Wow, things are a little overwhelming and at times utterly mind boggling at General Conference. Thankfully, I’m among friends, Jesus is still Lord, and the Holy Spirit is moving.
So before we get to my reflection on Tuesday, we need to go back in time and remember our history. The Methodist Church has its beginning in the American Revolution. Our founding denominational leaders structured our church polity (aka “governance”) much like our Founding Fathers structured our budding new US government. While there was an early separation of “church and state” in our country, we have lots of similarities in our structure.
Portland Courthouse (picture above) which I pass on the way to the Oregon Convention Center where we are meeting (picture below).
Here is a very brief and very simplistic description (ignoring oddities and exceptions) of our structure and three branches.
Executive Branch: Bishops oversee our Annual Conferences (regional bodies) similar to Governors who oversee states. Northside is in the North Georgia Annual Conference and our Bishop is Michael Watson. Bishops are elected and serve for 4 year terms. Bishop Watson’s term ends in September. Bishops are elected from within a region called Jurisdictions (we are in the SE Jurisdiction which will meet to elect Bishops this July). We don’t have an office like the Presidency.
Legislative Branch: We have a constitution. Our overarching denominational laws are determined by the General Conference and are contained within the Book of Discipline. The delegates (aka “legislators”) at General Conference are elected based on a “House of Representative” model with the number of representatives (aka “delegates”) from each Annual Conference being based on size of Annual Conference (aka number of United Methodist Church members within the bounds of the Annual Conference). For example, North Georgia has 22 delegates (11 clergy and 11 laity) out of the 864 delegates. The North Georgia Annual Conference is the tied with Virgina as the largest Annual Conference. The smallest Annual Conferences only have 2 delegates (1 clergy and 1 laity) and the largest Annual Conferences (in Africa) have over 40 delegates.
In addition to the General Conference (aka our “federal level”), we have our Annual Conference (aka our “state level”) which is also based on a “House of Representative” model. The Annual Conference is comprised of all clergy. Plus, one lay person for each clergy person. For example at Northside, we will have 4 clergy (full time & under appointment) and 4 laypersons (Ernest Coleman, Bob Forrest, Robert Highsmith, and Nancy MacDonald) going to Annual Conference in Athens from June 6-8. Together, we will determine our Annual Conference (aka “state”) laws.
Judicial Branch: Clergy and lay persons serve on the Judicial Council on the Annual Conference and General Conference level. They oversee church trials and determine the constitutionality of legislation. Yes, there is an entire section in the Book of Discipline about how and what the Judicial Council oversees.
Oh and like the US Political environment, we have Caucasus and lobbyist within the UMC, too.
Currently, the political environment for the denomination is divided. Some may compare our denominational division to the division in our US political culture. We seem to be either equally divided or very well balanced. This division and/or balance within our legislative body is making it challenging to find ways to move forward….more about that in my next blog.
Thanks for reading and keep praying!