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UM Social Org Campaigns For Ordination Of Gay Bishop In West

MFSA Suggests Jurisdictional Alternative to General Policies

By Bruce Pettit

Walnut Creek -- February 4, 2004

Reorienting the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church may be a solution to keeping the United Methodist Church viable to more liberal thinking, representatives of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) suggested Jan. 31 to the California-Nevada Annual Conference delegation to General Conference.

"The Constitution of The United Methodist Church gives a jurisdiction considerable power to govern itself," wrote Richard Bentley of the California-Pacific MFSA chapter in a discussion paper now being circulated by the Cal-Nevada chapter. "It may be time for the Western Jurisdiction to use this power to help United Methodism not only survive, but thrive in the very unique social setting and culture which exists in the western part of the United States."

The quadrennial Western Jurisdictional Conference will be held in San Jose July 14-17. Its main job will be to elect a projected two bishops for the western part of the country. But Bentley said the jurisdiction can also assert itself in other ways. He quotes the UMC constitution: Jurisdictions may "promote the evangelistic, education, missionary, and benevolent interests of the Church and …provide for interests and institutions within their boundaries."

In 2000 the Western Jurisdictional Conference passed a resolution, "We Will Not Be Silent," as a pointed policy difference with the General Church on the issue of sexual orientation. Bentley is now suggesting it go farther in taking action on that and any other differences - in his words, "to provide for its special needs in these areas which are not being met by the national church."

Odette Lockwood-Stewart, a clergy jurisdictional delegate, was excited by the Bentley paper and said she will facilitate meetings about possible implementation.

Cal-Nevada's MFSA chapter intends to provide hospitality to Western Jurisdictional delegates in July, it announced.

MFSA and the General Board of Church and Society are pushing General Conference resolutions that contend the UMC has differing opinions on sexual orientation matters, and urge deletion of language from the Book of Discipline that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teachings."

MFSA said another important area it is concerned about is theological integrity -- keeping openness in thought, rather than reducing the process to creedal statements. Lee Williamson, the MFSA membership secretary, urged the California-Nevada delegates to watch particularly for legislation regarding the University Senate that may attempt to restrict academic freedom. Jean Reynolds, a Cal-Nevada MFSA co-convenor, reported the group has offered legislation to have women number a minimum of 10, rather than 5, on the University Senate.

Loran Berck, a clergy jurisdictional delegate, said that there is a move developing to remove the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley, and the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, from the approved list of seminaries for United Methodist students.

MFSA also urged the delegation to begin thinking early about candidates for bishop. Without endorsing anyone, it offered some names to think about, including a gay man.

Basic Pay Outside U.S.

Paul Dirdak, a clergy reserve delegate, is also deputy secretary for the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) for UMCOR (the United Methodist Committee on Relief). He reported to the delegation some challenges facing the church in this time of financial shortages.

One main challenge will be paying pastors in other nations, who are not guaranteed pay as they are in the United States. GBGM is proposing to General Conference that the UMC study, over the next four years, offering a "minimum survival allowance" for pastors in the Central Conferences (outside the U.S.). Dirdak said that in some cash-based economies, bishops give pastors some cash as they appoint them, and that cash might be their only pay for a year. Some pastors exist by "eating tree leaves," he said. Recently the General Council of Ministries provided Bulgaria with some emergency, one-time funds after a special plea by GBGM.

Dirdak said that the UMC is in an expansive period of growth in other parts of the world -- that 11 nations have joined its worldwide umbrella recently. There may not be similar empathy for Latin American churches that became autonomous from the UMC over the past generation as an extension of liberation theology. Dirdak said he personally disagrees with arguments to abandon Latin America.

Before General Conference may be legislation to limit the Women's Division of the GBGM. Some conservatives are contending that the Women's Division is too powerful and has plenty of money. He would counter that it is not powerful enough and has not enough money.

Dirdak has a differing view from Ben Silva-Netto, a clergy general conference delegate, on whether mission and money should be merged under a new "Connectional Table." Silva-Netto contends mission discussions are shortchanged when they are not part of financial discussions; Dirdak maintained that, when money and mission were linked before, finance always dominated - the reason they were then separated.

Better U.S. Retirement

Some Cal-Nevada delegates noted an irony that, while GBGM will try to get pastors outside the U.S. simple basic pay, the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits (GBPHB) will be proposing that U.S. pastors be better protected in retirement benefits - changes that would not benefit pastors in other nations.

Jeanne Featherstone, a GBPHB actuary, outlined to the California-Nevada delegation changes that will be before General Conference and would, if adopted, take effect in 2007.

The roiling stock market of this quadrennium has meant that pastors take considerable risk with their pensions as they designate investment choices in the church's retirement system. GBPHB is proposing to General Conference that most of that risk be switched to the pension plan itself, by implementing a "defined benefit" - guaranteed sums to retirees. During stock market downturns, the denomination would have 20 years to make up what it loses, Featherstone explained. Recovery is considered a guarantee because, historically, in every ten-year period the economy does well part of the time. About one-quarter of pension plans would remain in investments that would be participant risk.

GBPHB is also proposing to General Conference, meeting April 27 through May 7 in Pittsburgh, that all local church or annual conference lay employees who have completed a year of service receive a pension benefit from a contribution of at least 3 percent of compensation.

Empowering Laity

Donna Hamilton, the conference director of lay speaking, urged the delegation to reject changes that the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD) has substituted for four proposals that originally came from the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders (AACLL).

The AACLL proposals are meant to strengthen the laity, which is a philosophy the General Church is supposed to be advancing, Hamilton said. GBOD struck from one AACLL measure a requirement that conference lay leaders be included in any Cabinet discussions that consider matters relating to coordination, implementation, or administration of conference programs. GBOD wanted their presence by invitation, not requirement, so it put in separate legislation. In another proposal, AACLL suggested that a conference lay leader serve "as a partner in ministry with the bishop." GBOD wants to strike that phrase, thus gutting a major laity thrust of the UMC, Hamilton maintained.
Bruce Pettit is a member of the Conference Communications Commission and a lay jurisdictional delegate.



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