General Conference Issues

1996 United Methodist General Conference




Abortion has been an issue at every General Conference since 1972. The 1992 General Conference rejected by 37 votes a motion to terminate United Methodist participation in the Religious Coalition on Abortion Rights (now the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice). In 1992 that group rented space in the United Methodist Building in Washington but has since moved to other space in the city. The Judicial Council ruled (Oct. 30, 1992) that support of the organization by United Methodist agencies is consistent with the church's stance on abortion. The Board of Church and Society and the Women's Division of the Board of Global Ministries are charter members of the coalition that includes about 35 religious and public-interest groups. Neither of the groups has given direct financial support to the coalition for a number of years.

"Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion," the church's Social Principles say. "But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with the past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection. We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may warrant abortion. We call for the church to provide nurturing ministries to those persons who terminate a pregnancy. We encourage the church to provide nurturing ministries to those who give birth. Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral and other appropriate counsel."

A "Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality" is leading efforts to eliminate any approval of abortion, including support of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Ruth Brown of Dothan, Ala., Lifewatch Director, considers the church's position on abortion "unfaithful." The Good News caucus says "abortion is testing our church as deeply as slavery tested Methodism in the early 19th century."


Homosexuality has been an issue at every General Conference since 1972. (A background paper on the history of this issue is available at the News/Assignment Desk.) The church's Book of Discipline:

Petitions to the 1996 General Conference represent a wide range of views. Some petitions call for deleting the phrase "incompatible with Christian teaching." The General Board of Church and Society and nine annual conferences are asking that the "negative" language be deleted.

The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry is proposing to amend the prohibition of self-avowed homosexuals from being United Methodist clergy. Its proposal would deny ordination to any person "proven with clear and convincing evidence to be a practicing homosexual."

The Commission on the General Conference confirmed a 1992 agreement to hold the conference in Denver in spite of the fact that Colorado voters passed a state constitutional amendment forbidding the granting of human rights protection to homosexuals. The amendment was later overturned by a Colorado court and is now before the Supreme Court. The commission subsequently agreed to host a 90-minute celebration of human rights for all people, scheduled for Thursday, April 18.

For the first time, an openly gay woman has been elected a delegate to the General Conference. She is Jeanne Barnett, lay leader of the California-Nevada Annual Conference, former co-spokersperson of "Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns."

The Rev. Jeanne Audrey Powers, associate general secretary with the churchwide Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, announced publicly last summer that she is a lesbian. Leading efforts to liberalize church policy on homosexuality are Affirmation and Methodist Federation for Social Action.

Ministry Study

The definition of ministry and the role of professional church workers have been issues since Methodist founder John Wesley acknowledged the "priesthood of all believers." Every United Methodist General Conference since 1944 has sought to redefine and restructure the ministry. The 1984 conference authorized the current study, which was continued by the 1988 session at the request of the previous study committee. The 1992 Conference referred the study to the Council of Bishops. Proposals from the council include:

In a departure from past scheduling, the full report of the Council of Bishop's Study of Ministry will be presented in a plenary session prior to being considered in a legislative committee. Time of that presentation is Wednesday, April 17 after the Laity Address.

Consultation on Church Union

General Conference members will be asked to approve a covenant with eight other denominations in the Consultation on Church Union. Members of the covenant would: At least 26 conferences have backed the COCU proposal. Two conferences and the Good News caucus want to delay action or oppose the covenant.

Pan-Methodist Union

General Conference will be asked to authorize a commission to draw up a plan of union with the the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion, and Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Bishops of the four denominations are suggesting that all four general conferences be held at the same site in the year 2004. Proposed budget for the "Commission on Union" is $100,000 to be divided among the four denominations.

Christian-Jewish Relations

The General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns is proposing a new statement on Christian-Jewish relations that recognizes that Christians are called to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ but also that God works through Judaism and the Jewish people.

Structure and Connectional Issues

The General Council on Ministries is calling for the creation of a four-year group to test a new interactive model of church organization at the conference and local church levels and to make a final proposal for the 2000 General Conference. The interactive model includes Outreach, Nurture and Mission Ministries; Leadership Ministries; and Administrative and Fiscal Ministries. A council is proposed which would include representatives from each of the three ministry units. GCOM is calling for the number of churchwide agencies to remain the same but is proposing that the number of governing members be reduced from 950 to 630 during the 1997-2000 quadrennium.

Korean Missionary Conference

The Korean American caucus will call for the creation of three missionary conferences. That move is opposed by Korean clergywomen and the Board of Global Ministries National Division.

Board of Global Ministries Relocation

The 1992 General Conference voted 485-470 to move the Board of Global Ministries offices out of New York. A site-selection task force considered 23 cities and narrowed the list to five metropolitan areas: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver and Washington.

The task force is proposing the construction of a five-story, 117,000 square-foot building on l6.2 acres in Reston, Va., outside Washington. Cost of the move has been set at $41.8 million. Add interest and the total could be $72 million.

By moving to Reston, the task force estimates the board will save about $850,000 annually in operating costs. Target date for completion of the move is January, 1998. The move is opposed by 12 annual conferences, the Native-American caucus and the Methodist Federation for Social Action.


The General Council on Finance and Administration will ask the delegates to hold the 1996 line on all general church apportionments for 1997 and 1998 and increase 2 percent in 1999 and 2000.

The total amount for the propram agencies within World Service is $45,193,000 for 1997 and 1998 -- $183.5 million for the quadrennium. In the proposed 1997-2000 budget, the Mission Initiative Fund of the present quadrennium would be included in the World Service budget. This proposal does not include cost of moving the Board of Global Ministries out of New York. That move, if supported, would increase general church apportionments 4 percent in 1997 over the 1996 amount.

Baptism Study

The General Board of Discipleship is proposing a new statement on baptism which calls for two categories of members: baptized and professing. At confirmation, those who have been baptized will be moved to the professing list. Apportionments would be based on professing members as is the current practice. Rebaptism for any reason is rejected, but periodic reaffirmation of one's baptismal vows is affirmed.

Spanish Language Hymnal

General Conference delegates will be asked to adopt a new Spanish language hymnal as one of the official United Methodist hymnals. Mil Voces Para Celebrar: Himnario Metodista, the first Spanish hymnal created for Hispanics by a churchwide body, will include 400 hymns which reflect a balance in traditional music and liturgy, the Wesleyan heritage, and contemporary expressions of indigenous music of various groups in the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America. In addition to services of Communion and the Baptismal Covenant, Mil Voces will include marriage and funeral rites, a healing service, a service for the faith community, and a prayer service.

The project was launched in 1991 by the United Methodist Publishing House and the Board of Disciplelship. Editor of the hymnal is Raquel Martinez, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Strengthening the Black Church

The General Council on Ministries is calling for the creation of a 19-member committee to implement an action plan for "Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century." Key feature of the plan is to develop congregation-to-congregation "learning teams." The teams will create resource centers where congregational representatives can be led by clergy and laypeople who are involved in vital ministries. The goal is to reach 400 to 600 congregations. Proposed budget for the quadrennium is $1.8 million.

Focus on Young People

Noting that the participation of young people in the United Methodist Church has declined at the same time their spiritual, social and emotional needs have increased, the General Council on Ministries is proposing a "Focus on Young People: Walking Together in the Way that Leads to Life." The plan calls for a forum where the struggles of young people can be discovered and addressed and where accomplishments can be celebrated. A quadrennial budget of $270,000 proposed by GCOM was not included in the GCFA financial projections.

Africa University

The plan for the first-ever United Methodist-related university in Africa was approved by the 1988 General Conference, with a four-year, $20 million funding plan (half through apportionments, half through voluntary giving). The 1992 General Conference approved an additional $20 million for the following quadrennium. A proposal for the same amount for the 1997-2000 quadrennium will come before the 1996 assembly. The university, located in Mutare, Zimbabwe, opened in March 1992 with 75 students. The choir from Africa University will sing at the conference and one of the first graduates will address the delegates.

National Plan for Hispanic Ministry

The Committee on Hispanic Ministries is recommending that a National Plan for Hispanic Ministry be continued and strengthened in the 1997-2000 quadrennium and that a quadrennial budget of $3.1 million be approved. The 1992 General Conference authorized $2.7 million for the present quadrennium. Within the first 30 months the plan generated 51 new congregations, 220 faith communities, 35 revitalized churches and 389 trained lay missioners. A new element in the proposed plan includes $1 million in grants to help conferences pursue strategic mission opportunities. The plan calls for each conference to delegate responsibility for implementing the plan to an appropriate conference entity.

The Rev. Jose Palos of New York is staff person related to the plan; Bishop Joel Martinez of Lincoln, Nebraska, chairs a 29-member committee guiding the plan.

Native American Comprehensive Plan

The Board of Global Ministries and the Native American International Caucus are recommending continuation of a Native American Comprehensive Plan during the 1997-2000 quadrennium.

The 1992 General Conference approved the plan and a $1.2 million quadrennial budget. Included in the plan has been congregational development, leadership development, Native American spirituality and denominational presence.

Apology to Native Americans

The Rev. Alvin Deer, clergy delegate from the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, has sent a petition to the Denver conference asking delegates to apologize formally for an 1864 massacre of Cheyennes camped on the banks of Sand Creek in Colorado. Leader of the massacare was Methodist lay preacher John Chivington. The petition asks the delegates to extend a "hand of reconciliation and ask forgiveness for the death of over 200 mostly women and children, who died in this state where this great conference is being held." The conference is asked to have a healing service to which tribal leaders would be invited.

Social Justice

Topics for petitions from individuals, annual conferences and general agencies cover a wide range of concerns related to social justice: tobacco, gun control, diplomatic relations with Cuba, violence, public funds for non-public schools, racism, military spending, move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and reparations for African Americans. All these petitions will go first to appropriate legislative committees and then to the floor with the committee's recommendation of concurrence or non-concurrence.

The churchwide Board of Church and Society is taking more than 30 petitions to the General Conference. A sample of topics:

Global Nature of the Church

Several groups, the Council of Bishops and the General Council on Ministries, are struggling with the issue of globalization. Bottom-line question addressed by these groups: "Is the United Methodist Church really a global church or is it a U.S. church with appendages in other countries?" United Methodists outside the United States are pushing for greater involvement in denominational life. Chairing the episcopal committee is Bishop Emerito Nacpil of the Philippines. An update, if not recommendations, is expected to come before the delegates.


Delegates will be asked by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry to approve a resolution on "Education: The Gift of Hope." The study paper reminds the church of its Wesleyan commitment to education and challenges the church to understand the educational scene and to become involved in local education. Every local congregation will be invited to study the document and then to develop a plan for concrete involvement in the educational activity of its community, seeeking to improve the system and to become involved with students, "to the end that John Wesley's concern for education will be manifest among United Methodists and bring with it a gift of hope."

Another resolution from the Board of Higher Education affirms the longstanding and faithful educational ministry of United Methodist-related precollegiate schools (9) and encourages church members to become better acquainted with these schools and all 124 educational ministries of the denomination.

National Urban Ministry

Delegates will be asked to approve a "Holy Boldness" plan as a way of organizing and mobilizing local congregations and organizations to work on urban ministry goals. Local churches and organizations will be asked to sign on as "covenanting sponsors." A goal of 3,000 has been set for the next four years.


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General Conference Issues
1996 United Methodist General Conference