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Video Recording of General Conference Debriefing

On Sunday, March 3, Rev. Michael Mumme and Rev. Pastor Taylor Fuerst led a debriefing of the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference. The briefing, recorded on video, covered key items that were found constitutional and unconstitutional during the conference, the follow-up Judicial review in April, and what we may anticipate before General Conference 2020.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

The Rev. Michael Mumme wrote these FAQs in response to questions submitted from the congregation.
Click on the plus sign next to each question below to expand the answer.

Marginalized communities have always been pushed out. How can we stay, even if others choose to leave? Will change happen within the denomination or a new church body?
When God led the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses first went to Pharaoh to demand justice, but his heart was hardened, and then God led them out with a mighty hand.

Summary:
The debate within the church has continued since the discriminatory language regarding “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” was added in 1972[1]. Since this time, many have sought change in our official understanding of human sexuality. These efforts have spanned 47 years, thousands of petitions, 12 General Conferences, a special Committee to Study Homosexuality in 1992[2], the Commission on A Way Forward in 2018[3], and the special session of General Conference this February, 2019. We would add our own efforts as FUMC Austin to petition the General Conference, our Reconciling vote in 2013, and our Marriage Equality Resolution in 2017[4]. All of these efforts have been “within” the denomination and within the polity, the governance structure, of the UMC.

It is increasingly difficult to see an inclusive solution within the current governance structure of the UMC. It may well be better for moderates who are willing to live with diversity of ministry practice and allies of LGBTQ+ persons to lead out of the UMC into a new denomination than to be thrown out. One must consider not only the current members of the church, but the witness of the church to the current and future generations yet to have life-changing encounters with the Body of Christ, who will increasingly associate the UMC with intolerance. The time we take to become a fully inclusive and affirming church has a real human cost to LGBTQ+ persons and all who won’t have ears to hear the good news of God’s love because of the intolerance of the UMC.

Extended Dive:
While the legal and societal acceptance of LGBTQ+ persons has grown to a majority position in the US[5] and biblical scholarship supporting interpretation accepting of LGBTQ+ persons is more available than ever[6][7], why has the trajectory of the debate in the UMC continually led to tightening restrictions against LGBTQ+ persons serving in ministry and against same-sex marriage?

The answer lies in the changing demographics of a global UMC and governance structure of the UMC itself. In 1970, there were approximately 11 million United Methodists, less than 4% of whom resided outside the United States[8][9]. In 2016, there were over 12.7 million United Methodists, of which just less than 7 million resided inside the United States (approximately 55%)[10]. In a polity that purports to be a representative democracy, one would expect the proportional number of US delegates to decrease, which is has, and the effect of growing US acceptance of LGBTQ+ persons to be less represented at General Conference, which it has. However, because every annual conference is allotted a minimum of two delegates regardless of lay membership size (Discipline ¶15), some vast representational disparities exist. For example, both the Northwest Russia Provisional Annual Conference (350 lay members) and the West Michigan Annual Conference (60,000 lay members) are each represented by two delegates. Additional delegates are allotted based on size, but annual conferences with fewer members, more common outside the US, are over represented in the delegate count at General Conference[11].

The governance structure has additional inequalities in the way that more than 99% of the $609.2 million in 2017-2020 general church funding originates from within the US[12-pages 39-43], the central conferences are given freedom to adapt the Discipline of the church to their ministry context (including the social principal regarding human sexuality), central conference delegates have the right to vote at General Conference on matters that only affect the portions of the church in the US (such as clergy pensions, which are handled differently in the central conferences), bishops elected in the US are elected for life while bishops elected in central conferences are elected for a term and may become a bishop for life only after reelection to a second or third term, and that there exists no US body of the church that has the freedom to contextualize the Discipline as do the central conferences[13].
Therefore, the prospect is slim for an inclusive solution to arise “within” the denomination, given the future demographic changes and current governance system with its inequalities and limitations.

What happened to the other plans (other than the Traditional Plan)?
The report by the Commission on A Way Forward put forward the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and included work of others known as the Traditional Plan. Separately, eight petitions submitted by the Queer Clergy Caucus constituted the Simple Plan.

On Sunday, Feb 24th, the first item of business was a series of votes to prioritize the work of the Conference. Among the four plans, the Traditional Plan received the highest priority at 55.57%, followed by the One Church Plan at 48.67%, the Simple Plan at 18.68%, and the Connectional Conference Plan at 12.44%.
On Monday, Feb 25th, the Conference worked as a legislative committee of the whole to perfect the plans for later consideration on Tuesday. They worked through the prioritization, which also included the other legislative items. The entirety of the day’s time was taken working through the first five items, which included the Traditional and One Church Plans as well as items related to pensions and disaffiliation/exit petitions. The Traditional Plan received the majority vote of the legislative committee, 461 Yes, 359 No. The One Church Plan received a vote of 368 Yes, 436 No.

Soon after the consideration of the One Church Plan, the Conference considered a motion to reject all remaining petitions. An amendment immediately followed to retain the Simple Plan for discussion. Adam Hamilton spoke in favor of retaining the Simple Plan for discussion. He said that it would inflict more harm to not discuss the Simple Plan. He said:

I’m suggesting…that instead of inflicting more pain, we allow people to speak and allow us to consider this motion. Yes, it’s going to be defeated. I think it appears clear. But, I think it’s important. This is one opportunity to be able to say, we care enough to listen for a moment.

The vote to retain the Simple Plan for discussion passed, 476 Yes, 347 No. A similar motion was then made to retain the Connectional Conference Plan for discussion, but the vote failed, 272 Yes, 519 No. All other items were then rejected and the Simple Plan received four speeches “For” and four speeches “Against.” Two of the “Against” speeches argued that the Simple Plan didn’t go far enough for justice and equality. During three of the speeches (two “For” and one “Against-not far enough”), laypersons Karen Prudente and Jennifer Ihlo, and The Rev. Rebecca Girrell each spoke of themselves as “queer.” The vote on the Simple Plan failed, 323 Yes, to 494 No.

On Tuesday, Feb 26th, the Conference worked as the plenary session to give final consideration to each item. According to the rules, having not received a majority of votes, a group of 20 delegates submitted the One Church Plan as a minority report to replace the Traditional Plan. The One Church Plan received a positive presentation, three speeches “For,” three speeches “Against,” and the Committee Chair’s statement that the Committee supported the Traditional Plan. In the vote, the One Church Plan failed to replace the Traditional Plan as the majority report, 374 Yes, 449 No.

At this point, the Conference continued with consideration of the Traditional Plan, including many attempts to amend it. During this time, Shayla Jordan, a 21-year-old delegate, reported that the Global Young People’s Convocation had met in South Africa and supported the One Church Plan over the Traditional Plan, 61% to 38%, and 15,000 young UMC leaders had signed a petition against the Traditional Plan. Additionally, Kimberly Ingram reported that the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools, comprised of the 13 United Methodist seminaries, and the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the UMC both issued statements against the Traditional Plan and the harm it will do to theological education and preparing the next generation of leaders for the church in the United States. During these amendments, nothing to improve the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan was achieved. The Conference voted 438 “Yes” to 384 “No” to adopt the Traditional Plan.

Data gathered from[14].

The final vote tally equaled 822 delegates of the 864 delegates eligible to vote. What happened to the other 42 delegates?
The Secretary of the General Conference reported that 31 delegates were absent because they were unable to gain visas[15]. Apparently no alternates were available from those annual conferences as well. Concerning the remaining 11 delegates, they either decided to abstain, were not present to vote at the time the vote was taken, or unknowingly failed to cast their vote via the electronic voting equipment. The names of voters are not recorded with the votes cast.
Regarding delegates: What are the qualifications to be a delegate? How is the number of delegates determined? On what can delegates make decisions, what is the process? Who votes – Bishops, clergy, lay? Do clergy and laypersons have equal votes?
The only qualification to be a delegate is professing membership in the United Methodist Church. Delegates are elected from each annual conference, half lay and half clergy, each having a vote of equal weight. The Constitution of the UMC states that the number of delegates to General Conference shall be between 600 and 1000 delegates, half lay and half clergy. The Commission on the General Conference set a target number of 850 delegates for 2016 and 2020. The Secretary of the General Conference determines the exact representation for each annual conference based on the proportional number of clergy and professing membership of each conference, provided that each annual conference is entitled to at least one clergy and one lay delegate. You can find the 2016 and 2020 delegate allotments here[16].

The General Conference receives petitions from any United Methodist individual, church, agency, conference, or commission. Petitions must address only one paragraph of the Book of Discipline, one resolution in the Book of Resolutions, or propose a new paragraph or resolution. The petitions are received in advance, translated and distributed in English, French, Kiswahili, and Portuguese, and form the actionable items of legislation before the Conference. Delegates at the Conference can also submit new petitions with several delegate signatures. Delegates can only work with the paragraphs or resolutions put before them.

The business of the General Conference is conducted by Roberts Rules of Order and is simultaneously translated into English, French, Portuguese, Kiswahili, Russian, and Spanish. Petitions are grouped into several legislative committees by subject area for initial perfecting and consideration before consideration before the full plenary of the Conference. The majority of these petitions are grouped onto consent calendars, leaving the more controversial petitions for debate and consideration of the full plenary.
Bishops are not eligible for election as delegates and do not vote on matters before the General Conference. Bishops do take turns presiding at the General Conference as arbiters of the proceedings.

What about withholding giving to the UMC? Can we “vote” with our dollars?
FUMC Austin has a vital ministry that accepts and affirms all people as God’s children. Individual withholding of giving would most hurt our local church ministry. Nationally, only two cents of each dollar given in offering goes to general church apportionments, ministries beyond the annual conference and jurisdictional (several state region) conference[17-see pg 43].

However, many feel that we have come to the point where we can no longer fund partners in ministry who advocate for kicking our LGBTQ+ siblings out of the UMC. Therefore, the Executive Team of the Administrative Board of FUMC Austin will meet on Wednesday, March 13th, to consider assembling a group to study how FUMC could effectively redirect its apportionment funding and report back to the Administrative Board at its May 19th meeting when the Board can consider action. The pastors ask for your continued commitment to FUMC’s ministry during this thoughtful process.

Where is the hope for the future of FUMC Austin and a fully-inclusive and affirming denomination?
FUMC Austin exists to build a community where all people are invited to know God’s love and sent to join God in transforming the world.  Our church has a strong identity, an affirming invitation, and a clear sense of our core values that define who we are and our missional calling as disciples of Jesus Christ[18].  We are growing!  We have had more than 500 persons in worship six weeks of ten weeks so far this year.  We’re growing in ministry!  The group organizing the beginning of the Thursday Women’s Ministry after the Feed My People Breakfast has exciting dreams and bold visions for how they will build a community and serve in ways intended to foster transformation in women’s lives.  New young adult and multigenerational Sunday school classes and small groups are forming.  And, we continue to speak justice to our denomination while looking for new ways to live out God’s call for FUMC Austin, within and beyond the confines of the United Methodist Church.

FUMC Austin has a future because we are faithfully living out God’s calling for us.

Yet, like when we wish to rush through Advent to get to Christmas or skip over the Crucifixion on Good Friday to get to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, many of us may feel a sense of urgency to take immediate action given recent events.  And, for many, this has been years in the making, and we may feel we have reached our breaking point.  Certainly, we do need action, but we want our action to be prayerful, thoughtful, purposeful, and effective.  At stake is not simply whether the witness of First Austin will be a “United Methodist” witness for Christ, but whether the witness of a denomination (that at one time had a local church in almost every county of the United States) will be an affirming witness of God’s Grace to LGBTQ+ people across the US and the world.

Prayerful, thoughtful, purposeful, and effective – this is the kind of action we want.  Your pastors have already gathered with other pastors from the area to coordinate our ministry in leading action for the good of FUMC Austin, LGBTQ+ persons, our witness, and UM churches across our conference.  We are also connecting and coordinating with efforts across the denomination.  The time is not yet ripe to discuss the details, but we are living out our calling to lead the church.  Pray for us.

Laity are also called to lead.  Lay-led efforts are also in development, as well as are efforts with shared leadership.  Locally, the Executive Team of the Administrative Board of FUMC Austin will meet Wednesday, March 13th, to begin our shared efforts.  Of course, we cannot go it alone. We know that our action will be more effective with a strong coalition across the Body of Christ.  I have no doubt that efforts beyond our local church will be led in part by FUMC Austin members and call upon us to take action in prayerful, thoughtful, purposeful, and effective ways that affirm all persons as loved by God.
In the meantime, keep your clergy and lay leaders accountable to lead.  Check in with us.  Pray for us.  Offer to help.  Keep studying and serving, and be ready to serve in new ways.

A great many people in the UMC who before 2019 may not have seen themselves as allies of LGBTQ+ persons now find themselves in a denomination that is far more judgmental and punitive than they care to be associated with.  The “traditionalists” have poked a bear who, now awakened, won’t sleep again until those who scapegoat and oppress can no longer draw them in as accomplices to their division and hate.  A great many statements and dissents are voicing this across the UMC in powerful ways[19][21][22][23][24].  The structure of the UMC may be broken, but this gestational time of uncertainty can also lead to the birthing of new life, new community, and new witnesses of God’s love and affirmation for all.

May we be in prayer, be thoughtful, have purpose, and be effective in the action we take, for our hope is in God, the source of all love and life.