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The Good Shepherd and the General Conference of the UMC

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” 

(John 10:11, NRSVue)

This coming Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday because we traditionally read from the shepherd passages in John 10 on the Fourth Sunday of Easter for all three years of the lectionary cycle (John 10:1-10 in Year A, John 10:11-18 in Year B—this year, and John 10:22-30 in Year C). The image of Jesus as an attentive, gentle, and loving shepherd has been significant to me since my earliest recollections of God. From childhood, I remember a painting of Jesus hanging in my elementary Sunday School classroom, with Jesus holding a lamb as he tended his flock. 

I recently purchased a print of a contemporary Good Shepherd image by Susie Grossman. The picture shows a lamb draped across Jesus’ shoulders. The image of Jesus as a gentle shepherd who cares for his sheep is compelling.

The long-term influence of the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is apparent in my emphasis on God’s love manifested in his grace, a theme that permeates every one of my sermons! Indeed, love has been a significant characteristic of Jesus and, since the inception of the church, his followers, too. Tertullian wrote:

“See how these Christians love one another.” –Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220)

These words underscore the timeless relevance of love’s role in the community of believers. Love should be our default response to any person, situation, or decision as Christians. This fact brings me to another topic on my mind.

Beginning April 22, 2024, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and concluding on May 2, 2024, over 800 delegates and potentially a thousand more visitors will gather for the quadrennial meeting of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference. This international gathering brings in United Methodist Christians from all over the world to conduct the business of the UMC. Lisa Keys-Mathews, a member of this congregation and the Conference Lay Leader of the North Alabama Conference of the UMC, is a reserve delegate.

For those familiar with the intricacies of United Methodist governance and structure, the General Conference is the only body that can speak officially for the UMC, and it finalizes legislation that sets the direction of the denomination. It meets every four years unless the Council of Bishops calls a special General Conference, as it did in 2019. COVID-19 caused the postponement of the 2020 General Conference, and much has happened in the last four years, including over 25% of United Methodist Churches disaffiliating. We find ourselves in uncharted territory as we navigate this pivotal time in our denomination. 

The delegates will determine the outcome of legislation on essential matters such as:

  1. Developing a strategy for our UMC’s mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ to transform the world. Participation in religious life is rapidly decreasing, and we must find ways to reach more people with the Good News of God’s love for them. It’s time to reestablish the historic role of United Methodism in shaping the religious landscape wherever there are United Methodists worldwide. 

  2. Discerning whether regionalizing the denomination’s structure for contextual relevance will strengthen the church. Since the churches and cultures in Africa, Europe, Korea, and the Philippines differ from those in the United States, the delegates will vote on plans that allow greater flexibility to adapt to the religious and cultural nuances of a region. 

  3. Discerning the possibility of removing the selective discriminatory language against LGBTQ persons, allowing each pastor and congregation to decide for themselves how best to include all people in the ministry of their church.

Although the delegates will enact the legislation, regardless of what they decide, our church’s role in transforming the world remains a local responsibility. Will we fit Tertullian’s description of Christians in his day as loving as we carry out our mission for Jesus Christ in our community? Will we be characterized as loving people by those who know us? I hope so, and I’m confident we will be!

I hope to see you at church on Sunday to honor Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Don’t forget to invite your friends!

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