Frequently Asked Questions from the Laity of The West Virginia Conference
regarding the upcoming General Conference, February 23-26
What is the UMC’s current stance on homosexuality?
The UMC affirms that all persons are individuals of sacred worth and that God’s Grace is available to all. Additionally, the UMC affirms that certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all people. Currently, the denomination “does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” Self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not permitted to be ordained. Homosexual marriages shall not be conducted by our ministers nor in our churches. The current language around these matters can be found in the 2016 Book of Discipline in paragraphs 161F, 304.3, 341.6, 613.19, and 2702.1.
What is the General Conference and how does it relate to the local church?
The General Conference is the policy making body of The United Methodist Church. Only the General Conference speaks officially for the Church. Normally, a General Conference is held every four years. The work of the General Conference is recorded in the Book of Discipline and The Book of Resolutions. Only General Conference can change the Book of Discipline.
Delegates to the General Conference are elected by Annual Conferences from around the world. 864 delegates represent the 12 million-member international United Methodist Denomination. The General Conference usually meets for two weeks to do its work. The next regularly scheduled General Conference will be in 2020. The meeting of the General Conference this February is a Specially Called session of the General Conference and will go from the 23rd – 26th. The last time a Special Session was called was in 1970 to organize the union of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Churches.
Why are we having this special session when we already have a denominational stance on homosexuality, marriage, and standards for who can be ordained?
At every General Conference since 1972, some delegates have sought to change the “incompatible” language found in the Discipline. This language was added at the General Conference of 1972 and ever since the addition, the UMC has debated whether or not the language should be removed.
At the General Conference of 2016, a large number of legislative petitions were submitted around the subjects of same gender marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons. The debate became increasingly divisive and the delegates of the General Conference voted to ask the Council of Bishops (who have neither voice nor vote at General Conference) to step in and provide leadership for how the denomination could move forward in the midst of disagreement.
The Council of Bishops created a Commission on A Way Forward. This Commission was charged to bring a report to a Special Called session of the General Conference on how the UMC might be able to move forward in unity recognizing that the people of The United Methodist Church are not of one mind when it comes to the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the leadership and practices of the church.
Where can I find a copy of the report that the Commission on A Way Forward has submitted to the General Conference?
You can find the report on our Conference website www.wvumc.org/gc2019
How many plans for moving forward will be considered at the General Conference? The Commission’s report includes three plans: The One Church Plan, The Connectional Conference Plan, and a Traditional Plan. There are other plans and petitions that have been discerned as in harmony with the call of the Special session that will be considered. Any petition or plan that is acted on at the General Conference is likely to be amended.
What is the Bishop’s role at the General Conference?
Bishops only preside at General Conference. They may be asked to participate in worship or to be a part of a team, board or agency that is presenting a report, however Bishops do not have voice or vote in the midst of debate.
What is the Judicial Council and how does its ruling impact the report of the Commission on a Way Forward?
The Judicial Council is the legal branch of the UMC and determines questions of Law and answers declaratory questions around the constitutionality of actions and legislation based on the Constitution and Discipline of the UMC.
The Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision on whether or not the three plans included in the Commission’s report were constitutional in order to help the delegates do their best work during the three business days of the Called Session. The Judicial Council did not rule on the Connectional Conference plan because that plan calls for changes in the Constitution that would set up a different structure for how the denomination is organized and does its ministry and mission. The Judicial Council did rule on the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan because these two plans keep the current constitution of the UMC in place without change. The One Church Plan was essentially constitutional with three minor amendments by deletion required to make it constitutional. There were more significant amendments needed to make the Traditional Plan constitutional. The Judicial Council ruling does not change those plans but tells the delegates where amendments need to be made to work toward constitutionality. Modifications to the Traditional Plan have been worked on and will be before the delegates.
You can find the Judicial Council ruling on our website www.wvumc.org/gc2019 and if you go to page 55 of the decision you will find a summary of the ruling.
How will the delegates do their work in this Special Session?
Normally there are about 12 Legislative Committees that meet the first week of a General Conference to work through petitions by disciplinary paragraph. Since this is a three-day Conference, the entire body will work as one legislative committee and deal with all the petitions that have been submitted and are in harmony with the purpose for which this Session was called.
February 23rd, the day prior to the official start of the General Conference, will be a day of prayer and fasting. The delegates will be engaged in a variety of prayer services and activities.
The first official day will open with worship, deal with the organizing motions and the rules. The delegates will receive the verbal report of the Commission on A Way Forward. There will be a process by which the delegates decide how they are going to move through the petitions in legislative committee and they will elect a chair of the legislative committee. Bishops only preside during plenary sessions. Bishops do not chair legislative committees. It is anticipated that the second day will be spent in legislative committee, making decision and perfecting petitions.
The last day of the Conference will be in plenary session and the decisions and recommendations of the legislative committee will be brought forth for discussion, debate, and vote.
What are the possible outcomes?
One of the plans could be adopted as is or as amended. There could be a new plan or dimension of a plan that could be substituted for any one of the proposed plans or a piece of existing legislation. The Discipline could also remain the same. Action could be tabled or deferred until the General Conference of 2020.
One thing is sure, the mission of our church will remain the same. We will still be called to reach people with the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and to work together to make disciples of Christ so that the world and its people might be transformed.
If something like the One Church Plan passes will congregations or pastors be forced to actions against their convictions?
The One Church Plan does not involve or require any local congregation to take a vote of any kind. The One Church Plan preserves the authority that already exists for Church Trustees in consultation with the Administrative Board or Council marriage policies that set the boundaries for whether or not church buildings can be used for same gender marriages. In the same way, the One Church Plan protects the ability of the pastor to make decisions on which couples they will or will not marry whether those couples are heterosexual or homosexual. In addition, no church or pastor will be forced to change their convictions or practices regarding the inclusion of LGBTQ persons. Bishops will work with congregations to appoint pastors to congregations with similar theological convictions so that the church and pastor can be the best that they can be for fulfilling the mission and ministry of Christ and the church.
Bishops and their cabinets already take pastors’ and congregations’ theological beliefs and other factors into consideration before making an appointment. Pastors nor congregations will be forced to conduct same gender marriages.
What happens if pastor and congregation do not agree on same gender marriages?
The local church’s stance dictates the position concerning same gender marriage. If there is conflict between the pastor and church, accommodations can be made (i.e. inviting in a guest pastor or holding the ceremony in a different location.)
If something like the Connectional Conference plan is adopted, will the local church have to vote?
There will be no immediate votes required by a local church and possibly not any vote required. First, since the Connectional Conference plan includes constitutional amendments – the General Conference does not have the only say. Constitutional changes not only require a 2/3rds affirmative vote of the General Conference delegates – they also require a 2/3rds aggregate affirmative vote of all the annual conferences around the world. It will take approximately a year to determine if the annual conferences uphold a constitutional change affirmed by the General Conference.
If the annual conferences do not support the constitutional change, then the constitution is not changed. If constitutional changes are approved, the plan currently calls for votes at the jurisdictional level in the U.S. If an annual conference does not agree with the vote of the Jurisdiction for which theologically based connectional conference it wants to join, only then will an annual conference need to vote. If a local congregation does not agree with the annual conference alignment within a connectional conference, then a local congregation may vote on which connectional conference with which to align.
If the Traditional Plan or a modified traditional plan passes, doesn’t that mean things stay the same?
No, the traditional plan has significant changes to the Discipline including placing a higher accountability on both pastors and congregations for adherence to the entire Discipline. There would also be changes on how violations to the Discipline would be handled. This could lead to additional mandatory penalties and church trials.
If church members decide to leave the denomination, will there be a gracious exit process?
Everyone’s definition of what is gracious is different. It is important to note that a church is much more than a building. There is a disciplinary process already in place for persons who individually wish to withdraw their membership from The United Methodist Church.
All local church property in The United Methodist Church is held in trust for The United Methodist Church. So, if an entire congregation chooses to withdraw their membership, and the church is closed, the Annual Conference Trustees take possession of the property. It is the Conference Trustees who make decisions around the use or sale of church buildings that have been closed.
In the recent past, some persons who have withdrawn their membership from the United Methodist Church and formed as a new entity, have bought previous church building(s) from the annual conference at fair market value.
What does the Bible say about homosexuality?
People who hold a high value of Scripture, believing that it is sacred Word, and who have a deep love of Christ, God, God’s Word, and the Church, come down on differing sides and have differing perspectives on this topic and many others.
As United Methodists, we use Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to help us wrestle with things upon which we disagree. You can learn more at www.umc.org/what-we-believe/wesleyan-quadrilateral.
How do I find out the outcomes of the February General Conference?
The West Virginia Conference website will post reports from the General Conference at www.wvumc.org/gc2019 and will send emails each evening and morning to those who are signed up to receive the Short Circuit. Sign up here: www.wvumc.org/conference-email-subscription The General Conference will be live streamed as well. You will find a link on the conference website as well as at umc.org.
Following the General Conference, the Bishop will be meeting with clergy and laity to share the outcomes of the General Conference along with the impact of the decisions on local churches and the West Virginia Annual Conference. Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball will be meeting specifically with clergy (Ordained, Provisional, Licensed, CLMs, Assigned Supply) as soon after the General Conference as possible.
Bishop Steiner Ball will also be itinerating through the Conference and will have meetings on all Districts for laity and clergy to share what happened at the General Conference and how the decisions made, or not made, impact local congregations and the West Virginia Conference.
The District Meetings will take place on the following dates and locations:
March 9 1:30 pm at St John 23 Pastoral Center Chapel, Charleston with Covenant Council, open to others.
March 16 10:00 am at MonValley District – LIFE UMC, Fairmont
March 16 4:00 pm at Western District – Community of Grace, Huntington
March 22 6:00 pm at Northern District – Elm Grove, Wheeling
March 23 10:00 am at Potomac Highlands District - Main Street, Petersburg
March 23 4:00 pm at Wesleyan District – Quiet Dell
March 24 3:00 pm at Little Kanawha District – Mt Pleasant, Mineral Wells
March 26 6:00pm at Greenbrier & Southern – UM Temple, Beckley
March 28 6:30pm at Midland South District - St Mark’s Charleston
This time together will be an opportunity for the West Virginia Conference to hear directly from Bishop Steiner Ball as The United Methodist Church navigates a way forward that honors our Lord and help us fulfill our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The tentative agenda will include: devotional time, sharing the outcomes of the 2019 General Conference, and explore how the decisions made will impact our local churches. The priority for us in these gatherings will be to remember that we are called to continue to move together in order to fulfill our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Visit www.wvumc.org/gc2019 for updates.