GC2016: How General Conference Works

Delegates and visitors fill the plenary hall in the May 1 afternoon celebration of Pan-Methodist Full Communion at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. On the screen are Bishop Sharon Rader and Bishop John White. A UMNS Photo by Kathleen Barry.


General Conference, the top legislative body of The United Methodist Church, meets May 10-20, 2016, at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. The center is billed as the largest convention facility in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Some 864 delegates, elected from around the world, will gather to set policy and direction for the church, as well as handle other important business. Meeting every four years, General Conference is the only entity that speaks for the denomination. The United Methodist Book of Discipline, updated every four years, incorporates changes made by General Conference.

At its October 2013 meeting, the 25-member Commission on the General Conference voted to reduce the number of delegates for the 2016 General Conference from nearly 1,000 to approximately 850. The 2012 General Conference shifted the responsibility for determining the target number of delegates from the secretary of the General Conference to the commission, offering the rationale that it should not be the decision of only one person.

The theme of the 2016 General Conference is “Therefore Go.” The Commission on the General Conference selected the theme in 2013. United Methodist Communications developed the logo as an action-themed graphic that ties to the roots of The United Methodist Church in the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19-20). That passage reads, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Commission on the General Conference, led by Judi Kenaston, a laywoman and secretary of the West Virginia Annual Conference, planned the conference. A local committee from the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference, under the leadership of Bishop Grant Hagiya of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area, is conference host. William “Bill” Haden, Portland, and the Rev. Steve Sprecher, Lake Oswego, are co-chairs of the host committee. Some 4,000 people, many of them volunteers, will serve in a variety of roles, such as greeters, registration officials, marshals, pages, translators, guides, drivers, musicians, technicians, reporters and emergency responders.

Projected cost of the 2016 General Conference is $10,532,800, compared with $8,654,406 for the 2012 session. The changing global nature of The United Methodist Church, due in part to the rapidly growing membership in central conferences, resulted in increases to two of the four major General Conference financial drivers. One is the cost of language services, increasing from $380,000 in 2000 to an estimated $2.3 million in 2016; the other is travel expenses. In 2012, the average travel cost for each delegate from within the United States was approximately $493, while the average travel cost for delegates from central conferences was approximately $3,000 each. As representation from central conferences grows, so likewise does the total cost of travel for delegates.

Percentage breakdowns are approximate:

  • Delegate expenses, including travel and per diem, 32 percent;
  • Operations, including convention center and equipment, publishing and distribution of the Daily Christian Advocate (DCA) and Advance DCA, software, worship, music and other business expenses, 24 percent;
  • Language services, including translation and interpretation, 22 percent;
  • General Conference staff offices, including business manager, secretary and treasurer, 15 percent;
  • Commissions and committees, 5 percent; and
  • Sponsorship expenses, 2 percent.

Per-diem allocations for delegates are Tuesday, May 10, $92 for hotel, plus $39 for meals; Wednesday, May 11, through Saturday, May 14, $92 for hotel, $29 for meals (lunch is provided those days); and Sunday, May 15, through Friday, May 20, $92 for hotel, $39 for meals.

The Commission on the General Conference launched a sponsorship program for the 2012 conference intended to create an income stream that may permit repayment of any accumulated deficit. The program will continue in 2016.

The Site

The site of the international gathering has traditionally rotated among the church’s five regional U.S. jurisdictions. Since 1968, General Conference has convened in the following cities:

1968    Dallas, Texas (uniting conference)
1970    St. Louis, Missouri (special session)
1972    Atlanta, Georgia
1976    Portland, Oregon
1980    Indianapolis, Indiana
1984    Baltimore, Maryland
1988    St. Louis, Missouri
1992    Louisville, Kentucky
1996    Denver, Colorado
2000    Cleveland, Ohio
2004    Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
2008    Fort Worth, Texas
2012    Tampa, Florida
2016    Portland, Oregon

The 2020 General Conference will be in Minneapolis in the North Central Jurisdiction. The Commission on the General Conference voted to hold the conference outside the United States for the first time in 2024, selecting Manila, Philippines, and again in 2028, selecting  Harare, Zimbabwe.

Mobile App and Online Coverage

The 2016 mobile app is available for both Android and iOS devices. The iOS app, available on the iTunes store, will work on all Apple devices running iOS 7.1 or above. The Android app, available on the Google Play store, works on all Android devices running Android 2.3.3 or above. The apps will help interested people keep up-to-date on the latest developments as General Conference nears. Additional features will be added, with the first update scheduled in January 2016. Some of these include maps, schedules and petition tracking. The final update is scheduled for April 2016.

Delegates and others can follow the proceedings on the General Conference website at http://gc2016.umc.org (or umc.org/gc2016). You can also follow General Conference on Facebook and Twitter using #UMCGC. Features will include news coverage in multiple languages, with daily summaries, feature stories and videos, such as interviews with delegates, volunteers and other key individuals. All plenary sessions, worship services, episcopal and laity addresses, and other special events will be live streamed. Users can track petitions and obtain general information about the legislative process. Plenary transcripts and consent calendars will post  each day.

A daily schedule of events will be posted, as well as practical information for delegates and visitors, such as information about Portland, the convention center and maps. Multimedia videos and photos from conference events will post. Delegates can go to the website to find committee assignments, seating changes and the delegate list. Journalists can access a glossary, background on General Conference and credentialing procedures.

In 2016, the Advance Daily Christian Advocate will also have a digital component and be available in the electronic publication (EPUB) format, which allows copious digital note taking for anyone with a tablet.

Main Tasks

As the top policymaking body of the global United Methodist Church, General Conference is the only entity that speaks for the 12.3 million-member denomination.

During the 11-day session, delegates will revise The Book of Discipline, which regulates the manner in which local churches, annual conferences and general agencies are organized. The Discipline includes policies regarding church membership, ordination, administration, property and judicial procedures. The assembly may modify most paragraphs by a simple majority vote, but amending the Constitution of The United Methodist Church 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 Confession of Faith requires a two-thirds affirmative vote of the delegates, and three-fourths of the annual conference members must concur.

Delegates also revise the Book of Resolutions, a volume declaring the church’s stance on social justice issues. The 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.

Key People

Each U.S. 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.

The number of lay and clergy delegates for each annual conference to elect changes every four years (known as a quadrennium) based on the number of lay and clergy members. The Book of Discipline limits the total number of delegates to 1,000. Article I of Section II of the United Methodist Constitution mandates that the General Conference shall be composed of no fewer than 600 or more than 1,000 delegates, half clergy and half laity, to be elected by the annual conferences in an open and fair process. In 2016, 504 delegates (58.3 percent) will come from annual conferences in the United States.

Groups of churches in Africa, Asia and Europe are central conferences. In 2016, central conferences will have 350 delegates. This is eight delegates fewer than 2012, but a proportional increase since the previous General Conference had 988 delegates. Of the central conference delegates, 260 (30 percent) are from Africa, 40 from Europe and Eurasia, 50 from the Philippines and 10 from “concordat” churches with which United Methodism has formal relationships. These represent special covenant relationships with Methodist churches in Great Britain, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the Caribbean and the Americas. 

All bishops, active and retired, attend General Conference but do not vote and may not speak in plenary sessions without permission from the assembly. Individual bishops preside over business sessions, customarily serving for one morning, afternoon or evening period. A General Conference Committee selects presiding bishops, and each presiding bishop selects a bishop colleague to serve as a parliamentarian.

Conference Officials
The secretary of the General Conference is the Rev. L. Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist II, a member of the Susquehanna Annual Conference. The treasurer is Moses Kumar, general secretary of the General Council on Finance and Administration. Sara Hotchkiss, a staff executive with the General Council on Finance and Administration, is business manager. She is chief administrative officer of the Commission on the General Conference.

Judicial Council
The United Methodist Judicial Council will meet to decide if questions related to constitutionality emerge during the conference. The Rev. William B. Lawrence, a member of the North Texas Annual Conference and dean of Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, leads the council, the denomination’s highest judicial body, or “court.” The General Conference elects its nine members. The Judicial Council determines the constitutionality of acts or proposed acts of the General, jurisdictional, central and annual conferences. It acts on these either on appeal of lower rulings or through requests for declaratory decisions. It also rules on whether acts of other official bodies of the denomination conform to the Book of Discipline. This follows procedures established in the Discipline.

Worship and Music Director
The Commission on the General Conference named the Rev. Laura Jaquith Bartlett of Eagle Creek, Oregon, worship and music director for the 2016 United Methodist General Conference. Bartlett is president-elect of The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts and program director at the Alton L. Collins Retreat Center, as well as worship coach for several United Methodist churches. Her experience in leading music and worship spans more than two decades. She is an ordained deacon in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and a three-time delegate to General Conference, serving as head of her delegation in 2012.

Other Participants
More than 2,500 visitors are expected for the duration of General Conference. These will include all members of the General Council on Finance and Administration and the Connectional Table. Chief executive officers of the 12 United Methodist general agencies and the Connectional Table will also attend. Members of the church and secular press will provide coverage. Numerous United Methodist members and other interested individuals will receive credentials to sit in the visitors’ gallery.

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 1,000 pieces of legislation are expected at the 2016 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.

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