What will be the most significant issue we deal with at General Conference in April? Will it be issues from the Ministry Study, the Report from the Council on Bishops setting the stage for Regional Conferences, our stance on homosexuality, finding a place to stay in Fort Worth, Judicial Council elections, authorizing a new hymnal, or what?
An important issue that really isn't on the table has been raised in some emails being circulated and commented on by several church leaders. It regards the changing make-up of the General Conference with the continuing increase of Central Conference delegates.
This year, the delegates from outside the US will compose 30% of the total, up from 20% in 2004. In 2012, the Methodists of the Ivory Coast will have about 58 delegates instead of the 2 they have for 2008. If the trend continues, by 2016 delegates from overseas could be a majority.
The sensitive, but critical issue behind the numbers is not representation, but cost. This year's GC is projected to be significantly overbudget, due in large part to the cost of transporting Central Conference delegates along with the cost of interpreters. As the numbers increase for future GC's, the cost will escalate. These are costs that will be apportioned among the US annual conferences, since very few of the Central Conference churches are able to pay any apportionments at all. Presently, there are no proposals to address such a looming financial crisis.
Yesterday I spoke to the Florence District pastors about General Conference issues. From their responses to the issues I outlined I had two observations. The first relates to the adage, "The only politics is local politics." In other words, really the only real thing people are interested in are the issues they perceive that will affect them. And in terms of GC it was: what decisions are going to affect apportionments and what decisions will affect the way pastors are deployed for ministry (are we going to change sacramental authority?)
Secondly, most pastors have little idea how Gen Conf gets its work done. After our lunch, several pastors expressed appreciation for learning how the legislative committees of GC operate as they deal with the petitions. I wonder how much such a lack of awareness about our process contributes to a feeling of "disconnect" between the local churches, pastors and the general church.
Finally, one pastor asked, "What is the biggest issue facing our church, and what will General Conference be doing about it?" My response: The biggest issue is to fulfill our mission, Making disicples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And General Conference will do very little about that directly. What GC will do is make decisions that will enable or hinder the local churches in fulfilling our mission, but ultimately the responsibility is on us.