What Actually Happens At General Conference

The most common question I have get about General Conference is this: “What actually happens at General Conference?”  It seems that many of the United Methodist folks I run into have some idea of some of the issues General Conference debates, yet little idea of how the deliberations take place. 

So here it is.  This is what actually happens at General Conference in 3 easy steps. 

1)      We pass our standing rules.  Usually quickly on day 1.  (Key word = usually)

2)      We spend the rest of the first week in legislative committees considering and perfecting legislation.

3)      We spend the second week all together in full plenary sessions voting on all the legislation that made it out of committee. 

If you would like to see more about the focus of each legislative committee, follow this link.

If you plan on watching the live stream of General Conference on umc.org, the second week in the plenary sessions will be much more conducive to live stream viewing than the first week in legislative committees. 

However, this year the fireworks may begin during the debate on the standing rules.  A new rule titled “Rule 44” is being proposed that would significantly alter the way we debate controversial issues at General Conference and you can bet that this new rule will be almost as controversial as the issues it seeks to help us discuss. 

The entirety of Rule 44 as well as all of our rules of order can be found by following this link to the Daily Christian Advocate.  Rule 44 begins on page 93.   

In short, Rule 44 would remove most controversial petitions from consideration within legislative subcommittees.  Instead, every delegate would be assigned to one of roughly 60 small groups of 15 persons.   The small groups would be given about 3 hours on Saturday May 14 to discuss over 90 petitions.  If a small group arrives at any kind of consensus around any topic, they would pass along their opinions on any topics on which they found consensus to a “Facilitation Group” of comprised of 6 people. 

The Facilitation Group would then synthesize the reports from all the small groups to see if there was consensus on any issue.  If there was consensus, then the facilitation group would take that consensus and craft it into legislation to be presented for discussion and a vote before a full plenary session of the General Conference. 

Rule 44 has been proposed in response to the request of General Conference 2012 for legislation to help us debate controversial issues in a more missional Christ-like manner.

Already I have heard quite a bit of chatter about Rule 44.  Some on the conservative side of social issues see it as a ploy to change the rules which is predominantly supported by liberals who are hopeful that a new format will lead to more progressive legislation.  Some on the more liberal side, see it as a way to engage in true holy conferencing which might prevent us from simply trying to vote each other down or engaging in debate in a manner that is hateful and harmful.   And some on both sides, see it as a motion from moderates who would like to keep the controversial debates out of the plenary sessions and instead focus the time on a host of other issues greatly affecting the church’s mission throughout the world.

As a delegate I will personally judge Rule 44 based on its merits not on conjectures about what type of legislation it might or might not help support.  I am very appreciative of the effort made by those who crafted Rule 44 to help us engage in conferencing in a way that is truly holy.  Still, it is hard for me to see how we could do justice to over 90 petitions such a short amount of time in a group of 15 people we have never met before.  I will keep an open mind a listen to all sides of the debate before casting my vote, but right now I would need a lot of convincing to help me see how Rule 44 could realistically function well. 

If Rule 44 is voted down and you may hear protests that claim the vote signals that we just want to vote people down and do not want to truly discuss the topics that divide us with love and respect, please do not believe that to be the case.  Most people I know who oppose Rule 44 do so because it just does not seem to be realistic. 

If Rule 44 is passed and you hear protests that it is a trap and that the system has been rigged to produce a certain outcome, please do not believe this to be the case either.  No matter what the groups discern and no matter who comprises the facilitation group, anything that comes out of this process still has to come to the floor of a fully plenary session for a vote.  As we have seen before, there are many ways to amend or replace legislation even once it is presented on the floor of General Conference. Thus, there will be plenty of chances to amend or replace any legislation that comes to the floor through Rule 44 through our regular rules of order.      

Like most of you, I care about the outcome of the debates at General Conference and I also care about the tone of the debates.  In this year in particular, great care has been taken to train delegates from around the world to be culturally sensitive and to learn to speak in ways that are honest and loving at the same time.  Still, all it takes is one delegate who slept through cultural sensitivity training to get a mic and say one poorly chosen phrase to hurt a lot of people and make it look like the UMC cares more about cultural infighting than sharing the good news of the Gospel with a broken and hurting world.  Please pray with me that at GC 2016, the delegates will provide our world with a picture of how to love one another whether or not we agree on every issue.      

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