General Conference postponed until 2022

United Methodist News Service

2/25/2021

Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. provides a few words of encouragement after the announced postponement of the General Conference to August 2022.
 

General Conference organizers announced that the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly — long postponed by the pandemic — must wait to meet another year. The global gathering is now scheduled for Aug. 29 to Sept. 6, 2022, in Minneapolis.

With the slow rollout of vaccines, continued travel restrictions and limitations of virtual technology, the commission concluded Feb. 20 that a full, 10-day session was not possible this year either in-person or online.

“The commission shared the study team’s findings and recommendations with the officers of the Council of Bishops in a collaborative effort to jointly explore how this alternative might be utilized to address critical matters until an in-person gathering of delegates can be safely convened next year,” Kim Simpson, General Conference commission chair, said in a statement.
 
Delegates from the Great Plains Conference were understanding, but not surprised, about the postponement.

“As COVID continued into 2021, it was difficult to see how we could hold General Conference this year,” the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection and leader of the clergy delegation, wrote in an email. “Even with COVID numbers now declining, the prospect of an in-person conference with delegates traveling from around the world was difficult to envision.  And holding a virtual General Conference across time zones and continents was not only fraught with technological challenges, it was difficult to imagine making the kind of decisions General Conference will be called upon to make without delegates being in the same room.”

The Rev. David Livingston, pastor of Fairway Old Mission UMC and a clergy delegate, said logistics would have prevented an entire virtual conference.

“When you consider the multiple time zones, the trust issues that we have, there’s so many complexities for a virtual General Conference,” Livingston said. “Our online annual conference experience has been that those can work reasonably well because the stakes are fairly low, and the trust is fairly high. For the General Conference it’s the exact opposite.”

The Rev. Amy Lippoldt, pastor of Papillion UMC in Nebraska and a clergy delegate, said it was “not a shock” the General Conference was postponed.

Lippoldt said she hoped discussion about LGBTQ+ rights, including the temporary abeyance of charges against pastors for violating rules in the Book of Discipline, would continue.

“It could be that we kind of continue on with the same sense of waiting and calm that we’ve had since the pandemic,” she said. “It’s up to the bishops if they want to continue the abeyance, unless conservative people think they can file charges again, which I hope not.”

Lisa Maupin, a lay delegate from Lincoln, said the postponement is frustrating but understandable.

“We want answers and we’re searching and leaning in for answers. But at the same time it was the just solution and the just way to do things,” said Maupin, who is also the conference lay leader. “We have to remember that we’re a global church, and not all of us are in the same place when it comes to access, to technology. Not all of us are in the same place when it comes to how the pandemic is affecting our world and our areas.”

Oliver Green, a lay delegate from Topeka, said he was supportive of the postponement but regretted that it would delay decisions on important changes for the denomination.

“I know people want to move forward and separate, and they’re not able to do that right now,” Green said. “I still think it’s a hot issue.”

The coming General Conference has 862 voting delegates — 55.9% come from the U.S., 32% from Africa, 6% from the Philippines, 4.6% from Europe and the remainder from concordat churches that have close ties to The United Methodist Church. At a typical General Conference, bishops from around the globe as well as interpreters and other staff are needed for the proceedings. 

That kind of meeting is not possible this year. But in the meantime, denominational ministries have been struggling to find workarounds to function in a situation never anticipated by the Book of Discipline — whose contents determine the parameters for General Conference.
 
“When we became aware of the need for a further postponement, we knew that some action needed to be taken in order to free the church to operate and continue to fulfill its current mission until we could gather in person,” said Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, who leads the Louisiana Conference as well as the Council of Bishops.

After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the assembly’s postponement from May 2020, the commission rescheduled General Conference for Aug. 29-Sept. 7 this year and kept it in Minneapolis. 

The commission maintained the late-summer dates even after young-adult delegates and other United Methodists urged a change because the new schedule conflicted with the start of the academic calendar. However, the commission also committed to look at ways for delegates to vote remotely.
 
As the pandemic continued to claim lives around the globe and travel restrictions persisted, calls increased for the Commission on the General Conference to consider virtual options for the assembly.
 
On Feb. 20, the commission met online in closed session to review and make decisions based on its study team’s report. Joining commission members and staff for the meeting was Leonard Young, who served as parliamentarian for the special session in 2019.
 
The Discipline says that “in the spirit of openness and accountability,” almost all church meetings should be open.
 
In Paragraph 722, the Discipline does allow closed sessions for “negotiations, when general knowledge could be harmful to the negotiation process” and “negotiations involving confidential third-party information.” The commission cited the negotiation exceptions when it went into closed session.

While the commission did not disclose internal discussions, the group did face requests before its meeting, especially from traditionalists, that whatever shortened agenda it chose include the protocol for separation.
 
After decades of debate over LGBTQ inclusion, the protocol opens the door for new denominations to break away with property and church funds. A traditionalist coalition and a liberationist group already have plans to depart. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, a traditionalist group, has a global gathering scheduled for May 1 to discuss its plans for its future denomination.
 
Originally, after the delay in General Conference, the Council of Bishops announced that jurisdictional conferences would meet in November, and central conferences began scheduling their meetings. The five jurisdictional conferences elect bishops who serve in the U.S., and central conferences elect the bishops who serve in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

But the trouble was, the Discipline sets the retirement date for U.S. bishops on Aug. 31 following a regular session of the jurisdictional conference — meaning any U.S. bishop planning to retire before the coming jurisdictional conference would have to wait until August 2022 to step down.
 
Now, the Council of Bishops is offering legislation to eliminate the Aug. 31 mandate and instead replace it with 60 days after jurisdictional conferences adjourn. 

The bishops also have set a new timeline that includes special sessions of the jurisdictional conferences to be conducted virtually in July 2021 with limited agendas.

The Episcopal Fund that supports bishops’ work is already financially strapped. The Council of Bishops has recommended delegates not elect any new U.S. bishops until 2024, although some delegates are discussing at least electing some successors for retiring bishops.
 
The denomination has 24 bishops who plan to step down as soon as possible, including 16 in the United States.

Ultimately, the number of bishops is in the hands of delegates.

This story was written by Heather Hahn of United Methodist News Service, with contribution by David Burke, Great Plains Conference content specialist.
 


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