United Methodists are sometimes asked where their church is headquartered, or what officer is “in charge.” Deliberately, The United Methodist Church has no single central office, no archbishop, no pope. This reflects the representative nature of the church's organization - which also provides a system of checks and balances.

The church created a system that in some ways parallels that of the U.S. government when it came to America. The church has a General Conference, its legislative branch; a Council of Bishops, somewhat like an executive branch; and a nine-member Judicial Council, the judicial branch.

General Conference

 

The only body that can set official policy and speak for the denomination is the General Conference. The General Conference is an international body of nearly 1,000 delegates that meets every four years. The delegates are elected by annual conferences (at annual conference sessions) to attend General Conference. They represent all annual conferences around the world. Half of the delegates are laity (non-clergy members), half are clergy.

Bishops attend the General Conference but cannot vote.


During General Conference, delegates discuss and vote on petitions and resolutions proposed by individuals, agencies, annual conferences, and other groups within the denomination. These actions result in a revision of the Book of Discipline, the denomination's book of law, and Book of Resolutions, policies of the denomination on current social issues.

It is at General Conference where delegates wrestle with today's issues in light of scriptural teachings and the church's understanding of that teaching. Here is where the church's official stand and church policies are made regarding such issues as immigration, the death penalty, human sexuality, abortion, war and peace, as well as determination of ministries and funding.

General Conferences are held in years divisible by 4, such as 2008, 2012, etc.

 

Council of Bishops

The United Methodist Church uses an Episcopal system of governance, which means bishops provide the top leadership. Bishops provide oversight of the entire church but have specific leadership responsibilities in a geographical area, called an Episcopal area. An Episcopal area is comprised of one or more annual conferences. There are 50 Episcopal areas in the U.S. and 18 Episcopal areas in the central (non U.S.) conferences.

Both men and women can be elected bishop. The only requirement to be elected bishop is that the person is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church. Bishops in the U.S. generally serve one area for eight years (two four-year terms) before they are assigned to another area.
The Executive Secretary (a retired bishop serving a four-year term) is the chief operating officer for the council in their permanent staffed office in Washington, D.C.