Without question, the decision to find another time for the General Conference of The United Methodist Church was the necessary and appropriate thing to do amid a global pandemic.
The Commission on the General Conference announced that the denomination’s global legislative assembly would not meet in May 2020 as scheduled. The commission said the meeting may be delayed until 2021, with specific dates still to be determined.
As a practical matter, the location for the session this May is no longer available. The Minneapolis Convention Center has canceled contracts for using the facility through May 10, which was to have been the midpoint of the General Conference. COVID-19 has forced the convention center to close its doors for at least eight weeks.
As a connectional matter, the constitution of The United Methodist Church has authorized the General Conference or “its duly authorized committees” to determine the time and place for the quadrennial session. The commission can constitutionally set a new time and, if needed, a new place for the session.
Most United Methodists knew that the meeting in May would be handling, among other things, multiple proposals and plans for a possible separation of the denomination. The debate will be delayed.
But other General Conference matters cannot wait.
The delay in General Conference raises questions about the authority of agencies to spend or receive funds after Dec. 31, 2020. The General Conference must either adopt a new budget or extend the current one for programs to be funded and salaries to be paid. It cannot delegate this authority to any other entity.
Nor can the church overlook a situation with the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court. Two members are completing their second consecutive terms and are prohibited by church law from serving any longer. Two others are finishing terms, although they could be re-nominated and reelected. All of the alternates serve four-year terms, which are also about to expire. The other five members of the Judicial Council, who are in the middle of their eight-year terms, will continue to serve. But seven is the minimum for the Judicial Council to rule on any items on its docket, according to church law. All nine seats must be filled for any decision involving constitutionality questions. Without General Conference elections, the Judicial Council would become unable to function.
These and other matters make it constitutionally necessary for a meeting of the General Conference to occur in the coming months, despite the practical problems with doing so. The circumstances that the novel coronavirus has created compel The United Methodist Church also to be creative, while maintaining the constitutional order upon which the connectional church has chosen to govern its activities.
There are three steps that can be taken to address this conundrum.
First, the Commission on the General Conference can set a time at the earliest possible moment for some number of credentialed delegates to gather — even if they meet electronically from multiple sites rather than in person at the same site. To prepare for such a session of the 2020 General Conference, the commission could identify the truly essential items that must be addressed and identify a time and place when a “special session” of the General Conference can be convened for 10 consecutive days, even if it must be in 2021 or 2022.
Second, convene the 2020 General Conference for a session of several hours as a hybrid, synchronous meeting with delegates at the physical site and delegates connected electronically. The agenda for the meeting, prepared and proposed by the commission, would list the essential items that it identified.
- Extend the current church budget to Dec. 31, 2022, or until a new budget is adopted.
- Extend the terms of all current Judicial Council alternates until the end of the next special or quadrennial session of the General Conference, whichever occurs first, when new elections can occur.
- Extend the terms of all denominational officers elected by the General Conference, such as the University Senate, until Dec. 31, 2022, or until their successors are elected.
- Call a special session of the General Conference for the time and place that the commission has identified.
- Include in that call all items of business, such as proposals for a separation of the denomination, which were submitted to the 2020 General Conference.
Third, have the first presiding officer — who will be constitutionally chosen by the Council of Bishops — invite the delegates participating digitally and in person to respect the extraordinary circumstances under which the 2020 General Conference will meet.
Ask all delegates to refrain from calling for a quorum vote.
Ask all delegates to refrain from any effort to introduce proposals for separation or schism.
And ask all delegates to pray: for the comfort and healing of those who grieve the loss of loved ones victimized by the pandemic; for the health care providers, who sacrificed their time, their personal well-being, and in some cases their lives, to aid the suffering; for those with whom one disagrees on matters of church policy, that the grace of Christian conferencing prevails.
We all are learning a new way to live, until the virus departs.
Lawrence is an ordained elder of The United Methodist Church, former dean of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University and former president of the Judicial Council.