General Conference postponed until 2024

By Heather Hahn
March 3, 2022 | UM News

Key points:

  • Organizers say General Conference must be postponed because of visa wait times of up to two years.
  • It is unclear whether new delegates will need to be elected for a General Conference, postponed to the next date.
  • With the announcement, leaders of a planned breakaway denomination have moved up the new church’s launch date.

Citing long wait times for visas, General Conference organizers announced that The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly — long postponed by pandemic — must wait until 2024.

“We engaged in a fair, thorough, integrity-filled discussion of the alternatives,” said Kim Simpson, chairperson of the Commission on the General Conference, in a press statement.

“The visa issue is a reality that is simply outside our control as we seek to achieve a reasonable threshold of delegate presence and participation. Ultimately our decision reflects the hope that 2024 will afford greater opportunity for global travel and a higher degree of protection for the health and safety of delegates and attendees.”

General Conference was scheduled to be in Minneapolis this year. In the press statement, the commission said a new already-secured venue would be announced at a later date as soon as logistical planning is complete.

Bishops do not have a vote on the commission. After the commission’s announcement, Council of Bishops President Cynthia Fierro Harvey said in a statement that she and her fellow bishops would begin “to explore various pathways for sustaining the worldwide mission and witness of The United Methodist Church, given the announcement of this further and understandable delay.”

Meanwhile, leaders of a planned new theologically conservative denomination announced that they are moving up the launch date without waiting for General Conference to act.

This marks the third delay of what many have expected to be a pivotal global gathering. After decades of intensifying debate and defiance of church bans on same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy, the coming General Conference faces multiple proposals for denominational separation.

The most endorsed of these is the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, which if adopted, would allow churches and conferences that support bans on gay weddings and ordination to leave with church property and $25 million in United Methodist funds to form a new “traditionalist” denomination.

That new denomination, the Global Methodist Church, had plans to launch in conjunction with General Conference later this year. However, the new denomination’s Transitional Leadership Team announced plans to move the launch date up to May 1.

“The Global Methodist Church will warmly welcome people eager to join others in fulfilling its mission,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette in an email. He is the chairman of the Transitional Leadership Council and president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a theologically conservative advocacy group.

Good News, a like-minded advocacy group, offered its support for the move in an email accidentally released before the General Conference commission’s announcement.

“We believe now is the time for annual conferences and local churches to move forward into a new reality, free of the burdens of conflict and liberated to focus solely on the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world through the Holy Spirit,” wrote the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht of Good News.

Shortly after the commission’s announcement, the Resist Harm movement released a statement signed by more than 1,000 United Methodists urging bishops to hold charges related to LGBTQ restrictions in abeyance. The Resist Harm movement encourages resistance to those church bans.

“Drawing from the first General Rule of John Wesley’s Methodist societies, we want to be clear in our call to the church, to faithfully resist harm against the LGBTQ+ members of the body of Christ,” said the Rev. Molly Vetter, a General Conference delegate and senior pastor of the Westwood United Methodist Church in Los Angeles.

“It’s also a call to the whole church, reminding us of our responsibility to welcome all people into full belonging in our churches, honoring how they have always, already been welcomed by the grace of Jesus Christ.”

The United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies typically have held a General Conference at least every four years since 1792. With the 2020 General Conference now delayed to when the next one was supposed to take place, it remains unclear whether new delegates will need to be elected.

The Rev. Gary Graves, General Conference secretary, said the commission would look to the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, for clarity for what needs to be done should this be seen as a postponed General Conference instead of a new assembly.

The Book of Discipline — updated by each General Conference — says annual conferences are to elect delegates “no more than two annual conference sessions before the calendar year preceding the session of General Conference.” The delegates to the postponed General Conference were elected in 2018 and 2019. However, some annual conferences — church regional bodies — have since reaffirmed those elections since General Conference’s postponement.

The coming General Conference was to have 862 voting delegates — 55.9% 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, those in attendance include bishops, interpreters, staff, volunteers and guests from around the globe. Bishops preside at sessions but do not have a vote.

Other Protestant denominations in the U.S. already have undergone some form of separation over LGBTQ inclusion. However, the global pandemic has twice foiled plans for The United Methodist Church’s main global gathering.

The COVID-19 menace first led the Minneapolis venue to cancel events in 2020 and then led the commission to delay again until August this year.

The commission named a technology study team to explore virtual options for the assembly. However, the team’s report identified several obstacles to such a conference, including a 16-hour time difference among delegates in the Philippines and the West Coast, unequal internet availability and the difficulty in safeguarding voting. Those difficulties led the United Methodist Council of Bishops to cancel plans for a one-day virtual General Conference last year.

In the meantime, the rapidly spreading virus variants and resulting travel restrictions have continued to bedevil General Conference planning.

On Feb. 24, the commission met online in closed session for 3½ hours to deliberate on whether the international meeting could go forward as scheduled.

Two days before the meeting, General Conference staff emailed delegates asking each if they have received at least one dose of vaccine.

The commission did not cite vaccines as an issue, but visas. From conversations with U.S. State Department officials, the press statement said, General Conference staff learned that wait times for visa applicants could be more than 800 days because of COVID-related backlogs.

The Book of 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.

Still unknown is what General Conference’s continued delay will mean for the proposed protocol, negotiated by professional mediator Kenneth Feinberg with a theologically diverse group of United Methodists. General Conference — the only body that can speak for the church — has the final say on whether the protocol takes effect as written.
Also unknown is how many churches will depart before General Conference meets.

The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have long maintained a policy that all congregations hold property “in trust” for the benefit of the entire denomination. However, the Book of Discipline already offers procedures for churches to disaffiliate with property under limited conditions.

Good News argues that the launch of the Global Methodist Church would open the way for local churches to use the Discipline’s Paragraph 2548.2. That measure allows churches — with conference approval — to join “another evangelical denomination.”

The Wesleyan Covenant Association, which has been serving as a midwife to the planned Global Methodist Church, previously had encouraged churches to wait for the protocol to pass to make a move.

But that’s changed with the May 1 launch date. The association plans to hold a global gathering on May 7 to discuss its plans for the new denomination.

However, some churches already have decided to leave. Annual conferences have approved the disaffiliation of about 130 U.S. churches in the past two years.

Most of the departing congregations identify as traditionalist. However, those departures represent a fraction of the denomination’s roughly 31,000 U.S. congregations.

With so much at stake, the commission received conflicting calls on whether General Conference should move forward.

A group of 170 delegates from around the globe urged that General Conference be delayed until 2024, pointing to ongoing concerns around COVID and visa availability. At the same time, theologically conservatives groups such as the Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News and the Africa Initiative have urged the commission not to postpone General Conference any further. They also argued that the visa issues could be overcome.

The additional delay of General Conference brings additional complications.

In February, the Judicial Council ruled that any postponement of General Conference resets the submission deadlines for proposed legislation.

This could lead to many more proposals coming before the next General Conference. The Book of Discipline requires that all petitions receive a vote.

Graves, General Conference secretary, told the commission that the group would discuss the Judicial Council’s ruling at its next meeting on March 28.

Also unclear is what General Conference’s delay means for bishop elections. The legislative assembly sets the denomination’s budget and thus the number of bishops.

However, after last year’s General Conference delay, the bishops scheduled the five U.S. jurisdictional conferences for Nov. 2-4 this year, with central conference elections in Europe, Africa and the Philippines to follow.

In the meantime, 11 U.S. bishops have stepped down or taken on new roles as they bumped against the denomination’s age requirements for bishops to retire. That has left other bishops to take on expanded assignments. Retired Bishop Warner Brown Jr. also is serving as interim bishop in Sierra Leone after the 2020 passing of Bishop John Yambasu in a car crash.

The decision to postpone again was not an easy one, said Simpson, the commission chair.

“The commission appreciates that many people are disappointed about the circumstances of the 2020 General Conference and shares in the disappointment that it has not been able to be held,” she said in the press statement.

“COVID-19 has tested the collective patience, understanding, compassion, resolve, and even faith of the world. Commission members remain hopeful and pray that the world’s circumstances improve to help make the next General Conference not only possible, but a reminder of the witness of The United Methodist Church as a global representation of the body of Christ.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.orgTo read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.

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