South Georgia delegates prepare for General Conference


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By Kara Witherow, Editor*

More than 10 months of prayer, preparation and planning will culminate next week as General Conference convenes in Tampa, Fla.

Every four years, United Methodists from around the world gather together to set policies, pass resolutions, worship, and fellowship. This year, the General Conference, The United Methodist Church’s top legislative body, will gather April 24-May 4.  Ten delegates – five clergy and five laity – from the South Georgia Annual Conference will make up the 988 delegates from around the world who will set policy and direction for the church, as well as handle other business. South Georgia will also send four alternate delegates, two clergy and two lay, to Tampa.

During the 11-day session, the 988 delegates will revise The Book of Discipline, which regulates the manner in which local churches, annual conferences and general agencies are organized. The book sets policies regarding church membership, ordination, administration, property and judicial procedures.

Delegates will also revise The Book of Resolutions, a volume declaring the church’s stance on a variety of social justice issues. The book contains more than 300 resolutions that are considered instructive and persuasive, but are not binding on members.

In addition, the assembly approves plans and budgets for church-wide programs for the next four years and elects members of the Judicial Council and the University Senate.

The much-discussed Call to Action report, the proposed reorganization of United Methodist agencies, and polarizing social issues will be the hot-button topics of General Conference, says Rev. Robert Beckum, head of the delegation and senior pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Columbus. 

One way Rev. Beckum is preparing for the grueling two-week conference is by participating in The Upper Room and General Conference Prayer Support Team’s “50 Days of Prayer for the General Conference.”

The entire delegation has spent countless hours in prayer and study as they prepare for General Conference.

“We as a delegation have been preparing cognitively and intellectually by studying and reporting from each of the legislative committees to try to help one another stay at the top of the vast amount of material that is coming,” said the four-time delegate. Rev. Beckum also served on the 2008, 2004 and 1996 General Conference delegations.

First-time delegate Allison Lindsey decided to run for election after attending a quadrennial training and several South Georgia Annual Conference sessions. She also wanted to experience the global nature of The United Methodist Church and worship with the worldwide body of Christ.

While she certainly still looks forward to the worship services and holy conferencing, she has been somewhat surprised by the amount of preparation, reading and studying that is required of each delegate.

“What has been the most surprising is the amount of legislation this year,” said Lindsey, a member of Douglas First United Methodist Church. “There are some very big issues. And as you look at each piece of legislation, you realize that behind every single thing that’s submitted and comes before us is a face, a story, and a passion. It’s very challenging at times. I pray every day for discernment and to see God’s will.”

The main job of the General Conference is to revise The Book of Discipline. Every potential revision begins as a petition sent to General Conference by individual church members, local churches, annual conferences, or agencies. More than 1,000 petitions will be debated and discussed in 13 legislative committees during General Conference’s first week.

Rev. Beckum sits on the Conferences legislative committee, which will discuss issues related to annual conferences, jurisdictional conferences, central conferences, and provisional conferences. The issue of fair representation and how future delegates are allotted will be central to their discussion, he said.

“We are a global church, and we’re going to start to have to deal with that reality,” Rev. Beckum said. “When the majority of delegates are no longer citizens of the United States but of other countries, how we shift and adapt to the global nature of the church is going to be an incredible opportunity, but an incredible challenge as well.”

Of this year’s 988 delegates, 606 will be sent from annual conferences in the United States. Those in Africa, Asia and Europe will have 372 delegates (up 96 from 2008 and up 186 from 2004); 282 of those delegates are from Africa. United Methodists in the Philippines will send 48 delegates, those in Europe elected 42, and 10 delegates will come from “concordat” churches with which the denomination has a formal relationship.

More than 100 resolutions and petitions will be discussed and debated by Lindsey’s committee, Church and Society A. The committee, which will help decide where The United Methodist Church stands on certain social issues, will discuss such topics as Israeli/Palestinian settlements, the death penalty, the economic community, and science and technology.

“When dealing with legislation, I try to read on all sides of the issue so that I can be discerning about it and really know what’s at the heart of it,” Lindsey said. “I try to think about how it will affect the global church and how it will trickle down and impact the local church.”

One major issue that will certainly affect every local church is the proposed budget of $603 million for the 2013-2016 quadrennium for general church operations, 6.04 percent lower than for 2009-2012. For the first time, a smaller budget is being recommended than in years past.

“The biggest single impact is that the budget we’ve got before us could result in a reduction of apportionments for local churches,” Rev. Beckum said. “It’s the first time we’ve ever voted on a lesser budget in one quadrenniam than the previous budget. Many people feel that it’s not nearly enough of a reduction.”

A much bigger question than any of the proposed legislation, Rev. Beckum said, is how the General Conference can encourage and strengthen the ministries for vital discipleship in local churches.

The first elected lay delegate, Larry Price sits on the Discipleship legislative committee. The first-time delegate from Albany’s Christ United Methodist Church believes that The United Methodist Church needs to return to the true mission of the church.

“I know the other issues that we will deal with are important, but I just believe that our main issue will be to get our churches to return to what they were called to in the beginning and that is to preach the word of Christ and save lost souls,” he said.

Lindsey, Price and Rev. Beckum all say that prayer is essential as they embark on their General Conference journey. Each of the 14 delegates have chosen prayer partners who they pray for daily.

“Please pray for individual members and the delegation as a whole, for strength and wisdom … that we may faithfully represent South Georgia and both the interests and the hopes of our churches, our lay people, and our clergy,” Rev. Beckum said. “Pray for the direction of General Conference itself, that we can, in the midst of so much talk about structure and administration, rediscover a passion for our purpose and mission to be a church, faithfully proclaiming Christ and making disciples of Christ.”

Legislative Committees

The following are the legislative committees on which each General Conference delegate will serve.

Robert Beckum - Conferences
Bob Moon - Church and Society 2
Ben Martin - Ministry and Higher Education
Jim Cowart - Superintendency
Denise Walton - Global Ministries

Larry Price - Discipleship
Carl Childs - Financial Administration
Bill Hatcher - General Administration
Kelly Roberson - Faith and Order
Allison Lindsey - Church and Society 1

*Additional reporting and information provided by and Interpreter Magazine, a publication of United Methodist Communications.


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