United Methodist General Conference, meeting in Charlotte, faces ‘historic’ choices

Top issues include allowing more regional autonomy and LGBTQ inclusion
Bishop Robin Dease, right, breaks bread for communion during her installed as leader of the North Georgia Conference United Methodist Church on Sunday, Jan 8, 2023.  She is the first African-American female appointed to the position.   (Jenni Girtman for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Bishop Robin Dease, right, breaks bread for communion during her installed as leader of the North Georgia Conference United Methodist Church on Sunday, Jan 8, 2023. She is the first African-American female appointed to the position. (Jenni Girtman for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Charlotte is the first one that Robin Dease is attending as a bishop.

And it’s likely the last one that retired Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader, who lives in Evanston, Ill. plans to attend.

Both women want to be at the policy-making quadrennial conference to witness what some say is a seismic shift in how the denomination moves into the future, including how it responds to full inclusion of the LGBTQ community.

The 11-day conference will draw as many as 7,500 people from around the world, of whom 862 are voting delegates.

According to the UMC, 56% of the delegates are from the United States and 32% are from Africa. The rest are from Europe and the Philippines.

The conference will consider petitions that could reshape the structure of the denomination through regionalization, remove controversial language around the issue of human sexuality, revise its social principals to guide how it responds to the world’s most pressing issues, the denomination’s budget and even address how many bishops are in the denomination.

There are serious issues to be debated and discussed and there will also be prayer, sermons and 18 worship services.

In all, more than 1,000 legislative petitions will be heard by delegates that include clergy and laypersons.

“Everything we’ve been fighting about is all coming to a head at this particular General Conference,” said Dease, who was installed in 2023 as bishop of the North Georgia Conference, which covers the area north of Macon.

Every 50 years there’s a shift”

“Every 50 years there’s a shift, and when you go back and look at where the shift has occurred, it’s always around some pressing issue and it’s always been around inclusion,” said Dease. “Are we going to include Blacks? Are we going to include women? And, now, here we are, are we going to include LGBTQIA? Every 50 years there’s something that shifts the Church. Something that causes breakaways, that causes separation, that causes schisms and that causes conflicts.”

Rader, the retied bishop who lives in Evanston, has attended General Conferences since 1976, her first time as a seminary student.

She and her husband felt it was important to be in Charlotte.

“It’s kind of middle time where we can decide are we going to move forward into a new way of witnessing and living together or are we going to be stuck?”

“This is going to be a historic General Conference,” said the Rev. Brett M. Opalinski, assistant dean of Methodist Studies at the Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and a delegate to the conference. “I tell my students that they will be teaching about the conference for years to come. This is going to go down in United Methodist history.”

It’s been a difficult season for United Methodists with hundreds of congregations leaving the fold,

“There’s been a lot of sadness and grief, but I think this is an opportunity for a new beginning and to live faithfully into this modern age,” said Opalinski. I do think that if the language doesn’t change we will have to think about the impact on many young people who are discerning a call into ordained ministry and even through discernment whether to live out their faith in the United Methodist Church.”

The Book of Discipline

The Book of Discipline outlines the doctrine, administration, organizational work and procedures of the UMC.

Currently the Book of Discipline considers homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching. It prohibits clergy from performing same sex marriages or union ceremonies and doesn’t allow “self-avowed practicing“ members of the LGBTQ community to be ordained or consecrated as a bishop.

The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. CONTRIBUTED BY MIKE DUBOSE

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It’s been a divisive issue for decades that has created a wide schism in the Protestant denomination.

A recent study by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. found that between 2019 and Dec. 31, 2023, the United Methodist Church lost a quarter of its total churches in the United States.

Conservatives, some of whom call themselves traditionalists, have cited a number of reason beyond human sexuality including fears the denomination was becoming too progressive and would interpret Scripture differently.

Some have become independent, others have joined other Methodist denominations, including the more conservative Global Methodist Church.

Since 2022, more than 330 churches have left the UMC’s North Georgia Conference, which covers the state north of Macon. That represents about 38% of the conference’s churches and 27% of its members.

Today, the conference has about 440 churches remaining — but nearly a dozen new congregations are forming.

The smaller South Georgia Conference of the UMC has lost about half of the congregations since 2020, according to spokeswoman Kelly Roberson.

The South Georgia Conference, which includes the area of the southern part of the state currently has 274 congregations, which includes established churches, missional congregations, and new church starts.

Although much of the focus in on human sexuality, there are other issues that are being closely watched.

A major proposal concerns regionalization.

Under the plan, there will be four regional conferences — Africa, Europe, Philippines and the United States-- with each having the same power and duties to pass legislation in their respective regions, according to the UMC.

“This will allow for the United Methodist Church, as a whole, to be less U.S-centric and give greater voice and latitude given for each region to decide logistical aspects of ministry in a way that makes sense for that context,” said Emory’s Opalinski.

The Rev. Michael D. Stinson, lead pastor of East Point First Mallalieu United Methodist Church and retired ob-gyn physician, will attend the General Conference but he’s not a voting delegate.

“I’m not for regionalization because I think that makes us into five different churches under the United Methodist banner with everyone doing things different,” he said. “I think it will end up separating the church even more.”

United Methodists have “been going around the mulberry bush for too long,” said The Rev. Edward J. Landrum, pastor of Moore’s Chapel UMC and president of the Carrollton Ministerial Coalition,. “We should be a denomination that’s welcoming to everyone. It’s one thing to say ‘judge not, lest you be judged,’ then you judge people.”