A New Guy Looks at General Conference

by Rod Groom

I went to Tampa this year for my first General Conference. I was lucky enough to go as a Reserve Delegate, and actually got to be seated for a couple of votes, but not for anything very groundbreaking. I think I was treated fairly well, but generally I was politely ignored. Except for cutting out early a couple of evenings, I was there most of the time, praying for God’s will to be done. I made many new acquaintances, and even a few friends. It was very touching to see how much love so many people of very diverse opinions have for our church.

Watching the interminably tricky and sometimes downright mean-spirited parliamentary maneuvers on the plenary floor and in committee was very disheartening. There is not the time, money, nor consensus to have “conferencing” as envisioned by John Wesley three centuries ago, to seriously and sincerely reach out to each other in holy inquiry and debate. In all truth, we should be doing this the entire time before General Conference. We should come together in person or by means of new technology to take care of business and to discuss a few things as time and program will allow. We can vote on petitions, conduct agenda-neutral worship, and go back to the field – where we all belong!

I support the Call to Action in most of its action items, but not in its reorganizational initiatives. We spent a much time and money in debating items, pretty much to no avail. I am a little surprised that the constitutional issues were not better studied first. We did receive warnings about these within and outside of our Annual Conference. We should have had some petitions designed to modify some of our constitutional articles. Unfortunately, the impatient, contentious and wholesale demands for radical change the last two General Conferences have not helped matters. Attacking the opposition with great crankiness is also neither a holy nor an effective strategy. Perhaps next time we could have discussions in advance about what our structures should look like theologically. What is our spiritual, our theological purposes in changing our General boards and agencies in one fashion or another, or in restructuring our Council of Bishops? Someone has said that Wesley did not see clear biblical mandates for any particular form of church government. If so, why are we trying a Grand Sweep, instead of making incremental changes? In another 16 years, we may have a solid African majority in the church. This will greatly impact the direction and spending of all of our boards and agencies, even without structural change. Then we could look at efficiencies which could be achieved through restructuring. Pushing changes ahead of a major demographic shift looks like someone is trying to protect money and shopworn 1960s theologies before the African Tsunami hits. Elitism, anyone?

As for the Council of Bishops, we do need some leadership and restructuring there. The idea of a stand-alone bishop, though, was disastrous. It surprised me that that serious consideration was given to this idea of a “bishop of bishops.” In our twenty-first century, still primarily American denomination, we are sometimes furiously egalitarian, and have wasted much time, energy and ink in order to flatten hierarchical structures wherever we could these last thirty years or so. And yet, no one would even discuss this idea with me. I love the group-think approach to politely ignoring those whose ideas don’t agree with yours. And then the name-calling on top of it all? Wow.

There are problems to be solved. Does the Council of Bishops need better administrative support? Definitely. Could they use an Executive Director or General Secretary instead of a Super Bishop? Probably. Could provisions be implemented for suspension of rogue bishops, pending review by the Council? Surely. This could easily follow the structures of many of our cities and towns – an elected council, with a ceremonial Mayor, leaving the council to do the hiring, firing, and renewing of contracts for a City Manager. Most of the time, the CM runs the show, negotiates with other boards and agencies, appoints, hires and fires department heads, etc. This form of government would work well within the Council of Bishops, perhaps with an executive committee of bishops elected to handle emergencies pending full council review. This might even be extended eventually to relations with General Boards, as constitutional revisions were studied, planned, voted on and implemented. Slowly, surely – all toward getting the job done!

As for bishops, after my first General Conference, I have come to respect our recently-retired Bishop Timothy Whitaker even more than I did before. The actions and posturing of many of the bishops I saw during General Conference failed to reinforce my confidence in them as General Superintendents of the Church, which position we have heard so very much about in the last year. I had never considered the idea of term limits for bishops before, but I followed that debate on the plenary floor this time with great interest.

A lot of political demonstrating and interruptions of the plenary were irritating. Many of us have grown tired of such tactics, and find it disrespectful to the whole process, and to those who disagree with you. All in all, though, I think it was a good General Conference. We could have done more to control the agencies, boards and bishops. We could have done more to implement pragmatic structural initiatives. We could have done more to control budgets. We could have done a whole lot more to promote evangelism and holy living. We did strengthen our Social Principles on moral issues. We outvoted challenges to our existing Book of Discipline standards by a larger margin than the time previous, and for the first time we got the petition to remove us from the RCRC – the pro-abortion Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice – out of committee. We also were able to cut the budgets of General Boards and Agencies by 6%, and affirmed the importance of the local church. God is at work in the midst of us, and sometimes in spite of us. Let us pray and work for more and for better next time!

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