When United Methodists from around the world gather in Fort Worth next week, they will focus on developing Christian leaders, starting new churches, ministering to the poor and eliminating some killer diseases more likely to be found among the poverty-stricken.
During the 10-day General Conference, which begins Wednesday, the policy-making group of nearly 1,000 delegates also will examine how to make the denomination's of more than 11 million members more relevant to young people, said Iowa Bishop Gregory Palmer, incoming president of the Council of Bishops.
"We're hoping this time together will transcend any routine legislation," he said. "We hope we really put heart and mind and spirit together to reaffirm our central mission and chart the way forward on how to pursue it."
The delegates - half of them clergy, half laity - meet once every four years. This year, they will consider more than 1,600 petitions, which run the gamut from encouraging healthier lifestyles of clergy to divestment in Israel to reconsidering bans on same-sex unions.
"I hope our conference will be respectful and loving despite passionate debate about things like human sexuality," Palmer said.
United Methodist membership has declined in the United States for the past 40 years while growing in Africa and elsewhere, so more delegates will be coming from abroad than at previous conferences, denomination officials say.
"We need to develop leadership to create new places for new congregations," Palmer said. "We need to revitalize older ones and minister to the poor. And we need to stamp out killer diseases identified by the United Nations and World Health Organization as more likely to be found among impoverished people: malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis."
Keeping the youth
For the first time, the conference will include a Young People's Address, delivered by six young people, about social justice, diversity and love of all people, said Matt Lockett, 20, of Seattle, a biochemistry major at Western Washington University in Bellingham.
He said some young Methodists find the church irrelevant and have found ministries in bars, libraries and parks - ways to be modern and innovative outside the physical space of the church, ways that are less public. But the church is making an effort to put them in a position so that they are not just secretaries or pages at the conference," Lockett said.
"Meaningful responsibilities is going to be the key to providing them a reason to come back. They need an opportunity to be heard and seen and interact with older congregations."
Eliminating racial factors
The petitions from churches, agencies and individuals propose changes in the Book of Discipline, which is church law, and the church's Social Principles, which sets out the church's stance on social issues but is non-binding.
Each petition will be sent to one of 13 committees, which will study them and make recommendations to the delegates.
One major proposal is to make the church's five U.S. jurisdictions into a regional body similar to conferences outside the United States.
"The gist of the proposal is that ... it essentially puts everyone on a level plane," said the Rev. Tim Bruster, senior pastor of Fort Worth's First United Methodist Church. He is lead delegate from the 26-county Central Texas Conference.
Regional conferences are in Central and Southern Europe, Congo, Germany, Northern Europe, the Philippines and West Africa.
The change would also remove racial implications, Bruster said.
"In the days of segregation, the church had central jurisdictions in the United States that were African-American, and the term carries that connotation," he said.
A change in organization would require a two-thirds majority of delegates and later, a two-thirds aggregate majority at annual conferences.
The debate on homosexuality, begun at the 1972 General Conference, will continue, conference organizers said.
The Book of Discipline states that all people are welcome to become members of churches and receive sacraments. At subsequent conferences, delegates reaffirmed that homosexuals are people of "sacred worth" equal to that of heterosexuals, and that the church should welcome people of all sexual orientations. But the church’s Social Principles states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
Some petitions ask that the wording about incompatibility be replaced with an acknowledgment that Christians differ on what Christian teaching reveals about gender and homosexuality.
Some petitioners want to delete the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman; others want to keep it intact.
Organizations representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will hold vigils and other activities outside and near the Fort Worth Convention Center during the conference. Among them will be Soulforce, Affirmation, Reconciling Ministries Network and Methodist Federation for Social Action. The four groups want conference delegates to reconsider the ban on same-sex unions and ordination of gay clergy and to make a policy allowing transgender clergy, said the Rev. Troy G. Plummer, executive director for Reconciling Ministries Network.
Also expected to stir controversy are petitions dealing with divestment in some countries.
However, the United Methodist social action agency last week said it would withdraw its petition calling for divestment from Caterpillar Inc., which makes heavy equipment that Israel uses to raze Palestinian properties that Israelis believe are connected to terrorist activities.
The agency - the United Methodist Board of Church and Society - made its decision after talks with Caterpillar, agency officials said. As delegates consider controversial issues and plan for the denomination's future, it will be vital for them to reaffirm the 18th-century roots of the United Methodist church, founded by John Wesley, Palmer said.
A modern-day summary of those: Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.
"We don't intend to vote on these rules; we hope to re-elevate them," Palmer said.
The conference, with about 7,000 people expected to attend or serve as delegates, is expected to generate more than $19 million for the Fort Worth economy, primarily through hotel lodging and meals at area restaurants, said Kelly Campbell, vice president of marketing communications for the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Shuttle buses from 27 Fort Worth hotels will run from 6 a.m. to midnight daily to the conference, she said.
(This report includes information from the United Methodist News Service and United Methodist Reporter.)
When: Wednesday through May 2
Where: Fort Worth Convention Center, 1201 Houston St., Fort Worth
Tracking petitions: calms.umc.org/2008/
-- Wednesday, 6 p.m.: Opening worship led by Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of Houston and Bishop Gregory Palmer
-- Thursday, 8 a.m.: "The Future with Hope" address by Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher of Illinois
-- Thursday, 11:30 a.m.: "Many Voices, One Call," Young People’s Address
-- Thursday, 2:30 p.m.: "Disciples Transforming the World" address by Laity Leader Lyn Powell of Georgia
-- April 29, 2:30 p.m.: Address by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, president of the Republic of Liberia
United Methodist facts
-- The United Methodist Church was created April 23, 1968, when The Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church merged.
-- The church's roots are in the Protestant Reformation and the theology of 18th-century clergyman and evangelist John Wesley, founder of Methodism.
-- There are more than 11 million United Methodists worldwide, nearly 8 million in the United States.
-- General rules of Methodism are to avoid doing wrong, do good to everyone you can and pursue spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship and Scripture reading.
Sources: www.umc.org and Christianity’s Family Tree by Adam Hamilton