Thursday, July 7, 2016

Global inequalities in annual conference scheduling and the Methodist news cycle

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

As any reporter knows, there are cycles to the news - periods when stories are more frequent and more significant, and periods when there are fewer stories and/or stories of less significance. While I'm not a reporter, I have discovered over the past several years of running this blog and its associated Twitter account, that there are also cycles to global Methodist news (news about Methodists working together across national boundaries, news about Methodists outside the US, and/or news about Methodists interacting with international issues, either internal or external to the church).

Within that cycle of global Methodist news, June is a slow month. Sure, there have still been stories the last month about the work of Methodists around the globe and stories about international issues such as immigration that affect the church, but the volume is less than other times of year. Undoubtedly this decrease is because much of the attention is focused on more local and regional news coming out of the annual conferences happening in June. Yet if one pushes a little farther on this observation, it becomes apparent how this lull in global Methodist news in June is actually a reflection of geographic inequalities in the United Methodist Church.

First, it's important to point out which annual conferences are meeting in June and which aren't. All of the American annual conferences met between late May and the end of June, mostly in the first two weeks of June. Yet few of the annual conferences from the central conferences met then. Many of those annual conferences already met, earlier in the spring. Thus, the lull in global UMC news in June is because much of the denominational apparatus is focusing on the US for several weeks, more so even than it usually does.

This focus on the US would not necessarily be a problem, but this year's news cycle highlights the significant implications of this schedule of annual conferences especially in years when General Conference has been held. It's not that no annual conferences have taken actions in the past several weeks that will have implications for the denomination as a whole. Varying resolutions on sexuality and reproduction taken by several annual conferences undoubtedly will. It's that it's only American annual conferences which have been meeting and taking those actions.

Thus, the scheduling of annual conferences ends up reinforcing American dominance of the denomination and the link between General Conference and American issues. Not only do the sorts of things that come up at General Conference tend to reflect a particularly American set of cultural understandings, values, and battles, Americans are then given the first chance to react to those issues through annual conferences and thus shape how decisions at General Conference will play out in the life of the denomination.

While the seemingly obvious answer to this problem is to change the schedule of annual conferences, there are dangers here as well. Requiring annual conferences from the central conferences to meet in June is imposing an American standard that may not fit realities in different contexts. Scheduling American annual conferences at more greatly varying times would be another solution, but the situation noted above would still create an incentive for conferences who want to have greater influence to meet in June, just as American states jockey for influential spots in the schedule of presidential primaries and caucuses.

One thing that could make a significant impact regardless of scheduling changes is better and more extensive reporting on annual conferences in the central conferences and the decisions taken there. There is already some of that, but there could be more. I think that greater reporting on these annual conferences could also remind Americans of an important truth: annual conferences are not and should not be just about politics. They're also times for revival, renewal, worship, and fellowship. These elements are also worth a story or two.


  1. Very insightful post, David. It is possible to argue that the central conferences meeting prior to General Conference might also have strategic advantage; to wit, the ability to highlight and shape issues that General Conference will take up weeks later. Of course, to have any real purchase on the actual decision-making of General Conference, these central conference debates and decision-making will need extensive coverage in the United Methodist media. And this brings us to your overall point--we need more deep-running, thorough, and extensive coverage of annual conference events in the central conferences. And, as you point out in your important final paragraph, strategy aside, annual conference meetings are prime opportunities for United Methodists, especially but not only in the U.S., to gain deeper understanding and foster richer relationships with their brothers and sisters across the global connection.

  2. And an Amen to Henk's comments. And a note. Being a global church is a much deeper matter than just structure. Our US calendar is based basically on US agrarian patterns and public school closings. In other words it is thoroughly based in US culture and irrelevant outside the US. However, in our global conversations I still see no accounting for the role of cultural difference as we work toward global structures.