ALCOA, Tenn. (Jan. 28, 2015) – The leaders of Holston’s delegation to General Conference returned from a briefing in Oregon last weekend with reams of helpful information as well as awareness of the complexities and emotions involved in the monumental upcoming meeting.
The Rev. David Graves, head of the Holston delegation, and Del Holley, Holston lay leader, attended the Pre-General Conference Briefing with more than 400 delegates, communicators and other United Methodists on Jan. 20-22 at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. Most will return for the denomination’s legislative assembly May 10-20.
Graves, age 58, senior pastor at Church Street United Methodist Church, and Holley, age 49, Knox County (Tenn.) district attorney, represented the 28-member Holston Conference delegation elected at Annual Conference in June 2015.
“Holston has elected a wonderful group of people that represents who we are as members of the Holston Conference,” Graves said of the delegation. “They are a group of committed people that seeks the leading of the Holy Spirit in fulfilling our call and ministry work.”
United Methodist Communications sponsored the event, with involvement and support from other agencies and ministries of the church.
At the briefing, participants got a preview of legislation and expected debates, as well as a chance to try out an alternative process for discussing legislation on tough issues, according to United Methodist News Service.
“United Methodist Communications did well in sharing with us all the legislation before us,” Graves said. “There have been 1,044 petitions submitted to be looked at by 12 legislative committees. The task to weigh through it all is overwhelming.”
Many United Methodists expect the most passionate and difficult debate at the 2016 General Conference to deal with how the denomination ministers with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, according to United Methodist News Service.
“You can feel great tension around what will happen in our discussions and voting around human sexuality,” Graves said. “There are strong opinions on keeping our language the same while just as many strong opinions that language should become more open and inclusive.
“A vast majority of people that I talked with hope we can do all we can to stay a United Methodist Church while there have been petitions submitted calling for a church split around the issues of human sexuality,” Graves added. “All of it is leading to an emotional response.”
General Conference, the top policy-making body of The United Methodist Church, meets once every four years. The conference can revise church law, as well as adopt resolutions on current moral, social, public policy and economic issues. It also approves plans and budgets for church-wide programs.
Both Graves and Holley commented on the proposal nicknamed “Rule 44” (because it follows General Conference's Rule 43), which could be used with legislation on human sexuality if the rule is adopted.
“The 2012 General Conference directed the Commission on General Conference to explore ways of addressing legislative proposals that move the body from simple up-and-down votes after debate and the application of Robert's Rules of Order to an approach that allows conversation with broader participation of delegates and is focused on building consensus,” he said.
“The Commission has proposed a change to the rules of order that seeks to do that, and we had an opportunity to participate in an exercise that modeled the process established by the proposed new rule.”
Holley said he wasn’t convinced that the proposed process “will work in a group of nearly 900 delegates dealing with almost 100 petitions affecting several different paragraphs of the Book of Discipline.” However, he said he appreciated the Commission’s effort:
“I believe that it represents a step in the right direction toward bringing us to a place where General Conference can ultimately be an exercise in true Christian conferencing,” Holley said.
Graves said that the proposed rule would “dramatically change process if approved. The order is that Rule 44 will be presented and voted on. If passed, the General Conference would then have the process in the tool box moving forward not only in 2016, but future General Conferences.”
“If Rule 44 is approved there will be second motion made to use Rule 44 to deal with all the issues surrounding human sexuality. This would mean that the entire General Conference delegation would work in small groups to help define petitions to come before the entire body.”
Graves said he agreed with Holley that the proposed process would dominate most of the General Conference calendar.
“The logistics and setting up of these groups, along with the culture and interpretation issues, would require mass amounts of time just to get us to the talking stage," Graves said. "Each delegate would be put in a group of 15 people -- most likely folks they have never met before – and within a day, expected to do creative work together.”
Without taking time to establish relationships, the process would be very difficult, Graves said.
“At the 2012 General Conference, we spent hours just debating the rules of how we would operate at General Conference. I expect the same discussions to take place along with a much more complex discussion around Rule 44," he said.
HOPE AND PRAYER
Despite the concerns and challenges, Holley said he is hopeful for a productive two-week meeting.
“I was encouraged that panel discussions and presentations on issues where the church is deeply divided happened in ways that reflected respect for one another’s views and the expression of those opposing views occurred in an attitude of grace and Christian love for one another,” he said.
“I am hopeful that we can find a way -- as the church of Christ -- to have those kinds of conversations in our deliberative process at General Conference.”
Both Holley and Graves requested prayer and said that steps had already been taken to ensure that everything related to General Conference is bathed in prayer.
“General Conference is currently -- and will continue to be -- surrounded, supported, and undergirded by the prayers of United Methodists around the world,” Holley said. “The Upper Room has done an excellent job of coordinating a prayer ministry that will lead us to and through General Conference.”
Every annual conference has been asked to take a day between now and General Conference to pray. Holston Conference’s day is Tuesday, April 12, Graves said. “More details of how we can participate in this day will be forthcoming.”
“I hope that all of Holston Conference will join in prayer for our delegation, the leadership of our denomination, and The United Methodist Church in global mission and ministry,” Holley said.
The Holston delegation’s next two meetings will be held Thursday, Feb. 4, 3-6 p.m. at Concord United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., and Saturday, March 12, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at First United Methodist Church of Maryville, Tenn.
The March 12 meeting will be open from 10 a.m. to noon for church members to share their concerns and comments with the delegation, Graves said. “We appreciate those who have emailed us saying they are praying for us.”
To share questions, comments, or reflections with the delegation, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
United Methodist News Service contributed to this report.
Find out more about General Conference.
"Briefing previews 2016 General Conference debates," (UMNS, 1/25/16)
"Will Christian conferencing imbue General Conference?" (UMNS, 1/26/16)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.