The 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon, May 10-20, was a dramatic, sweeping marathon of legislation, celebration and demonstrations, and it was one for the ages. In keeping with the theme “Therefore, Go,” much was accomplished in celebrating and sending forth The United Methodist Church as a powerful force for gospel-sharing, life-saving, world-changing mission.
Many left rejoicing that the global denomination remains formally united, for now. But others left disappointed that what they see as an inevitable schism over doctrine and discipline did not occur.
Rule 44 was proposed as a group-discernment process to avoid contentious debate in handling difficult legislation on issues such as sexuality and ministry. But it was ultimately rejected as an alternative form of holy conferencing. Ironically, however, the debate on sexuality and ministry was averted anyway when delegates narrowly approved a Council of Bishops’ proposal to fully examine the issue through a special commission and to make recommendations before the next scheduled General Conference in 2020.
“We accept our role as spiritual leaders to lead The United Methodist Church in a ‘pause for prayer’ — to step back from attempts at legislative solutions and to intentionally seek God’s will for the future,” said new Council President Bishop Bruce Ough.
“I believe that it is well worth the time to allow the bishops to work on this important matter for the next few years,” wrote Bishop Peggy Johnson in a report to the Eastern PA Conference, “and for all of us to pray and work for the unity of the church in the loving, unifying spirit of Christ.
You can find plenty of news stories, photos and commentaries on much of what happened—and didn’t happen—at General Conference on our Website, www.epaumc.org, and on the denomination’s official Website, www.umc.org. That includes an uplifting summary of highlights from Bishop Peggy Johnson.
But here are comments from a few of our Eastern PA leaders who attended this memorable, global gathering. Our delegates will present their official report at Annual Conference.
The worship was rich and inspirational, the fellowship warm and encouraging, but the tension and anxiety were palpable. On the first day as I entered the Discipleship Legislative Committee, I surveyed the room and saw a man, in African dress, sitting alone at a table. I approached and asked if I could sit down. He was from Zimbabwe. We had a long conversation about Africa University, and so began a multicultural adventure.
Soon a Japanese pastor joined us, then one from Germany and an African American lay leader from North Alabama. The last person to join our legislative small group was a pastor from Serbia- Macedonia. A mini-United Nations at one table. A vision of heaven, perhaps. I came to that table believing in the global nature of our church and left absolutely affirmed that we must preserve and support our global connectional relationships.
We were quite an amazing work team. Did we agree on every petition? Of course not, but we agreed to discuss and disagree in Christian love. This is truly the United Methodist way. The legislative work was laborious, but it is the foundational fabric of the General Conference’s business. It is amazing to see well-prepared delegates engaged in discussion, affirming or amending hundreds of petitions submitted from across the church.
The plenary sessions involved five days of prayer and worship, celebration of our tremendous accomplishments, and serious consideration of all the legislative work presented by committees. All of it demonstrated our uniquely inclusive membership, our episcopal government and ecumenical involvement, and our global evangelical ministry.
The Eastern PA delegation was extraordinary, and our leader, the Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm, was outstanding. We met each morning at 7:30 for prayer and preparation. Bishop Johnson would check in with us to offer news, encouragement and prayers for our health and work. By Friday most of us left the conference exhausted but with the unity of the church intact, and trusting the Holy Spirit to guide our bishops in determining the path forward for the denomination.
Our 16 delegates to the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference will have the opportunity to elect two bishops for our jurisdiction. This is a miracle of provision which took place at General Conference, as many were expecting a reduction in our number of bishops.
I humbly accepted my election to General Conference praying to seek God’s will and act accordingly. I have returned determined to continue the work of Making Disciples for Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World in the Eastern PA Conference.
The worship experiences at General Conference have been glorious. The music is outstanding. A choir of Korean voices, known as “I Solisti Roma,” brought me to tears with their rendition of “Laudate Dominum.” I have thoroughly been inspired by the preaching of the bishops each morning. They are calling the General Conference to be inclusive of all people.
The bishops came back with a plan, a process calling for a time of prayer and discussion among the delegates seated together. It was the first time that our Eastern PA Conference delegation actually shared our personal stories with one another. I was most grateful for that time to finally be able to share my story and to hear the stories of the delegates, whom I have grown to love and respect as we have been preparing to serve together over the past months since our election.
(She participated in the opening worship procession and presented part of the Global Ministries Legislative Committee’s report.)
It was exciting to address the general body and to serve as a subcommittee chair for the Global Ministries Legislative Committee. There is no greater joy than to be used by God. As a first-time delegate, I could never have imagined that God would use my voice and share my gifts of leadership and compassion in this venue….
The texts of encouragement from family and conference members watching from home, and knowing members present there were praying for every word I uttered, were all a reminder of what God said to Moses in Exodus 4:12, “Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say.”
In my spiritual reflections, it was revealed to me that God has been preparing me for this time. The anonymous recommendation for me to lead in opening General Conference was just one of the things God used to point this out to me. Carrying the Christ candle during opening worship reminded me of my sealed commitment to let the light of Christ shine through me.
For the first time, General Conference has asked the bishops to lead us forward, and they did that….I think this is a call for us as a church to step back and pray and be in conversation. I give thanks for their statement that upholds the unity of the church. As a voting delegate, I kept praying about the 12 million members of our United Methodist Church and how just a small body of under 900 people would be trying to make a decision on the future of our church and whether we should split. I give thanks that this is the way forward we have chosen.
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.
The power of the Holy Spirit and Pentecost has once again shown up in the UMC. We have an opportunity to push the pause button on this conversation and spend a couple of years studying this carefully and writing things in a new way that may serve the church better as we go forward. I don’t know what the results will be, but I do know God is in the midst of the process as we have conversation and prayer together. I greatly rejoice and pray as the church moves forward in all the million ways we’re doing evangelism and mission and ministry.
So much good is happening in our church, so many wonderful missions and opportunities for telling people about Jesus Christ and the good news of the gospel. Rejoice in your church that continues to be a United Methodist Church, concerned about diversity, continuing to spread the love of Jesus Christ and the life-changing good news that can transform hearts and lives.