As United Methodist leaders from around the world gather in Portland, Ore., for the 2016 General Conference, Wesley Theological Seminary is very well represented. Not only is Wesley President, the Rev. Dr. David McAllister-Wilson, there but also Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Rev. Beth Ludlum, and innumerable alumni and board members who are delegates.
So are a dozen current Wesley students, some attending General Conference for the first time. They are students in Ludlum’s course about General Conference taught this academic term.
The seminary has a display table in the exhibit hall at the Portland Convention Center, enabling Wesley to network with leaders throughout the church, answer questions, and to tell the good news of what Wesley is doing in the world, says Ludlum.
And since General Conference is the place where changes to the Book of Discipline are made, Wesley is there to monitor legislation that affects theological education which, Ludlum says, could be anything from changing ordination or continuing education requirements for clergy, to the distribution of the Ministerial Education Fund or the future of the University Senate.
“We will gather with other leaders in United Methodist education for a Higher Education event while here, at which all delegates are exposed to the breadth and importance of UM higher education on both the undergraduate and graduate levels,” Ludlum says. “We are connecting with and supporting alumni who are engaged in the challenging work of being a voting delegate, trying to influence and perfect legislation for the future of the church.”
Accompanied by some of her General Conference students to Portland, Ludlum is excited by her students having the rare opportunity to leave the classroom and walk onto the floor of General Conference, to see all they have studied lived out in real time.
“We’re helping our students understand both the beauty and the challenges of our current polity as it is lived out through General Conference,” Ludlum says, “so that they can be more informed, faithful, and influential leaders throughout their ministerial careers.”
The course is held every four years in conjunction with the General Conference. The goal is to examine leadership, worship, and mission in a global church. During the advance sessions, students engaged in conversation with major church leaders, including the president of the Council of Bishops, the Executive Secretary of the Connectional Table, and the Worship Leader for General Conference, each of whom provides insight into the content and context of the primary issues facing United Methodism as a global church.
The course leaders provided history and context for understanding the format and content of General Conference. The students also read and discussed major pieces of legislation, then tracked one piece of legislation through committee and to its result. Onsite, the students are engaged in morning sessions with various leaders, networking with other United Methodist seminarians, and are interviewing leaders for a final paper.
The course has been happening for a long time, Ludlum said. The change this year is that the advance sessions were held online in order to include two UMC students at Vanderbilt who wished to learn about General Conference but didn’t have a course at their school.
Rebecca Goltry is a Wesley Theological Seminary M.Div. student and Urban Fellow. From the Great Plains Conference, this is the first time she’s attended General Conference.
“I took the course on General Conference because I knew it would be a way to critically engage with course material while seeing and interacting with it firsthand,” Goltry says. “I am very excited about the opportunity to learn on site what it means to be a truly global church.”
General Conference is different in person from in the classroom, Goltry said, due to the real time and ebbs and flows of conferencing.
“I imagined that there would be a clearer understanding that delegates would be trained before coming to conference,” she said. “I was surprised that there are such contentious attitudes in discussion and the need for persons to over emphasize their correctness on matters. Most of the details are minute but that just goes to show how passionate the delegates are for their church that they love.”
Goltry, 25, expects to graduate in 2017, and says that the experience has already made a lasting impact on her ministry and vision of the church.
“Often times, local church ministry becomes so focused on local issues and individuals in the congregation that we forget we are part of a much larger connectional body of Christ that extends to many countries and is manifest in a plethora of beautiful languages,” she said.