Conferences to Consider Church Structure
A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*
March 10, 2009
United Methodists meeting in this year's annual sessions will vote on 32 proposed constitutional amendments, many of them related to the denomination's structure as a global body.
Delegates to the 62 U.S. annual conferences and the 73 conferences in Africa, Europe, and Asia will consider 23 amendments approved earlier by the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body. The amendments, proposed by the Task Force on the Worldwide Nature of the Church, are for the creation of regional conferences to establish a uniform denominational structure.
The legislation would make it possible to create a U.S regional conference in the future. Each annual conference would belong to a regional conference that will be able to organize into jurisdictional conferences if the amendments are passed by the 2009 annual conference sessions.
The remaining nine amendments are related to church and conference membership; annual and jurisdictional conference composition, including boundaries; inclusiveness of the church; representation of newly created conferences at general, jurisdictional and central conferences; the judicial council; Episcopal elections; fiduciary responsibility; and clergy participation in the election of delegates to general, jurisdictional and central conferences.
"Amendments may be debated, but may not be amended," said the Rev. L. Fitzgerald Reist, II, secretary of the General Conference.
Voting on changes to the church's constitution occurs in the year following General Conference to provide annual conferences with time to familiarize themselves with the proposed amendments, he said. "This is an attempt by the General Conference to be flexible and respond more appropriately in a rapidly changing world," Reist added.
All constitutional amendments must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the total number of voting members of all annual conferences worldwide. The Council of Bishops is expected to announce the results during its 2010 spring meeting.
Bigger voice for clergy
If annual conferences approve proposed constitutional amendment XIX, deacons, associate members, and provisional members may join ordained ministers in full connection in voting for clergy delegates to general, jurisdictional, and central conferences.
To be eligible to vote, local pastors must have completed the course of study or master of divinity degree and have served under appointment for two consecutive years immediately preceding an election.
Another proposed amendment would allow lay people on the committee on investigation to vote on matters of ordination, character and conference relations of clergy.
The annual conference is the "basic unit" of the church, according to the denomination's Book of Discipline. It may include an entire state, part of a state, or even parts of two or more states.
During the annual conference gatherings in the United States, Africa, Europe, and the Philippines, one-year appointments of all conference clergy members are announced. New deacons and elders are ordained, candidates for ordination approved, special projects and ministries recognized, and budgets are set. A bishop presides over each annual session.
U.S. conference changes
In 2007, delegates to the North and South Indiana Conferences voted to merge, an action that was approved by the North Central Jurisdictional Conference in 2008. The new Indiana Annual Conference will have its first conference session June 25-28 in Muncie.
Delegates to the 2008 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference approved specific plans for the creation of two new annual conferences from the uniting of six conferences from the New York state portions of Wyoming and Troy, along with all of the churches in Western New York and North Central New York.
The Pennsylvania portion of the Wyoming Conference will join the Central Pennsylvania to create a new conference in Pennsylvania, and the Vermont portion of the Troy Conference will become part of the New England Conference. The effective date for the change is July 1, 2010.
Annual conference members from Central Pennsylvania and Wyoming are expected to vote on a recommendation that the new Pennsylvania conference be named the Susquehanna Annual Conference, which is the name of a river that winds throughout much of the conference boundaries.
The first session of 2009 conference gatherings was held in January when the Gwaten Conference of the United Methodist Church of Nigeria convened. The U.S. gatherings begin in May when the Red Bird Missionary Conference convenes May 1-2 in Big Creek, Kentucky, and will conclude June 28 with the adjournment of the Desert Southwest Annual Conference.
Download list of annual conference meetings here.
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.