Bishop Peggy Johnson serving mid-day Communion
Bishop Peggy Johnson serving mid-day Communion

Good News!  Reflections on General Conference 2016

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

At the final worship service of General Conference 2016 Bishop Elaine Stanovski, of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area, preached a powerful Word.  She said, “Tell the story of life that is good and true, where life is triumphing over death. We have heard so much good news here.”

Bishop Peggy Johnson, 2016 photo, purple jacketThat would be my overall impression of this quadrennial event that was held in Portland, Oregon, the “City of Roses,” May 10-20. Good news!

The Philadelphia Episcopal Area (Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware conferences) sent 12 primary delegates, six laity and six clergy, plus four alternate delegates. A number of other folks also came as staff and support persons for general agencies and commissions and as pages, monitors, marshals and volunteers.

I saw much life-giving service and hard work not only from our constituencies but from all disciples at this global gathering of United Methodists. I appreciate so much their ministry of service and sacrifice.

Here is some of the good news that I would celebrate:

  • We remain united as a denomination. There was no schism. Instead of debating the paragraphs in The United Methodist Book of Discipline around human sexuality, the body voted by a narrow margin to allow the Council of Bishops to establish a special commission to carefully examine this critical concern from all sides. They will bring recommendations to a special session of General Conference either in 2018 or 2019, or during an additional few days just prior to the next regularly scheduled General Conference in 2020.The bishops stayed an extra day in Portland to begin crafting a plan for that commission. Regular reports will be issued to the denomination as the work unfolds.  We will continue to live in our present Discipline around paragraphs that deal with sexuality and ministry until this work is brought to the body for a vote. The bishops have a deep commitment to the unity of the church and will continue to dialog, pray and seek God’s Spirit for a way forward.
  • We will continue to have nine episcopal areas in the Northeastern Jurisdiction for another four years. So we do not need to downsize to eight areas by September 2016, as we believed was likely to happen.We had lost the necessary number of church members to qualify for nine bishops. However, the (U.S.-based) Inter-Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy supported the NEJ’s appeal for an extension. And General Conference affirmed that nine bishops for the NEJ will continue to be funded in our denominational budget until 2020 (and longer if our membership total rises to the appropriate level).Our 2016 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference in July (in Lancaster, PA) will also need to vote to retain nine bishops, and presumably it will do so. When it does, we will elect two new bishops, and all episcopal leaders will be assigned throughout the jurisdiction on July 15.  No decisions have been made about who will be the bishop of the Philadelphia Area, which will continue to comprise the Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware conferences.
  • The structure of the denomination remains the same. We will maintain our independent general commissions on Religion and Race, the Status and Role of Women, and Archives and History (headed by the Rev. Fred Day of the Eastern PA Conference). These valuable churchwide commissions keep ever before us our deep concern for racial and cultural inclusivity, gender equality and the living legacy of our vital heritage.  None of the proposals for reconfiguring and reducing the denominational structure passed.
  • We approved a $604 million budget that includes an additional $5 million to support global theological education. This will greatly benefit our growing churches in the international countries where we need more trained pastors. This budget is slightly more than the budget of the last quadrennium ($603.1 million).
  • We voted to no longer be a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. This was because their stance on abortion was not in keeping with our denominational Social Principles. For many in the Philadelphia Area this had long been a cause of concern.
  • We commissioned 29 new UM Global Ministries missionaries from 11 countries, who will be serving in 16 mission outposts around the world.
  • We commissioned new Deaconesses and Home Missioners who will be serving in peace and justice ministries across the United States.
  • We established new provisional annual conferences in Southeast Asia and Mongolia.
  • We celebrated the collection of $68.5 million for the “Imagine No Malaria” campaign that has greatly reduced the number of deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa in recent years since the campaign started.
  • We voted to create a new United Methodist hymnal, which will include alternative digital versions and songs of praises and unity for our many diverse voices and hands.
  • We voted to recognize the ministries of the United Church of Sweden and the Moravian Church (North and South), which is the culmination of many years of ecumenical dialogue.
  • We will fund five new bishops in Africa beginning in 2020. 
  • The General Conference proceedings were communicated in 10 spoken languages plus American Sign Language. And for the first time we had a bishop preside at General Conference who spoke in a language other than English. All delegates had head-sets so that all the languages could be heard simultaneously, a timely blessing as we welcomed the season of Pentecost.
  • We celebrated many significant anniversaries:
    • the 60th anniversary of the 1956 General Conference vote to fully ordain clergywomen;
    • the 200th anniversary of the death of Francis Asbury (our first American bishop);
    • the 200th anniversary of the African Methodist Episcopal Church;
    • the 150th anniversary of United Methodist Women;
    • the 40th anniversary of voting rights for the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference;
    • the 30th anniversary of Disciple Bible Study; and
    • the 25th anniversary of Africa University.
    • The 20th anniversary of the Order of Deacons was also mentioned.
  • We continued our “Act of Repentance” for sins committed against Native American and Indigenous Included was a presentation about the 1864 “Sand Creek Massacre” and the unveiling of a newly published book. Sports teams that use Native American mascots were denounced.
  • Our conference leadership demonstrated excellence in worship arts, music, preaching, speaking and presiding. We worshiped before each day’s session began in the morning and ended in the evening, and we served Holy Communion at midday.
  • We enjoyed gracious local hospitality and were immersed in constant life-giving, healing and soul-lifting prayer.
  • Youth and Young Adults were heard! The Young Peoples’ address was co-led by a daughter of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference: Chelsea Spyres, who is currently serving as a missionary in Detroit. Two young adult daughters of the Eastern PA Conference also spoke. Krystl Johnson helped present the Global Ministries Legislative Committee report (after chairing one of its subcommittees). And Ann Jacob presented a compelling statement about unity on behalf of the Young Adults Convocation, which met in the Philippines last year, and which she helped lead.
  • We will present a new Global Book of Discipline and Global Social Principles at the 2020 General Conference.
  • We celebrated a new class of retiring bishops, including former Philadelphia Area Bishop Marcus Matthews of the NE Jurisdiction.
  • We memorialized with deep gratitude those bishops and faithful servants of the church who have entered the church triumphant since our last General Conference. Among them was Bishop Martin McLee (NY Annual Conference).
  • We kept “guaranteed appointment” for Elders.
  • We did not set term limits for bishops in the United States.
  • We voted for a new class of members for the Judicial Council, and for the first time the chair is a person from one of our Central Conferences. We elected many others to serve on numerous others boards, commissions and committees.
  • We raised many social concerns such as climate change, clean water issues, and the plight of the Lumas peoples in the Philippines.
  • We created two new Special Sundays (without offering): “Women’s Ministry Sunday,” scheduled by each annual conference, and “Volunteers in Mission Awareness Sunday,” set by local churches. The “One Great Hour of Sharing” Special Sunday with offering will now be called “UMCOR Sunday.”

All of this is good, good news!  We are still a United Methodist Church. We continue to do great work in the midst of complex societal issues and despite our concerns about declining membership and finances.  God is not finished with us, and we have good prospects for much good ministry in the future.

As your bishop I am appreciative of our United Methodist quadrennial goals:

  • to engage and prepare 3 million principled Christian leaders to make a difference in the world;
  • to transform 400 communities for vital, abundant living;
  • to engage in intentional ministries with the poor,
  • to find new ways to help one million children receive life-saving health care interventions; and
  • to double our number of vital congregations.

I also celebrate our plans to strengthen theological education globally as well as continue to fund the young clergy initiative. Let’s work together as laity and clergy to engage in these good works in our conferences and around the world over the next four years!

I know for some there is a concern that we left Portland without having made any definitive decisions about our official positions on human sexuality in ministry and marriage. I believe that it is well worth the time to allow the bishops to work on this important matter for the next few years and for all of us to pray and work for the unity of the church in the loving, unifying spirit of Christ.

In the meantime, we can keep doing the powerful work of Christ outlined in this summary and more. And we can know and still proclaim that Jesus is and will be the Lord of all.

There is much good news. Therefore go, and tell that story, that good news to the world. And surely the Lord will be with us until the end of the age.