What happened at General Conference

Above, the Rev. John Kabwit, North Katanga Conference, leads a choir of Congolese delegates in singing at GC2024. Photo by Paul Jeffrey/UM News

Body approves ‘three Rs’—regionalization, revised Social Principles, removing restrictive language 

By Jessica Brodie

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—For the first time since 2016, The United Methodist Church has gathered to complete the full business of the church.

Delegates from around the world gathered for General Conference April 23-May 3 at the Charlotte Convention Center. Originally slated for 2020 but postponed multiple times because of the pandemic, this year’s outcome was vastly different from the last time the body gathered.

By the time it ended, the church eliminated a 40-year-old ban on gay clergy, deleted language condemning homosexuality, authorized deacons to preside at the sacraments in their appointments, shifted decision-making about whether to conduct a gay wedding to the clergyperson, issued a heartfelt apology to all who experienced sexual misconduct in the church, took first steps in a new regionalized church structure and passed a drastically reduced budget for the next quadrennium.

Those are just a handful of the more than 1,000 petitions addressed at the gathering, which featured 10 full days of prayer, worship, debate and legislative action that will ultimately guide The United Methodist Church for the next four years.

Sixteen lay and clergy delegates from South Carolina joined delegates from Africa, Europe, Asia and the U.S. for what many said was a surprisingly uncontentious experience.

While not everyone agreed with all the changes, most agreed it was time to stop fighting and start focusing afresh on the work of Jesus Christ—together.

“Throughout the weeks of legislative committee work and plenary debate, many persons were able to make their voices heard as decisions were made about our future as a denomination,” said South Carolina’s Resident Bishop, L. Jonathan Holston. “It is abundantly clear that we are not all of one mind on many things, but the tone and tenor of the dialogue was one of care, concern, compassion and our shared commitment to faith in Jesus Christ as we seek to be who God is calling us to be.”

South Carolina’s Delegation Co-Chair Jackie Jenkins said serving as a delegate to General Conference was not only an honor but a humbling responsibility.

“Our worship and praise experiences were uplifting and moving, and the Holy Spirit was evident throughout. All decisions made at General Conference offered us at all levels of the church the challenge to make disciples,” Jenkins said. “I took every opportunity to consider how I could work with others in this vital calling to grow the church. Every issue raised over our two weeks in Charlotte is solved in two ways: evangelizing and discipling the new United Methodist Church. And as Maya Angelou wrote so eloquently, ‘I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.’ I am grateful to be among the people called United Methodist.” 

Bickerton: ‘We’ve got work to do’

Day One of General Conference kicked off a little after 2 p.m. Tuesday, April 23, with Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton calling for United Methodists worldwide to embrace a future of hope and possibility.

Bickerton, outgoing president of the UMC Council of Bishops, began his message by reading Psalm 46:1-11 before calling upon God for an indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit upon those gathered. Acknowledging the tough season the denomination has experienced, he urged God’s people to move beyond a divided, fractured church to embrace the revival stirring in their midst.

“God is not through with this thing called The United Methodist Church,” Bickerton said to applause.

Instead of further fracture, he urged those gathered to set aside differences and negativity and instead embrace compassion and companionship.

“Do you want to be in this room?” he asked the crowd.

If not, if they’re not willing to move forward, Bickerton said, “Maybe you are in the wrong place.”

“We don’t have time for vendettas and last-gasp jabs,” he said. “Friends, we’ve got work to do. Are you ready to do it?”

He invited all to pray that God’s will be done—not our own.

“The stage is set for us to embark on the next chapter of our life together,” Bickerton preached to a chorus of amens.

Committees and attendees

Week One of General Conference was largely devoted to assessing the 1,000-plus petitions assigned to the body’s 14 legislative committees, each of which had at least one South Carolina delegate assigned: Church and Society 1, Church and Society 2, Church and Society 3, Conferences, Discipleship, Faith and Order, Financial Administration, General Administration, Global Ministries, Higher Education/Superintendency, Independent Commissions, Judicial Administration, Local Church and Ordained Ministry.

By the end of Saturday, Day Five, they had addressed all the petitions, rejecting or approving them to go on to receive a vote by the full body. Any petition approved by a committee must receive a vote in plenary.

Also noteworthy was that—between COVID-19, travel restrictions, deaths, failure to elect reserve delegates and missing passports—not everyone registered for General Conference was actually in attendance. On Day One, out of 862 registered delegates, only 751 were present in person (87 percent). For context, at General Conference 2016, 786 out of 864 were present (91 percent). By Day Six, Diane Brown of the Committee on Credentials reported 765 delegates had been seated (88 percent of the designated number). That 765 comprised 487 from the United States and 278 from central conferences. Brown noted approximately 10 people were still en route from central conferences, leaving 60 who were reportedly “not coming.” Some experienced visa issues while others had medical emergencies.

Brown shared how the process for properly seating delegates for this General Conference began in 2017, but it was rife with a number of issues, from illness to fraud to some conferences not electing delegates.

“We believe this to be a legitimate and properly certified group of delegates,” Brown said of the delegates who had been seated.

Holston preaches episcopal address

South Carolina Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston had the honor of delivering the episcopal address Day Two on behalf of the Council of Bishops. Holston brought a word on staying who God needs us to be in spite of the ever-changing noise of this world.

 “When things are happening all around us, God uses the church to make a difference,” Holston proclaimed before the crowd of delegates and observers gathered April 24. “The church was never built for our pleasure. The church is built for God’s purpose.”

Holston opened the address with an impassioned prayer calling on God to create a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us as we strive to put love first.

“When the world shouts hate, help us to love,” Holston prayed. “When the past won’t let go, help us to love. When we feel broken, betrayed or rejected, help us to love. Even when it seems impossible or doesn’t make sense, help us to love.”

See larger story, here.

Eurasia churches leave UMC

One of the key early votes that occurred in Week One of General Conference allowed four conferences to leave the connection and form an autonomous Methodist church named “The Christian Methodist Church in Eurasia.”

On April 25, General Conference voted yes—672-67—to let the Eurasia churches leave the UMC. Those conferences are the Central Russia, Eastern Russia and Central Asia, Northwest Russia and Belarus, and Southern Russia Provisional conferences.

Petitions pass

After a sabbath rest on Sunday, General Conference gathered Monday, April 29, for Day Six. With all committee work complete, the body turned their sights on considering the host of petitions before them, many of which were lumped into the consent calendar. Unlike previous years, a large number of formerly controversial items were overwhelmingly approved via consent calendar over the next several days—including an end to a 40-year-old ban on “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being clergy, which passed with a 93 percent “yes.”

Consent calendar items are for legislation that passed overwhelmingly in committee that only requires a majority vote and does not have financial implications. It gathers these items in bulk for approval—or rejection—together.

Other items that passed on consent calendars included a formal public apology to Native Hawaiians for the church’s complicity in the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy in 1893; protection for the girl child; a Native American Comprehensive Plan for the UMC; mandated anti-racism training in every conference in the United States; making collegiate ministry a priority of the church; and nurturing of relationships with indigenous persons in each conference.

The consent calendar for Day Six included nearly 200 petitions, with nearly 200 on Day 7, more than 60 on Day Eight, and one that passed Day Nine, on Maternal Health: The Church’s Role, advocating support for paid parental leave, discussion of maternal mortality, access to contraception and accessible and affordable healthcare. The rest were either voted down or considered throughout the week with individual ballots.

Changes in Africa

Also on Day Six, GC passed two stand-alone petitions related to Central Conference matters in Africa. One established a Comprehensive Plan for New Episcopal Areas and Bishops in Africa, shifting the total number of bishops in Africa from 13 to 15. The present Congo Central Conference will get one more bishop, as will the present Africa Central Conference.

The other petition established a comprehensive plan for a new central conference and the renaming of central conferences in Africa. Africa central conferences will now increase from three to four conferences. It will also change the names of these conferences.

Congo Central Conference become the “Mid Africa Central Conference.” Part of the present Africa Central Conference becomes the new “East Africa Central Conference.” The other part of the present Africa Central Conference becomes the “Southern Africa Central Conference.” And the West Africa Central Conference (without a name change) consists of Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivorie, Guinea, Ginea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

A more inclusive church

The close of General Conference ushered in a far more inclusive church than it had been at the start. Many of the petitions that passed did so relatively quietly, included as part of consent calendars.

Others passed on the floor with debate and some amendments. See article, here.

Regionalization passes

Not all agree with the more inclusive stance the delegates took. But the passage of worldwide regionalization petitions will temper this if two-thirds of annual conference voters support a regionalization constitutional amendment.

Regionalization is a package of eight different legislative items that would restructure The United Methodist Church so the different geographic regions in the UMC—the United States, Africa, Europe and the Philippines—would all be able to adapt the Book of Discipline according to their own context. (For instance, if a region decides it cannot support gay clergy, it can choose not to heed that aspect of the Discipline.)

All eight regionalization petitions passed during General Conference, including one creating a U.S. Regional Committee. Because the plan involves a constitutional amendment, ratification of the amendment can only occur if at least two-thirds of annual conference voters support the amendment.

The ratification process begins no later than 30 days after the adjournment of General Conference, which means U.S. annual conferences could begin voting on the amendment in June.

See full article here.

Reduced budget passes

Another huge change is a significant reduction to the budget. When General Conference last met in 2016, it passed a $604 million budget for the last quadrennium. This year, the body passed a budget for 2025-2028 that will reflect a 38 to 41 percent cut and will depend on giving rates in 2025 and 2026.

On the final day of General Conference, May 3, delegates overwhelmingly approved a budget with a bottom line that will vary by about $20 million. Delegates approved a 2025-2028 budget of $373.4 million if collection rates are at 90 percent or more for the next two years. If giving is below that percentage, the budget bottom line will be $353.6 million.

When General Council on Finance and Administration’s top executive the Rev. Moses Kumar presented the budget on Day Two, he urged the crowd to consider how we turn this challenge of reducing the budget into an opportunity.

“I believe God is telling us it’s time to do things differently,” Kumar said.

The denomination’s base rate is used to calculate apportionments churchwide. On April 30, delegates passed a new base rate for the UMC’s apportionment formula, shifting from the current base rate of 3.29 percent to a base rate of 2.6 percent for 2025 and 2026. Then, if the apportionment collection rate is 90 percent or higher in those years, the base rate will jump to 2.9 percent for 2027-2028.

Ultimately, annual conferences will be asked to pay lower apportionments compared to what delegates passed in 2016.

The total budget comprises seven different funds: the World Service Fund, Ministerial Education Fund, Black College Fund, Africa University Fund, Episcopal Fund, General Administration Fund and Interdenominational Cooperation Fund.

The final approved budget adds a fifth mission strategy to the church, shifting the UMC from four areas of focus for the next quadrennium to five.

The five areas of focus are as follows: Leading Where God Calls, Making New Disciples in New Places, Overcoming Poverty Together, Seeking Health and Wholeness for All and the Eradication of Racism, White Supremacy, Patriarchy and Colonialism.

Jurisdictions get more say

Jurisdictions across the United States will have more say about the number of bishops they need, thanks to new legislation.

By May 1 of the gathering, the body had rejected one but passed four of the five petitions recommended by the Jurisdictional Study Committee, eliminating the formula for calculating bishops while guaranteeing at least five bishops per jurisdiction.

General Conference 2016 created the JSC to examine the number, boundaries and missional priorities of the jurisdictions. A diverse group, the committee comprises clergy, laity and bishops from all five jurisdictions—including one from South Carolina, the Rev. Susan Leonard. The JSC presented their report to the body April 30, noting they concluded the current jurisdictions and boundaries are appropriate as is, and that the jurisdictions are in the best position to assess their need for numbers of bishops.

Key is their assessment that the formula used for calculating bishops in each jurisdiction no longer is an accurate reflection of leadership needs. What passed:

• Eliminated the formula for calculating bishops in each jurisdiction;

• Established a minimum number of bishops (five) for each jurisdiction;

• Established a process for jurisdictions to request any additional bishops needed; those that believe they need more than five can discern the number they need;

• Established that if a jurisdiction wants more than five bishops, the jurisdiction, not the denomination, will pay for those additional bishop costs; and

• Authorized the Interjurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy to receive and act on any requests for additional bishops.

The one item that did not pass pertained to episcopal office costs. General Conference elected not to remove episcopal office expenses of jurisdictional bishops from the Episcopal Fund apportionment but to retain the current practice of apportioning the office expenses of the central conference bishops.

The JSC had wanted annual conferences to pay for these expenses.

U.S. jurisdictions allocated 32 bishops

Also at General Conference, delegates voted 631-65 to approve a plan for how many bishops each United States jurisdiction will have given the new rules passed mandating at least five bishops per jurisdiction.

Kim Ingram, of the Interjurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy, offered their unanimous recommendation that 32 bishops will serve the jurisdictions for the 2025-2028 quadrennium as follows:

Southeastern Jurisdiction: 9

Northeastern Jurisdiction: 6

North Central Jurisdiction: 6

South Central Jurisdiction: 6

Western Jurisdiction: 5

In practicality, this means two bishops would need to transfer to the WJ for 2025-2028 and one would need to transfer to the NEJ. Those bishops transferring to the WJ and NEJ would arise out of a lengthy consultation process with all the bishops about their continuing service. Ingram noted a bishop must consent to a transfer.

The 32 represents a reduction from the 39 active bishops currently serving.

It would mean no elections for new U.S. bishops to replace the currently expected seven retirements. It also would mean reducing bishops by natural attrition.  

Two delegates from South Carolina—the Rev. Ken Nelson and Jackie Jenkins—serve on the Interjurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy.

Deacons can now preside at sacraments in their appointments

In another historic moment, General Conference May 2 passed new legislation granting authority to deacons to preside at the sacraments in their ministry settings.

This means deacons can now offer communion and conduct baptisms where they have been appointed to serve, whether that is a church, outreach ministry or mission.

After the vote’s passage, many celebrated the change, which should take effect Jan. 1. Many hugged and wept tears of joy.

The Rev. Karen Jones, a deacon in the South Carolina Conference, is one of the delegates who spoke from the floor in favor of the change, sharing a story of how her also-deacon husband had a spiritually moving experience that crystallized why it’s so important for deacons to have this authorization.

No elders were available, so her husband was granted the authority to give the sacraments at a memory care unit to a woman who at first called the bread “a cookie.”

Yet when the transformed body of Christ touched her tongue, Jones said, “Her eyes lifted as if scales had fallen off, and she said, ‘I know what this is!’”

Jones urged the body to approve the legislation, “So that we may joyfully be obedient to the Holy Spirit in bringing sacraments to a broken world.”

Read full story here.  

Goodbye Para. 2553, hello 2554

Also during General Conference, delegates removed Para. 2553 of the Book of Discipline, also known as “the disaffiliation agreement,” after some debate.

While South Carolina has not been using Para. 2553 for disaffiliation, instead using Para. 2549 for churches wishing to separate from the UMC (see, many other annual conferences had been doing so.

For those that had been using 2553, “The season of disaffiliation ends today,” Conferences Committee Chair Lonnie Chafin said.

Debate ensued on both sides of the issue. Jorgen Thaarup, Denmark, spoke in support of the motion.

“We should never have had a paragraph like this. We should have been much more clear that … splitting the church is a sin.”

Dixie Brewster, Great Plains Conference, spoke against eliminating the pathway for churches to exit.

“We want a way for conservative churches to go peacefully. We will not be disruptive,” Brewster said.

By a vote of 516 to 203, General Conference delegates supported the end of this disaffiliation policy that had been added by the special 2019 General Conference and used by about a quarter of U.S. churches to leave the denomination—more than 7,600 U.S. churches left before it expired at the end of last year.

On its heels, General Conference passed creation of a new paragraph, Para. 2554, that will enable the reentry of disaffiliated churches to the UMC.

“With a spirit of grace, we welcome those churches which have disaffiliated or withdrawn to rejoin The United Methodist Church, the new language reads. “Where applicable, every annual conferences shall have a policy of reaffiliation for the churches seeking to return to the connection.”

The motion was amended by a 386-304 vote to add that each church that reaffiliates must recommit to the trust clause.

The legislation passed 629-96.

From ‘celibacy’ to ‘sexual responsibility’

The final day of General Conference approved new language specifying what clergy are asked to comply with to qualify for ordination.

In their qualifications for ordination, clergy are no longer asked to agree to exercise “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness” but rather now to exercise “social responsibility and faithful sexual responsibility expressed through fidelity, monogamy, commitment, mutual affection and respect, careful and honest communication, mutual consent, and growth in grace and in the knowledge and love of God.”

Originally, the language had advocated changing “celibacy” to “chastity,” as the committee noted celibacy is a misnomer because it can mean remaining unmarried rather than addressing whether a person has conjugal relations.

Sexual misconduct apology

Also on the final day, General Conference issued a heartfelt apology to all who experienced sexual misconduct in church.

The apology, part of a resolution passed in the last hour of General Conference, comes in the spirit of offering healing for all affected.

The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, apologized on behalf of the UMC for the way the church can prevent people from being held accountable for sexual misconduct, thus perpetuating harm within local churches and other ministry settings and damaging the UMC connection.

“The United Methodist Church apologizes for the times we allowed our desire to protect the church to outweigh our desire to care for victims and survivors of sexual misconduct,” Graves said, reading the letter from the stage. 

“We apologize for the times we have not listened to you, doubted your stories, ignored your wounds and have not tended to your pain. We believe this has contributed to allowing an unsafe culture to exist.”

The denomination’s Social Principles maintain that sexual harassment is an exploitation of a power relationship that interferes with the moral mission of the church.

However, many people have been mistreated, abused and assaulted by church leaders, both clergy and lay.

New Council of Bishops President Tracy Smith Malone said the apology provides an opportunity for the church to acknowledge the harm done to survivors and victims of sexual misconduct.

Know that God is God

General Conference ended with a word from Malone, who closed the postponed 2020 General Conference at 6:30 p.m. May 3 by inviting all to walk together and to never grow weary of doing the work of the kin-dom.

“As you go forth, tell the world about Jesus,” Malone said. “As you go, tell them about his love. As you go, be love, be joy, be peace, be patient, be kind, be good, be faithful, be gentle, be the body of Christ.

“As you go, be still and know that God is God, and God can be trusted.”

For more on the 2024 General Conference, see these Advocate articles and also visit

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