Clergy Delegate to General Conference
Bill T. Arnold, an Elder in full connection with the Kentucky Annual Conference, is Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary. Here Dr. Arnold shares his thoughts as he prepares for this year’s General Conference.
What made you decide to try to become a delegate to General Conference?
Ultimately it was because I wanted to give something back to the ministry and work of the Kentucky Annual Conference. This conference raised and nurtured me. I grew up in its churches, went to its youth camps, and pastored four of its churches. I am learning more and more about the general church now, but initially, it was my commitments to Kentucky Methodism that led me to seek a larger role of service.
I have been a member of this conference since my ordination in 1978. I served in Extension Ministry for 10 years in different conferences while teaching elsewhere, but never transferred my membership. For personal and family reasons, I wanted to maintain my membership in the Kentucky Annual Conference. Then when I joined the faculty of Asbury Seminary in 1995, it seemed providential that I never transferred my conference membership. I was grateful to be home.
At Asbury, we faculty commit 10% of our time to service beyond the Seminary’s needs. This is perceived as an institutional tithe, investing our ministries back into the Church in some way. Most of us travel, frequently internationally, in order to expand our ministries personally and institutionally. In 2002, I felt led to focus my own investment back into my annual conference. I was appointed to the Kentucky Conference Board of Ordained Ministry that year, and have served in that capacity ever since. The heavy workload and meeting schedule of the BOM frequently creates scheduling problems with my academic responsibilities. But when I have been able to participate in the work of the BOM, I have found it to be most gratifying and fulfilling.
I never considered submitting my name for election to General Conference until relatively recently. In 2007, I talked it over with my father, who has been a member of our conference since the 1950s. He encouraged me to submit my profile. Our hope was that I might be able to attend the Jurisdictional Conference to participate in the important business of electing our bishops. To my surprise, I was elected first clergy alternate that year.
What does it mean to you to be a delegate to General Conference?
Obviously, the word that comes to mind here is “honor”; it is an honor of the highest order to be elected by one’s peers to represent Kentucky Methodism in Tampa.
I think all of us in the delegation feel overwhelmed and humbled by the election last June. We have a large number of gifted and talented leaders in our conference, and all of us in the delegation feel honored to have been selected, for whatever reasons. The realization that our peers and friends have put their trust in us is humbling and inspiring. We are committed to doing our best to represent the KAC well, and to hold the trust of our peers as a sacred obligation.
How are you preparing for General Conference?
Our delegation has been actively preparing ourselves, ably led by Debbie Wallace-Padgett and Carol Ackley. We began immediately after annual conference last summer with emails and conference calls, continued with a two-day retreat last fall, another conference call in November, a meeting in January, and another in March.
As part of this process, Debbie asked Mike Powers and me to focus on the Call to Action. He and I interviewed three leaders in our denomination, who were involved in the research and writing of the Call to Action, and then we gave a presentation to our delegation in September at our retreat. This is, without doubt, one of the most important initiatives coming before the General Conference this year.
The work itself is interesting. Besides the mundane tasks of arranging housing and travel, both to General Conference and to Jurisdictional Conference, there is the important task of making assignments to Legislative Committees. I requested and was given the “Faith and Order” Legislative Committee assignment. This LC is responsible for all petitions related to the Book of Discipline, paragraphs 101-104, 120-142, and 301-304. The Advance Daily Christian Advocate has now arrived, with two large volumes of petitions and proposals. I have been preparing by studying the ones submitted to Faith and Order and by having informal conversations with members of the Faith and Order Legislative Committee from other delegations. I have also been contacted by a handful of people that I can only call “lobbyists.” They are well intentioned, and I try always to respond to their e-mails and phone calls. But I’m learning that they can also be distracting.
What aspect of General Conference are you most looking forward to? Is there anything about the experience you don’t look forward to or that you think will be challenging?
I look forward to the worship experiences. One could easily criticize the way we United Methodists do church, especially church politics. But one thing is certain: we do worship well in these events. I know I will also enjoy the fellowship. I genuinely like the members of our Kentucky delegation, and I have thoroughly enjoyed our preparation. I expect the fellowship will be great during General and Jurisdictional Conferences. I also have a number of friends from other conferences’ delegations, and I look forward to working closely with them.
Of course, the challenging parts of General Conference are well known. No matter how many good decisions we make, or how our decisions better position United Methodism to win people to Christ and change the world, the controversial social issues will get most of the national media attention. If this is like General Conferences of recent decades, Tampa will provide several “gut-check” moments. I would be less than honest if I said I didn’t dread those moments. I especially do not look forward to the crowds of protestors and lobbyists demonstrating outside the conventional hall trying to get our attention as we enter for work, talking and sometimes shouting at us. I understand their passion and their interests, but most are not United Methodists, and many are bused in as support for various causes.
Have you attended General Conference before? If so, what was your experience then? How do you think this General Conference will be different?
I was First Clergy Alternate in 2008 in Fort Worth. Our delegation at that time, again led by Debbie Wallace-Padgett on the clergy-side, was very intentional about having full representation on the floor at all times, so that I was on the floor and voting quite a lot. That year, I also attended three separate Legislative Committees in order to be well informed about a number of issues. I now see that experience as preparing me for this year because my role will be quite different this time. But I am grateful I had that opportunity to serve as a utility infielder because I learned so much from the various roles I had to fill.