UMC Conference Timeline
For more than 50 years, Richard Peck attended 12 sessions of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. He writes about it in “Then and Now”. See a snapshot of the conference in the timeline below.
• Of the 588 delegates present, 76 represented 27 conferences outside the United States, including Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Burma, Chile, China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, India, Japan, Korea, Liberia, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines and Sweden.
• Delegates all had badges resembling military awards with color ribbons and medallions designating their role as bishop, delegate, alternate or staff member. Badges served as passes to cookie tables.
• The convention center had a retractable roof, and organizers decided to roll the roof open to unveil the stars during an evening worship service. When they opened the roof, incoming winds blew papers all over the convention hall. It was not the kind of drama organizers expected.
• The Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church joined to create the United Methodist Church.
• Jimmy Carter, then governor of Georgia, spoke to the assembly, but the most memorable address came from the Rev. Cecil Williams, a controversial pastor in San Francisco. He was scheduled to speak in a local church, but the crowd was so large they moved the meeting to the assembly hall and the supposed minor figure occupied all the headlines during and after the event.
1976, Portland, Ore.
• Floyd Kalber (1924-2004), news anchor for NBC’s “Today” show, narrated the Newscope Reports, a series of audiotape reports before, during and after the assembly.
• A television ministry was launched with great fanfare, but costs far exceeded benefits.
“It’s difficult to imagine that only 30 years ago, we were still selling audiotapes and slides as the best way for delegates to tell church members what happened at General Conference.”
• Delegates celebrated 200 years of Methodist history in America with a special service and two circuit riders who arrived on horseback.
• For the first time, a woman bishop, Marjorie Swank Matthews of Wisconsin, preached the opening sermon.
“I spent much of the conference learning the ropes of becoming the editor of the Daily Christian Advocate for the next assembly. While it’s tiring to be a delegate or a member of the press corps, few people appreciate the fact that when delegates go home, DCA staff members will work until 1 a.m., and return to work the following morning by 8 a.m.”
1988, St. Louis
• Audiotapes of sermons continued to be sold at the conference. “I Could Have Danced All Night” by Bishop Woodie White was a huge seller.
• All petitions were called to be printed in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate. Previously, only petitions from general agencies were included.
“My mother died on the opening day of General Conference, and I flew to Denver for the funeral. I learned that General Conference is not really as life-changing as I had presumed, and the death of your mother changes the rest of your life. I also learned that I was not indispensable: I missed three days of the gathering and delegates still received copies of the Daily Christian Advocate on time.”
1992, Louisville, Ky.
• Delegates created Shalom Zones, or emergency relief areas, after riots broke out in Los Angeles following the acquittal of four white police officers accused in the Rodney King beating. Three years of planning for General Conference were set aside to address the riots in Los Angeles.
“While some regret that the issue sidetracked the assembly, I rejoice in the fact that the denomination set aside its carefully planned agenda to address a world event.”
• The PETS system, a legislative proposal tracking system, was introduced and for the first time, someone on the Advocate staff transcribed all speeches in plenary sessions. A spotter on the dais would help transcribers identify speakers, acronyms and obscure words.
• For the first time, all 2,433 petitions were printed in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate.
• First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke to the assembly.
• A group protesting the convention’s stance on homosexuality demonstrated outside the hall, and 191 people were arrested for blocking an exit outside the convention center. The next day, a protest resulted in the arrest of 30 individuals, including two bishops. One demonstrator stood on a balcony railing and appeared ready to throw herself some 20 feet to the floor below. One unheralded usher pulled the woman back, an action that probably saved her life.
“Of all the memories I have of 12 General Conference sessions, none is more compelling than the image of a woman ready to jump from the balcony. Those 10 seconds clearly demonstrated the emotions involved in what to some may be only an academic debate.”
• After entering all petitions into PETS, the computers crashed (thanks to the “Love Bug” virus that hampered everyone’s computer that week).
• A service was held to thank African Americans for staying with the denomination in spite of racist structures.
• Côte d’Ivoire was welcomed in as the denomination’s largest regional conference.
“At this conference, I served as an editor for United Methodist News Service and I got more sleep than I did as editor of the Advocate. The opportunity to view the conference from another position helped me appreciate how important all posts are to putting General Conference together. It’s easy to forget how hard the host committee, ushers, the secretaries and some 3,000 volunteers work. Meeting for less than two weeks once every four years, the conference rewrites nearly 2,000 pages of legislation. If state legislators were as efficient, they would finish their work in one-tenth the time they now gather.”
2008, Fort Worth, Texas
• Delegates took the first step to amend the Constitution to make it appear less like a U.S. church with overseas satellites.
2012, Tampa, Fla.
• The conference turned out to be stressful and, in some ways, unsuccessful. The Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table worked for three years on ways to increase the vitality of local churches. The legislative committee opposed all three exhaustive plans proposed during the event. A fourth plan, Plan UMC, was introduced as a compromise. The plan passed, but was later ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council, or the church’s version of a Supreme Court. As a result, no new structure was implemented.