TAMPA — The tradition dates back two centuries.
Every four years, the United Methodist Church meets to make its decisions on everything from budget cuts to homosexuality.
Beginning today, nearly 1,000 delegates from around the world will gather for the 2012 United Methodist General Conference, taking place for the first time at the Tampa Convention Center.
Throughout the 11-day session, delegates will debate the future of the Methodist church, which continues to grow overseas but has experienced a significant participation decline in the United States. In the last 40 years, membership has dropped from 11 million to 8 million nationwide, church officials said.
Bishop Larry Goodpaster, president of the Council of Bishops, said conference delegates will early this week address the membership decline. Rules enacted in the 1960s remain in place while new, non-denominational churches attract members with tech-age evangelism, he said. To broaden the denomination's approach, delegates will discuss allowing individual church leaders to develop community-specific programs.
"We will be making big decisions about church structure and how we govern ourselves because we want to free up churches to be more responsive and flexible," Goodpaster said.
Florida delegate the Rev. Jim Harnish, senior pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church, said a radical realignment is needed. Currently, the church divides resources among 13 agencies. He suggests more room in the budget for youth programs, community outreach and adding different styles of worship.
"The most crucial issue pertaining to the church in America is how we share the faith with folks that are searching," Harnish said.
Delegates also will consider more than 1,100 legislative petitions on subjects including gay clergy. Currently, the church does not ordain gay and lesbian pastors nor recognize same-sex marriage. The church's financial ties to the Middle East also are expected to be hotly debated. Several groups are calling to divest from corporations involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Delegates will hear from speakers, debate in small groups and then convene to vote.
"It's tough," Harnish said. "You have a group of equally faithful people who study the same Scripture but come to different conclusions. Usually, the only thing we come to a unanimous vote on is to adjourn the meeting."
Goodpaster said 38 percent of this year's conference delegates arrived from overseas. Worldwide, the church works to fight hunger and homelessness. Churches based in the United States often partner with overseas ministries.
As part of the conference, delegates will participate in local mission projects such as packing potatoes to distribute to food banks. They meet nightly for worship services and join in prayer. Services are open to the public.