Despite disappointment at General Conference, there is hope


By Kara Witherow, Editor

General Conference is important, but it can’t legislate vitality, discipleship or growth. And despite the disappointment that emerged from the 2012 session, there is still hope.

That’s the takeaway and general consensus among many South Georgia General Conference delegates.

After nearly two weeks of meetings, debates, “backroom deals,” politicking and voting, the 10 South Georgia delegates were left trying to grasp the long-term implications of the 2012 General Conference session.

“I’ve always felt that General Conference is important, but I don’t want South Georgia to put too much emphasis on it,” said first-time delegate Rev. Jim Cowart, senior pastor of Harvest United Methodist Church in Byron. “We can’t wait for General Conference to legislate something. We have to take the initiative and be self starters. If the church is going to live into the future it’s going to happen at the local church level, I’m really convinced of that. We don’t have to wait on General Conference to get busy with doing good things in South Georgia.”

There is a definite need for General Conference, Rev. Cowart said, but the real work of ministry happens within and through local churches.

“The United Methodist Church is such a big entity that we need things like General Conference, but we can’t depend on it, we can’t wait on it, and we can’t rely on it for spiritual growth,” he said.

Lay delegate Bill Hatcher agrees.

A veteran of seven General Conference sessions – he has attended each session since 1988 – Hatcher believes that the United Methodist Church’s success lies not in its structure, but in its faithfulness.

“As I’ve reflected on my General Conference experience, I’ve realized that our success or failure doesn’t lie in structure,” he said. “Our future and our success lie in our faithfulness to our Lord. They’re not vested in or solely dependent on our structure. I believe we need a heart change, a focus on being obedient to the Lord’s call on our lives, and a focus on how to be vital in our local churches.”

Hatcher served on the General Administration legislative committee, which dealt with plans for a new church structure.

Arriving in Tampa full of hope, Hatcher left Tampa feeling both disappointed and relieved.

Having worked hard for structural change and accountability, Hatcher was among the many who were disappointed that the Plan UMC vote was struck down by the Judicial Council. He was, however, pleased and relieved that the Church’s stance on human sexuality stayed the same.

“One of my conclusions coming out of this General Conference is that our salvation is not found in the structure of our church, but it’s in the love of our Lord and in our commitment to Him and His ways,” Hatcher said. “Sharing our faith is what it’s all about, inviting and witnessing to our neighbors and those we come in contact with to bring them to the saving grace of Jesus. While these things at General Conference are important, they are not the most important things.”

Prior to attending General Conference, lead delegate Rev. Robert Beckum said that one of the biggest tragedies of General Conference would be to leave Tampa having made no change to The United Methodist Church’s structure.

Reflecting on his most recent experience, he calls it “by far the most dysfunctional General Conference experience” he’s ever had.

“There was a consensus that the structure we have does not serve the Church well and is not helping in terms of vitality of mission,” said the four-time delegate and senior pastor of Columbus’ St. Luke United Methodist Church. “To come away after years of work, more than a million dollars spent and 10 days of really difficult attempts at compromise … with nothing and not make at least a first step is dysfunctional with all capital letters in bold.”

 Rev. Beckum is not pessimistic about the future of the church, though. He cites the passion for mission and ministry that was abundant and evident throughout the session for his hope.

“I think a lot of the hope and the optimism missionally of what God is doing in the world … that vitality of ministry and mission was very uplifting, and we’re seeing that in our churches all the time now.

“I think some of the most important things about General Conference, some of the best successes, are the things that didn’t change.”

Rev. Denise Walton remains prayerful and hopeful regarding the future of The United Methodist Church.

Not prepared emotionally or spiritually for the magnitude of politics she experienced at General Conference, Rev. Walton was saddened to see how divided the Church is over certain issues.

“I came away honored to be a part of such a momentous experience and sad that the Church has a long way to go,” said Rev. Walton, Dublin District Superintendent. “There are so many things that divide the global church. We need a path to bring us back to some common ground, and my prayer would be that it is the love that Christ has for the world and the mission that Christ gives the church.”

Not everything was contentious or disheartening, she said. There were high moments where ministry was celebrated and her spirit was nourished and encouraged.

And while there might be temporary disappointment, her hope is rooted in what’s eternal.

“We grieve, but we do not grieve as if we do not have hope,” Rev. Walton said. “We always have hope because our hope is rooted in our faith in Jesus Christ. I have hope that God is in control, and as we stumble and fumble our way through, the Church belongs to God and there is no one generation, thus far, that has managed to completely destroy the Church, and I don’t see that there will be in the future.

“My prayer is that The United Methodist Church will call for a time of prayer and repentance and a time that we can get back to the things that are most important – the mission that Christ has called us to – to go and make disciples.”