With COVID-19 upending General Conference plans, proposals to split the denomination are on hold.
However, the work of the church goes on — perhaps needed more than ever.
That’s the assessment of a number of church leaders following the announcement that public health concerns require postponement of the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly that was scheduled for May. New dates are still to be determined.
“I hope the delegates can use this time to completely forget about General Conference for a while, to be honest. That is certainly my plan!” said the Rev. Andy Bryan, Missouri Conference delegate and lead pastor of Manchester United Methodist Church in Missouri.
“I hope we use this time to do ministry, share the love of God and continue to be the church that God is calling us to be,” he added.
Bryan and other delegates who spoke with UM News agreed the postponement was necessary, given the global health emergency and related travel restrictions. However, they also spoke of the need to prayerfully use this slowdown in church decision-making.
“The postponement of the General Conference for me is one of disappointment and blessing,” said the Rev. George K. Weagba, a veteran General Conference delegate and vice president at the United Methodist University of Liberia.
The disappointment, he said, is that it likely delays decisions about staying or leaving the denomination, and he worries that could lead to paralysis of ministry.
Yet, he also sees the possibility that God has something better in mind for the people called Methodist.
“Let us remember,” he said, “it is in our crisis time that the ‘still voice’ of the Lord speaks to our troubled hearts and if we listen, it saves us.”
The Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, a Michigan Conference delegate, shared a similar sentiment. She found it instructive that the upcoming General Conference takes its theme from Psalm 46, which describes God as a refuge when the world falls apart.
“We’re told at the end of the psalm, ‘Be still and know that I am God,’” she said. “That is what I hope delegates would do.”
For much of this year, United Methodist leaders have been preparing for possible church separation to resolve the denomination’s intensifying dispute over same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination. In the past three weeks, three different groups of United Methodists have met to discuss plans for what a separate future might look like.
Now church leaders across the theological spectrum see more immediate concerns, and the spread of COVID-19 puts large gatherings out of the question.
As of March 20, Johns Hopkins University — which is tracking cases — reported that the coronavirus had infected more than 246,000 people and killed more than 10,000 worldwide. The United States has more than 14,000 cases, with a death toll topping 200.
With the virus imperiling lives and the quarantines putting people out of work, Bigham-Tsai said, the church has a crucial role to play.
Bigham-Tsai is also the top executive of the Connectional Table that coordinates the ministries of general church agencies. She noted the denomination has long committed to advancing global health and ministering with people in economic distress.
“This is precisely the time when the vibrant witness of our Christ-centered and mission-focused connectional church is most urgently needed and vitally important,” she and leaders of the denomination’s 13 general agencies said in a statement.
In many parts of the global church, people are under lockdown. The Rev. Lilibeth Balagan, the delegation head for the Northeast Philippines Conference, said even visits to the market in her area require permission from authorities.
She supports the strong measures as well as the General Conference postponement. But she called on the church to “help the most vulnerable.”
Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, who is the incoming Council of Bishops president, said the pause in church proceedings can help with priorities.
“This is a time to care for one another even at a distance,” said Harvey, who also leads the Louisiana Conference. “Neighboring has never been more important.”
Harvey is among the Council of Bishops executive committee that on March 13 asked General Conference organizers to postpone the international legislative meeting.
The Minneapolis Convention Center, which was scheduled to hold the gathering, then announced that it was canceling events through May 10 — taking the decision out of organizers’ hands.
The shutdown covers the first five days of the denomination’s 10-day meeting, which was set to draw 862 delegates, 66 bishops and others from four continents. The convention center’s move also means that church leaders will not have to pay penalties for breach of contract.
The Commission on the General Conference is meeting by teleconference March 21 to discuss next steps.
Still, there is no question that the postponement creates even more uncertainty.
Jay Brim, a Rio Texas Conference lay delegate and lawyer who also serves as conference chancellor, said he worries about the effect on churches and church members already contemplating leaving the denomination and planning to decide soon after the May meeting.
“The primary concern I have is that there are a lot of people who are going to say, ‘I’m not willing to wait any longer.’”
He also wonders whether the virus will prevent other church gatherings from going on as planned. United Methodists in the Philippines, Côte d’Ivoire and Germany already have postponed 19 annual conferences indefinitely.
Judicial Council President Oswald Tweh announced March 20 that the denomination’s top court was postponing its April 29-May 2 spring meeting in Minneapolis due to the ongoing coronavirus threat. “Timely notice will be given of the new date,” he said.
The Rev. Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan, a California-Nevada Conference delegate and president of Claremont School of Theology, is concerned that United Methodist seminaries will be delayed in their hope for a fully inclusive denomination.
He also warned that the rescheduling of General Conference could delay needed Ministerial Education Fund contributions to the United Methodist seminaries. General Conference approves the four-year budget for the general church.
Meanwhile, Bethany Amey is planning to use Zoom and FaceTime to stay in touch with fellow members of the Greater New Jersey Conference delegation, which she chairs.
“It’s even more important now for our group to be connected to one another, in whatever form that takes,” she said.
Bishop Kenneth Carter, Council of Bishops president and leader of the Florida Conference, said the denomination continues to face a time in the wilderness.
“The wilderness is a time when things are stripped back to their basics,” he said. “The rabbis called it the school of the soul, and I think it’s a time when the church rediscovers what we are.”
In facing the unknown, church members can take comfort that Jesus already has spent his own soul-testing time in the wilderness — a time that the novelist Jim Crace called “Quarantine.”
Bryan, the Missouri Conference delegate, sees the potential in this time of social distance that church members will rediscover what binds them together.
“I pray that this pandemic helps us to realize that our theological differences are not as significant as they may have seemed,” he said. “Maybe we will figure out after this that we really are all one in Christ Jesus, like Scripture tells us we are.”
Hahn and Hodges are writers for United Methodist News. Contact them at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.