United Methodist General Conference 2024: What to Look For

United Methodist General Conference 2024: What to Look For April 20, 2024

Two of the largest Protestant denominations in the US are holding international meetings in April/May and June. The United Methodist Church will hold its General Conference in late April and early May, and the Southern Baptist Convention will gather in early June. I grew up a Southern Baptist and lived my early adulthood in Southern Baptist life, and I am currently a faculty member at a United Methodist Church seminary. I figured I was as well positioned as any of our Anxious Bench family to provide short primers on what to expect from these denominational gatherings.

Information on the United Methodist General Conference has come from the stellar UM News service as well as helpful students and colleagues—Tiffany Nagel-Monroe, Mark Davies, and KC Curry in particular. Below, I’ll provide some links for more resources. What follows is a distilled report of some of the big ticket items you might see emerge from the UMC General Conference this year.

What is the General Conference?

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church is the major legislative body of the United Methodist Church. It meets every four years to work through issues related to the life of the UMC as a global body. It is the only governing body that speaks for the entire denomination. So yeah, it’s kind of a big deal. The conference is made of up delegates from the many annual conferences across the world, including Africa, Western Europe, and the Philippines. The group of delegates, half clergy and half lay members, are elected by annual conferences. All in all, we can expect to see around 860 delegates at this year’s conference, with a little over half of those delegates coming from the United States.

This year’s UMC General Conference meets April 23-May 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The first week is mostly spent with the delegates in committee work, looking at the various petitions submitted to the conference. This year, the conference will wade through nearly 1,100 petitions sent by United Methodists for consideration. Anyone who is a member of the United Methodist Church in good standing can submit petitions for General Conference. Those petitions are then collected and deliberated over in legislative committees to decide what will be brought to the floor for a vote. Once on the floor, any legislation not directly related to the UMC constitution is decided by a simple majority.

The General Conference 2024 promises to be a consequential meeting for the UMC. A number of challenges face the denomination, and those challenges have only been exacerbated by the postponement of the 2020 meeting. The last year, the UMC has also faced a spate of disaffiliations, local churches who voted to leave the denomination and were given leeway to do so under a 2019 special addendum to the Book of Discipline. The rule created space for churches to formally exit the UMC with due process so long as said churches left by December 31, 2023. Now that disaffiliation is over, many in the UMC hope to forge ahead with new legislation. But many questions still remain for the upcoming conference delegates to debate.

What are the Big Issues?

  1. Revising the Social Principles of the UMC

Harry F. Ward, 1941, Credit: Wikicommons

The Social Principles document stems from the development of Methodist social ethics in the early twentieth century. At the peak of the Social Gospel movement, Henry F. Ward and others developed what became known as the “Social Creed” to advocate for humane working conditions, the abolition of child labor, and the dignity of labor, and the principle of the Golden Rule as the guiding maxim and “the sure remedy for all social ills.” The creed was adopted in 1908 by the Methodist Episcopal Church—a forerunner of what would later become the United Methodist Church in 1968. In 1972, the newly formed UMC General Conference published its “Social Principles” to encourage a unified focus on social issues in the young denomination. The Social Principles are not the same thing as church law but, according to the preface of the Revised Social Principles (2020),  are an attempt by the denomination to “speak to issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation that is in keeping with the best of our United Methodist traditions.”

At issue for the 2024 General Conference is revising language specifically around gender, sexuality, and the presence and participation of individuals and families from the LGBTQ community. In 2012, the General Board of Church and Society—the group tasked with crafting UMC social policy—was asked to revise the Social Principles to reflect global concerns and changing attitudes among Methodists. Revisions were completed and slated for a vote at the 2020 General Conference. Of course, COVID-19 pushed the 2020 meeting all the way to 2024 (remember, General Conferences are quadrennial).

As it stands now, the Social Principles’ statements on marriage and sexuality exclude the blessing of same-sex unions or the “practice of homosexuality.” The proposed revisions would, if approved, open the UMC’s posture toward affirming LGBTQ relationships on the basis of “personal consent in sexual relationships.” As regards marriage, the revisions refer to marriage as a “sacred, lifelong covenant that brings two people of faith into union with one another[.]” For the first time, revisions also include rejections of child marriage (under 18) and polygamy, reflecting the a widened global focus in matters of human sexuality and family.

2. The Book of Discipline’s Uncertain Status

In 2019, the Council of Bishops of the UMC called together a special session of the General Conference to work out the position of the denomination on blessing same-sex marriages and ordaining LGBTQ clergy. The majority of delegates voted for the “Traditional Plan,” essentially opting to maintain the existing language in the Book of Discipline, the governing document for the UMC. Currently, the Book of Discipline denies the possibility of ordained LGBTQ clergy or officiating same-sex weddings. The status of the plan adopted by the 2019 conference will undoubtedly be challenged by petitions brought by UMC delegates, especially representatives from advocacy groups like the Reconciling Ministries Network, UMCNext, and Mainstream UMC. These and other groups have centered efforts to remove paragraphs containing “harmful language” excluding LGBTQ persons from full participation in the life of the church. You may see the phrase “harmful language” repeated frequently in Methodist discussions. It’s terminology that purposefully hearkens back to John Wesley’s First General Rule for Methodist societies, that any Christian seeking to live a holy life should “do no harm.”

If United Methodists’ regional conferences over the last few years are any indicator, it seems the denomination is poised to move on this. Even still, a large segment of United Methodist clergy and laity still hold to more conservative positions on sexuality and gender. A recent report from Yonat Shimron reveals that, according to research from Duke University, 24% of UMC clergy in North Carolina disagree with opening up restrictions on LGBTQ persons in the denomination. Even after a painful year of disaffiliations, United Methodists remain diverse on questions of gender and sexuality, both ideologically and in terms of policy.

3. How Best to Cooperate? The Regionalization Proposal

Maintaining a global community of believers across diverse cultures is no easy thing. Over the last few years, debate about the prospect of regionalization has picked up. What is regionalization? Some key institutional groups in the UMC, like the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters and the Connectional Table (a kind of strategic mission council), as well as influential church leaders in the global South, have put their weight behind a group of eight petitions that collectively would decentralize the UMC’s legislative and doctrinal processes. These eight petitions together are an attempt to provide equity and allow regions to address the reality that Methodism must be adaptable to diverse cultural and social realities across the world.

Currently, the UMC is made up of annual conferences, regional legislative bodies that make decisions locally and meet together for the General Conference where decisions are made on behalf of the universal United Methodist Church. The US is made up of five jurisdictions with numerous annual conferences contained in each jurisdiction. Outside the US, annual conferences are grouped together in collectives known as “central conferences.” There are seven central conferences: Africa, West Africa, Congo, Central and Southern Europe, Germany, Northern Europe and Eurasia, and the Philippines.

Up to this point, the United Methodist Church’s constitution has allowed non-U.S. central conferences to adapt the Book of Discipline. Article IV, 31.5 states that central conferences are given authority “to make such rules and regulations for the administration of the work within their boundaries including such changes and adaptations of the General Discipline as the conditions in the respective areas may require, subject to the powers that have been or shall be vested in the General Conference.” Basically, non-US Methodist governing bodies are given leeway to adapt the rules to their local contexts as deemed necessary by the conference bishops. But no such exception has been granted to UM churches in the United States—yet.

Regionalization legislation seeks to change that stipulation, granting the US status as one among eight global regions. Each region would have authority to adapt certain portions of the Book of Discipline. One hope is that by adopting regionalization, the agendas of future General Conferences will not be dictated predominately by US-driven conflicts, politics, or theological debates.

The adoption of regionalization has significant steam behind it, yet still could be a tough row to hoe. The Book of Discipline states that constitutional amendments, which the adoption of regionalization would require, need a 2/3 majority vote in the General Conference as well as an aggregate 2/3 vote in the annual conferences. Conservative US Methodists argue regionalization is a means of adopting unbiblical changes to Methodist doctrine by ignoring the concerns of African Methodists. Others argue it strikes at the heart of connectionism, a key principle in maintaining a diverse and global church. Proponents argue regionalization would free up both African and American ministers to do the work of ministry more effectively.

Why Does It Matter?

Up until 2023-24, I kept up with major proceedings in the UMC to some degree, but I must admit it was purely informational for me. It was important in the way that all major happenings in American religion are important. You track the data, keep an eye on the trends, your ears perk up at curious theological talking points, but it gets lost in the shuffle. Working with current and future UMC pastors has changed all that for me.

For context, I work primarily with pastors and pastors-in-training within the Oklahoma Annual Conference. The students in my seminary and the churches they serve have been absolutely rocked by the disaffiliation proceedings taking place over the last two years. Between disaffiliations and closures, the Oklahoma conference lost 139 churches. That’s over a quarter of the churches in the conference. Pastors are tired. They’re beat up. Churches—which remain quite politically and theologically diverse, by the way—are wondering what’s next. For the first time maybe ever, I’m beginning to recognize that the Washington Post and NPR headlines about United Methodists don’t reflect the diversity, the humanity, and the spiritual, physical, and psychological investment that normal, everyday Christians have in this sacred institution. The plight of the UMC isn’t merely a barometer for American Protestant attitudes—it is and has been an existential moment of crisis for many my colleagues, my students, my friends, my Christian siblings.

As a denominational outsider, I’ve begun to see my role is not to be a religion news rubbernecker, someone who wants to observe all the drama from a distance but takes no responsibility for the future. That is not loving to my siblings within the UMC or those who decided they needed to leave. Rather, my job is to be prayerful and present for those in my institution and in my community, to weep and rejoice alongside those with whom I do not share a confession but with whom I share a common Lord. I am praying for the United Methodist Church—that they would be strong in faith, steadfast in their commitment to the poor and dispossessed, and abounding in love for the neighbors, their enemies, and those enemies who may again become neighbors over the years and decades to come.

Additional Resources:

“A Beginner’s Guide to General Conference,” by Heather Hahn, UM News

Ask the UMC: What is Regionalization?,” by Taylor W. Burton Edwards

What to know about General Conference proposals,” by Heather Hahn, UM News

Proposed UMC Legislation brought forward by UMCNext

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