Religion

United Methodists gather for quadrennial conference in Tampa

TAMPA -- Parishioners and clergy from Methodist churches in Manatee County are getting a rare chance to see first-hand how their church really works.

Members of the United Methodist Church, including clergy, bishops and laypeople from around the world, are in Tampa for the denomination's 2012 General Conference.

The two-week conference, held every four years, gathers nearly 1,000 delegates who will decide policy and the direction for the church, and debate other matters. The Rev. Catherine Fluck Price, co-pastor at Harvest United Methodist Church in Lakewood Ranch, is one of only 11 delegates and two alternates representing Florida.

She and her fellow delegates will be busy. There are about 1,500 separate pieces of legislation, called petitions, submitted for review. These petitions affect nearly every area of ministry and administration of the 12 million-member denomination.

As an alternate delegate four years ago, Price knows long days are the norm, noting committee meetings start as early as 8 a.m. and evening meetings can go as late as 11 p.m. "It's exhausting," she said.

The United Methodists will tackle thorny issues this time

around, including homosexuality. While opinions within the UMC are divided, the current official policy cited in the domination's Book of Discipline does not allow gays or lesbians to assume leadership roles.

"The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church," it states.

"And we argue a lot about that," said Price. There are at least 20 petitions submitted dealing with human sexuality for delegates to consider in Tampa. Among them are proposals to allow United Methodist ministers to perform same-sex marriages, and to allow openly gay and lesbian persons to be ordained.

The discussions take up "a lot of time and energy. It's not one of the issues I wish we would spend a lot of time talking about," she said.

Instead, Price is excited about the UMC's "Call to Action," which addresses several major concerns: developing leaders, creating new congregations and renewing existing ones, engaging in ministry with the poor, and eliminating diseases of poverty by improving health globally.

To do that, the UMC will be restructuring itself.

"We're a large denomination," said Price. "We have a lot of agencies and boards, and through this process, we'll be looking at restructuring all of those agencies, trying to consolidate, to reform some of our systems."

The United Methodist Church has seen four decades of membership decline, Price said, "and we have an aging and predominantly Anglo constituency, and we're declining in worship attendance and professions of faith and baptisms."

The church has also had difficulty attracting younger people. "So we really want to address these things," she said.

To help the delegates do the work of the conference, a small army of church volunteers gathers each day to register participants, stuff information packets, serve as ushers and perform a hundred other tasks that keep the conference on track.

The Rev. James Rosenberg, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Bradenton, was at the convention center this week, manning a registration counter and stuffing welcome packets.

"Our job is to make this as pleasant an experience as possible," he said.

A General Conference is exciting, Rosenberg explained. "This is the biggest thing that can happen to us as pastors," he said. "This only happens every four years."

The last time Rosenberg attended a conference was in 1968, when the Methodist Church merged with the United Brethren Church to become the United Methodist Church.

He says the conference offers a unique opportunity.

"It's meeting people from all over the world, and getting a chance to re-establish friendships with people I've known," he said.

Price readily agreed. "Seeing friends and colleagues from across the UM connection is always a treat. And one of the best gifts of General Conference is meeting other delegates from around the world, making new friends, and growing relationships with folks I would never otherwise meet," she said.

She also is looking forward to the worship at the conference, which she describes as "very powerful and inspiring."

While most people in the pews back in Bradenton won't be attending, what happens at a General Conference will affect them. "We make the rules that we live by at this conference, so it affects the way that we order our business in the local church," Rosenberg said.

He also says the pending restructuring will allow the church to be more effective. "It's going to be really interesting to see what the final organization looks like. We have to do some things to cut the costs. We have to be more efficient," he said.

The conference, which started Tuesday and ends next Friday, offers free web streaming of events in Tampa, plus a smart phone app, news, multimedia coverage and more at www.umc.org.

Jim DeLa, Herald night metro editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011.

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