And if you hear a speech for or against the calling you are currently pursuing from God in the church, it should neither make you feel too proud nor too humble. General Conference 2012 may be known for the opportunity lost in all that we were not able to do. But it does not change the good to which God calls us. It will be in the intersections of our many callings that we shall find the most Spirit-infused ministry as a denomination. To the extent that is named in a General Conference petition, I celebrate. To the extent it is not, we are in no way hindered.
General Conference 2012 was a time to receive the blessing of renewal. Renewal of the truth that above all else, we must invoke the presence of the risen Christ, place ourselves humbly at his feet and hear his will for our lives and ministry. If disappointed, we might ask ourselves why we had any great expectations for it? Great expectations for a church meeting are nothing but a form of soft idolatry. Our greatest problem is not parliamentarian procedure. It is our operative theology. We seem too confident in our abilities to bring the Reign of God without first fully submitting to the Lord of Hosts. We must seek the Lord—be humbled by the beauty of Christ, overwhelmed by the power of the Creator, and overcome by the love of the Holy Spirit. Such an encounter with the Triune God, along with lowered expectations of the fully fallen human aspects of the church, would allow us to enter General Conference sessions with a spirit of meekness that would enable our conversations. We all need that humility, me included, to be protected from our own hubris and opened to the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
Friends, shed your cynicism. Set aside your broken expectations. I invite you to consider that our mutual love of the church, and the United Methodist Church, is present not because it has met our expectations, or is worthy of our adoration and praise. We love it because it has demonstrated its brokenness, its need for love, and how lost it would be if not for God’s consistent grace. We love the church for one main reason after General Conference: Jesus loves it, and laid down his life for the church, including sinners like you and me. You see, at the end of the day, our hope for the church is a Lordship issue. To do otherwise, to give ourselves over to cynicism, would be to violate the command to “love each other the way I have loved you.”
General Conference remains an important gathering that is a cornerstone of United Methodist polity. Future delegates should be discerned and discerning. But it is not a meeting in which we should entrust our deepest aspirations and hopes. For those, we should look to Jesus Christ, “the author and perfecter of our faith.” This is not a rejection of the United Methodist Church or skepticism of General Conference. It is simply a right-sizing of its importance in the daily ministry of millions of laypersons and pastors around the globe whose current disappointment in their denomination is more than offset by the power of the love and calling of Christ in their lives. This is our hope. This is our ministry. This is what is worthy of our lives.