Thoughts About the Recent UMC General Conference

Youth Specialties
June 1st, 2016

Michael Ratliff works with United Methodist Church youth workers, young adult workers, and young people from around the world as the Associate General Secretary of Young People’s Ministries for the UMC. He’s also a denominational leader for Youth Specialties, helping us stay connected with everything that is happening at a denominational level for our UMC youth workers. In order to understand the implications of the recent UMC General Conference, we asked him to share his thoughts in the post below. If you are a UMC youth worker, we hope you are encouraged by Mike’s post in the midst of this season. If you’re not a UMC youth worker, please join us in prayerful support of our sisters and brothers serving in the United Methodist Church.  

If the United Methodist General Conference were turned into reality TV, all the elements are present for at least a full season of intrigue and entertainment. A reality show could have amplified the drama and interpreted the decisions that showed up online through the live-stream, social media feeds, and in local and national news stories. Silent witness tableaus and scheduled protests, passionate pronouncements by presenters and preachers, and respectful/challenging debate on issues that translate into people’s lives and ministries all showed up in a space and time designed to celebrate our work and order the life of our church as we “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

In many ways, the UMC General Conference is like a big family reunion when everyone comes together to celebrate, commiserate, and formulate what it means to be a Christian church in the United Methodist tradition, and how we as a church will live together and minister in the world.

The major topic that was front and center at this General Conference was homosexuality.

Some questions that came in the form of legislative proposals were:

  • How do we understand homosexuality scripturally?
  • Where do homosexuality and those who are LGBTQ members and pastors connect to our theology and our faith communities?
  • How do we minister to (or not) those among us who are in same sex unions or who are requesting to be married in our churches and by our pastors?
  • How do we minister with those who are struggling with sexual identity issues as they seek to discover who they are in Christ and live out their calling authentically?

We were reminded, just as local youth leaders are, that these are not abstract conversations or political maneuver topics, but people who live and breathe and are part of God’s good creation and our churches and youth ministries. The reminders came in the form of daily newsletters, rainbow stoles, words from speakers, silent and not-so-silent protests.

For the first three days, there was debate about using an alternate small group process rather than Roberts Rules of Order to discuss rather than debate all proposals related to sexuality. It finally failed. In the middle of the second week, there was an attempt to start dealing with each petition – it failed, and our bishops were asked to give us leadership toward a new way to deal with the topic of sexuality.

The bishops’ suggested “way forward” included delaying any action on the items related to sexuality and appointing a commission to come back to a specially-called General Conference in 2-3 years with comprehensive recommendations. This is where I thought we were going over a cliff with no possible return! The first motion to adopt part of the bishops’ proposal failed, the presiding bishop was asked to remove himself from presiding, and while the Council of Bishops called for a recess to consider what to do next, things got crazy!

When the same bishop came back to preside, a new motion to adopt the whole recommendation from the bishops was proposed and passed, and the conference moved on, delaying any further action on issues related to sexuality and keeping the UMC united.

Many other decisions were made that affect youth ministry in the church more directly. There were decisions about mandatory Safe Sanctuaries (safesanctuaries.org) policies that are designed to protect children, youth, and vulnerable adults (and adult workers as well). There is new flexibility in how youth ministry is organized in local churches, districts, conferences, jurisdictions and central conferences. There are new guidelines for clergy and non-clergy leaders that could affect how youth leaders are recognized and how youth ministry can happen in your local church and other settings like camps and retreats. The Young People’s Address presented concerns and hopes of young people across the church. A group of young delegates presented a unity statement adopted by the Global Young People’s Convocation and received a standing ovation. A general church budget was adopted which includes about $.02 from every dollar given in your UM church funding a support system for the ministries you do.

So what do you do with the results of General Conference?

The UMC is like a BIG family.

We have missions, members, and churches in 125 different countries, from every part of the theological spectrum, rich and poor, well-educated and less-educated. Only the Roman Catholic Church tries to be global in a similar way, and it has a totally different structure for decision-making and relating.

  • Have a conversation with your youth about what it means to be a part of a family with conservatives and liberals, old and young, and people who have a difficult time understanding each other because of education, life experience, and language.
  • Talk about the value of such a big family as well as the challenges.
  • Look at how your ministry is currently connected and consider new linkages to our brothers and sisters throughout the world. UMConnector.org, can help you discover some of those possibilities.
  • Show the Young People’s Address video and ask your youth how the views expressed relate to their own views. Find a place in your church’s life to have your young people share their own address.
  • Share the Unity Statement from the Global Young People’s Convocation and ask your youth to respond with their own that they might share with your congregation.

The UMC has been struggling with the place of homosexuality in their theology and praxis for 30 years.

The church is not isolated from culture and so the struggle is in different places in different parts of our world and in different regions of the United States. While it is now legal to be married to someone of the same gender in the U.S. and other parts of the world, there are still countries where simply being homosexual is a crime. We have churches in a variety of settings throughout the world. The larger topic of sexuality is often ignored by the church.

  • Create opportunities for your youth to know what is in our Social Principles, Book of Discipline, and scripture.
  • Use the “Wesley Quadralateral” (scripture, reason, tradition, and experience) to help your youth do their own theology and make their own decisions in this area of life.
  • Resources are available to help you with this task at YPMfaithandsex.org.

Organizing for ministry is unique in every local church.

  • Look for the publication Guidelines for Youth and Young Adult Ministries at the beginning of 2017 as a resource for shaping your ministry with new flexibility.

Check out the General Board of Higher education and Ministry for new lay and ordained ministry options and possibilities as you define and refine your call to ministry and how that gets lived out in the church.

Big families are messy.

The bigger the family, the messier things get. The same is true of ministry and the church. Real, roll-your-sleeves-up ministry is seldom neat and tidy. While the recent UMC General Conference definitely had its messy times, in the end, we were reminded of who we are and Whose we are. Read the stories, watch the videos, and celebrate our diversity. Struggle with what it means to be in ministry to ALL people, and include your youth in the struggle…THEY can help us lead the way into a future that is hopeful and faithful. It may never be a reality show, but it is definitely REAL.

michael ratliffMichael Ratliff leads YPM for United Methodist Church staff working with all levels of church leadership and the Division on Ministries with Young People members to facilitate all aspects of our work globally.



Youth Specialties

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.