General Conference 2008: Bishops Challenge Methodists to Grow, End Poverty; Young People Call for Ending Divisions

April 24, 2008

By Bruce Pettit

California-Nevada News Service


FORT WORTH, April 24, 2008 – Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim, Till all the world adore his sacred name. With the singing of that traditional hymn, United Methodists in General Conference today signaled that they accept the challenge of their Council of Bishops to bear down on four focal points to grow the church and significantly cut into world poverty.


The 992 delegates on the floor, and more than 2,000 additional observers in the balconies surrounding the downtown convention center here, also heard the first-ever young people's address at a General Conference. Six young adults – five from the U.S., one from Russia – made it a dialogue with quick interchanges.


Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference led the conference to its affirmation of the four areas of focus of the next four years: (1) developing new leaders, (2) building congregations, (3) partnering with the poor of the world, and (4) combating preventable diseases. Making significant progress in those areas is essential to the Church's asserting its relevance again to an age skeptical of any church's power, she said.


Secretary Felton May of the UMC's General Board of Global Ministries regretted that "poverty has become acceptable to us." Can we do more than have "incremental programs that simply warm our hearts?" he asked.


Bishop May projected 1,000 new local churches in the world in four years (650 in the U.S.).  Secretary Jerome King del Pino of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry set a goal of increasing candidates for ordained ministry under the age of 35 by 25 percent. Secretary Karen Greenwaldt of the General Board of Discipleship envisioned 53 new missionaries for global health. Secretary May then looked beyond four years – to the year 2048, when the United Methodist Church will be 80 years old. Then, he hopes, the UMC would be credited with reducing worldwide poverty by 20 percent.


(The United Methodist Church is celebrating this year its 40th anniversary – having merged with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968. Opening worship yesterday, April 23, was the exact anniversary day in nearby Dallas.)


Despite the affirmation of hope, consistent with the 2008 General Conference theme of "A Future With Hope," Secretary Larry Holton of United Methodist Communications said the challenge is "daunting." Bishop Christopher put the challenge this way: "How do we set aside the cultural divides that keep us from feeding God's sheep?" (a reference to the Gospel of John's final chapter).


Christopher asked the delegates to sign a pledge card to "do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God," as their new Wesleyan covenant. They signed, and raised the cards high.


The Rev. Greenwaldt challenged local churches to consider how they can reallocate their resources to meet community needs.


Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the California-Pacific Conference is also the president of the General Council on Finance and Administration. She outlined in stark terms a variety of declining numbers – in membership, church attendance, young pastors, baptisms – that are a sad story of the UMC in its 40 years. There is, she said, a mentality of scarcity than she wants shoved into a myth bin. She challenged local churches to move toward this goal of allocation for every $1,000: $124 for their annual conferences and $22 for each of the four new focal points. That would still leave, she said, $854 for their local church ministries.


Perhaps the most concrete way to move the four focus areas forward is the involvement of young people. Young pastor Annie Arnoldy told of one myth she abolished: that an old, downtown church is impossible for mission. When she was appointed to it, First UMC of Grand Junction, Colorado was a musty century-old church. But she got a young people's group going and old First UMC is welcoming their several new children.


Kira Volkova of the Northern Europe Central Conference told of how young people would often have to be secretive with their parents to go to a Protestant church in an Orthodox culture that forbade Protestants for 70 years. Jason Rathod of the Nebraska Annual Conference told how a Nebraska church "adopted" his grandfather in India to give him an education in the U.S.


Rebecca Farnum of the Western Michigan Conference emphasized that the church must cease labeling people before it can transform the world. She and the other young adults referenced gays and lesbians when speaking about labeling. And Jason Rathod implored for an end to divisions. "Liberals and conservatives are both right," he told his audience, saying it is simply a matter of bringing their values together in faithful holy conferencing.


Andrew Craig of the Rocky Mountain Conference said he is often discouraged by all the travails of the world, but then he remembers – as he sang for the gathering – "God Will Take Care of You!"



Delegate Rosa Washington-Olson was elected chair of the General Conference Courtesies and Privileges Committee.


Bishop Ed Paup of the Pacific Northwest Conference disclosed that Angela Brown of Jones Memorial UMC in San Francisco has been nominated by the Council of Bishop for the Judicial Council. That election will occur Monday.