General Conference 2008: West to Have Just Five Bishops in 2012; Pacific Islanders Win After Losing

April 30, 2008

By Bruce Pettit

California-Nevada News Service


FORT WORTH, April 30, 2008 - The Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church will have only five bishops, down from the current six, on September 1, 2012.


General Conference made that decision Tuesday night by 457 votes to 401, or 53 to 47 percent, as a cost-saving move. An amendment a few minutes earlier, passed by 52 to 48 percent, directed that the savings go to developing ministries in the Central Conferences – Europe, the Philippines, and Africa.


Three other U.S. jurisdictions will also lose one bishop. North Central and Northeastern will each go from 10 to nine. South Central will be reduced from 11 to 10. The Southeastern Jurisdiction, under the new formula approved, could have increased from 13 to 14, but its representatives insisted they will voluntarily stay at 13.


Dale Weatherspoon, clergy delegate from the California-Nevada Annual Conference, pleaded on the plenary floor, to no avail, for no reduction. Citing two of the four "Future with Hope" points set last week for the 2009-2012 quadrennium, he said, "I came here hopeful" about the Council of Bishops' affirmation that "we would be developing leaders and growing churches. I was excited that this is a focus on mission and ministry – I see it now as a focus on dollars." The Rev. Weatherspoon insisted, "To grow our churches in the United States like those growing in the Central Conferences, we need our episcopal leaders."


But the Rev. Bob Long of Oklahoma said he grew a church simply with a bishop's blessing, not with his help. "I started a church by ringing 1,000 doorbells" 29 years ago, "and 76 people came the next Sunday." Eight years later it was a church of 3,000, he said. "We can grow the church with fewer bishops," he declared.


Devin Mauney of the Desert Southwest Conference (Phoenix area) said that the Central Conferences' gaining at the U.S.'s loss misdirects the theme of this conference: "This is not the spirit of abundance but the spirit of scarcity," he said. But Carolyn Briscoe of South Carolina said that with the budget constraints, the issue is, "Will the episcopal fund share the pain that other funds share?"


Briscoe was the author of the petition for the Task Force to Study the Episcopacy. The formula: Each jurisdiction having 300,000 or fewer church members shall be entitled to five bishops, and each with more members would get one more bishop for each additional 300,000 "or major fraction thereof." The Western Jurisdiction was cited in the report as having 397,392 members.


Pacific Islanders Win Ministry Study 24 Hours Later

Eddie Kelemeni, a former district superintendent in the Rocky Mountain Conference, who has taught Lay Speaking classes for Tongans in California-Nevada, petitioned this General Conference on behalf of the Pacific Islander National Caucus of the UMC for a new study for their ministries.


Unfortunately for them Monday night, they were the last petition heard for new ministry studies after several others had passed. All new funding items were to have been included in the $642 million figure the General Council on Finance and Administration has set for 2009-2012. The Pacific Islanders, projecting a need for $300,000 for their study, were outside of that budget for allegedly not bringing it to GCFA attention soon enough. They lost their study request by a vote margin of 53 to 47 percent.


Off the floor shortly afterward, several delegates said they could perceive hurt on the part of Pacific Islanders at the rejection. A Western Jurisdiction delegate said she could not sleep that night but could only pray for forgiveness.


Tuesday night, Charles Boayue, clergy delegate from Detroit, asked for reconsideration by the plenary session, and got it. Grant Hagiya, a district superintendent in Los Angeles, told the plenary session that the first generation of Pacific Islanders are from a Wesleyan tradition and have their culture largely settled around church. They are finding that their children are moving away from church. "There is tension in families over that." The study is to explore how to reverse the trend, he said.


A new motion was to refer the study to the secretaries of the General Agencies. Kelvin Sauls, a clergy reserve delegate with the California-Nevada Annual Conference, had persuaded them to accept the job of working with the Pacific Islanders to find the money within their existing budgets – which the Rev. Karen Greenwaldt of the Board of Discipleship confirmed on the plenary floor. The motion passed 95 to 5 percent.


Despite that turnaround, several people came to the arena microphones at various times to say that the UMC's number of studies is getting out of hand. Some noted how many $10 bed nets to fight malaria could be purchased with all the study money. Young delegates vowed to find ways, if they are delegates again, to get ministry started immediately rather than have it go first to "studies."


Church and Society Dodges a Bullet

General Conference tabled, 82 to 18 percent, a petition to have the General Board of Church and Society reviewed by the General Council on Finance and Administration for alleged misuse of funds. A petition by Bill Howie of North Carolina contended that GBCS has for 40 years spent an endowment given by the former Board of Temperance for sundry uses other than temperance.


Bishop James E. Swanson of the Holston (East Tennessee) Conference said GBCS itself brought the issue to court in the District of Columbia to settle the matter, and the trial is scheduled for May 16. GBCS secretary Jim Winkler – who will honor Bishop Shamana on her retirement at the California-Nevada Annual Conference in June – told the Western Jurisdiction meeting Tuesday morning that passage of the petition could have resulted in "a series of actions more sweeping than the court's." He said GBCS's legal discovery showed that the Institute for Religion and Democracy was behind the action.