The United Methodist Church's top legislative body, the General Conference, will gather April 24–May 4 in Tampa, Florida. 988 delegates from around the world will be setting policy and direction for the church, as well as handling other business. General Conference meets every four years and is the only entity that speaks for The United Methodist Church.
The theme of the 2012 conference is "Make Disciples of Jesus Christ to Transform the World."
The 25-member Commission on the General Conference, led by Randall Miller of Emeryville, Calif., has planned the conference. A local committee from the Florida Annual Conference, under the leadership of Bishop Timothy Whitaker, is hosting the event. The Rev. Jim Harnish, senior pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, is chairman of the host committee. Some 4,000 people will serve in a variety of roles, such as greeters, registration officials, marshals, pages, translators, hosts, guides, drivers, musicians, technicians, reporters and emergency responders. The majority will be volunteers.
The projected cost of the 2012 session is $8.8 million, compared with $7.1 million for the 2008 session and $5.3 million for the 2004 conference. Three percent of the cost is for committee functions and Commission on General Conference expenses; 10 percent covers the cost of the offices of the business manager, treasurer and the secretary of the General Conference; 29 percent is for operations; 18 percent for language services; and 40 percent for delegate expenses.
About $1.7 million of the total will pay delegate travel, and $1.7 million will fund the cost of housing and food — each delegate will be given $125 per diem for meals and housing. The Daily Christian Advocate will cost $400,000, and the computer-tracking system will be $408,000. Renting the convention center is expected to total $160,000. These are examples of what it takes to make General Conference happen.
Sites for the international gathering rotates among the church's five regional U.S. jurisdictions. The 1996 conference was held in Denver, Colorado (Western Jurisdiction), the 2000 conference was held in Cleveland, Ohio (North Central Jurisdiction), the 2004 conference was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Northeastern Jurisdiction) and the 2008 conference was held in Fort Worth, Texas (South Central Jurisdiction). The 2016 General Conference will meet in Portland, Ore. (Western Jurisdiction).
As the top policymaking body of the worldwide United Methodist Church, General Conference is the only body that officially speaks for the more than 12.1-million-member denomination.
During the 11-day session, the 988 delegates will revise The Book of Discipline, which regulates the manner in which local churches, annual conferences and general agencies are organized. The book includes policies regarding church membership, ordination, administration, property and judicial procedures. The assembly may modify most disciplinary paragraphs by a simple majority vote, but amending the constitution requires a two-thirds affirmative vote, followed by a two-thirds affirmative vote of the aggregate number of members voting in annual conference sessions. Revoking or changing the Articles of Religion or the Confession of Faith requires a two-thirds affirmative vote by the delegates; three-fourths of the annual conference members must also agree.
Delegates also revise The Book of Resolutions, a volume declaring the church's stance on a variety of social justice issues. The more than 300 statements in the book are considered instructive and persuasive but are not binding on members.
In addition, the assembly approves plans and budgets for churchwide programs for the next four years and elects members of the Judicial Council and University Senate.
Each annual conference elects equal numbers of lay and clergy delegates to General Conference, and every annual conference is guaranteed at least one lay and one clergy delegate.
Just as the U.S. Congress redistricts every 10 years following a national census, the number of lay and clergy delegates to be elected from each annual conference changes each quadrennium based on the number of lay and clergy members. The Book of Discipline limits the total number of voting delegates to a maximum of 1,000. The 2012 conference has 988 delegates, with an increased number of delegates from Africa and Asia.
Groups of churches in Africa, Asia and Europe are known as "central conferences." Central conferences will have 372 delegates, up 96 from the 2008 assembly and 186 from the gathering in 2004. Of the total, 282 of the central conference delegates will be from Africa, up 90 from 2008. The 24 annual conferences in the Philippines will have 48 delegates, the 21 conferences in Europe will have 42, and an additional 10 delegates will come from "concordat" churches with which the denomination has a formal relationship: four from Great Britain and two each from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the Caribbean and the Americas. The United Methodist Church has special covenant relationships with the Methodist traditions in those countries.
All bishops, active and retired, attend the conference but do not vote and may not speak in plenary sessions without permission from the assembly. Individual bishops preside over business sessions, normally serving for one morning, afternoon or evening period. A General Conference committee selects presiding bishops, and each presiding bishop selects another two bishops to serve as parliamentarians.
The primary source of legislation is petitions from church agencies, organizations and individuals. Petitions must be submitted 210 days before the opening of the conference. Any organization, ordained minister or lay member of the church may petition the General Conference. Approximately 1,200 pieces of legislation are expected at the 2012 assembly.
As in the U.S. Congress, the bulk of General Conference business is conducted in legislative committees, which receive petitions, debate them and determine whether to approve, amend, combine or disapprove them for recommendation to the full body of General Conference.
All proposed legislation — from individuals, organizations, church-wide agencies and annual conferences — is printed in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate.