With COVID-19 still menacing the globe, organizers are exploring various options for holding what many expect to be a pivotal General Conference.
Among the possibilities is for The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly to convene online in late summer of 2021.
The Commission on the General Conference has named a technology study team to look at ways to accommodate full participation of nearly 900 voting delegates and other church leaders who come from four continents and 16 time zones.
The stakes are high for those planning the legislative session. General Conference delegates face multiple proposals to resolve longtime debate over homosexuality by splitting the denomination along theological lines.
“This group has been assembled from across the church and includes people who have demonstrated experience in the intricate workings of The United Methodist Church at many levels,” said commission leaders in answer to UM News questions posed Sept. 17.
The 14-member technology team includes commission members, General Conference staff and other denominational leaders. The commission has named Carolyn Marshall, former secretary of the General Conference, as the team’s chair.
An advisory team of General Conference volunteers and contractors will assist.
Some United Methodist leaders, including bishops, have urged General Conference organizers to consider holding the meeting virtually, while others have raised concerns about accessibility for delegates who come from countries where internet service is often unreliable.
Of the 862 delegates elected to the coming General Conference, 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.
The logistics of the typical 10-day General Conference are complex under the best of circumstances, involving international visas, translators and finding space to accommodate more than 1,000 people.
If the meeting goes online, bishops and other General Conference veterans urge that the legislative assembly take up a curtailed agenda and refer other proposal to a future General Conference.
Commission leaders said the technology study team would be looking at developing thorough, well-researched recommendations. Facts on the ground are rapidly changing, the commission noted, including medical considerations, political realities and technological advances.
The spread of COVID-19 already prevented General Conference from meeting in May this year. The meeting’s Minneapolis venue canceled, and General Conference organizers have since postponed the meeting to Aug. 29-Sept. 7, 2021 while keeping it in Minneapolis.
Backing out of the new schedule could get expensive.
“We’re looking at not one, but many contracts, some of which have addendums which resulted due to the required postponement of this and so many other events worldwide,” commission leaders said.
The contracts have specific clauses to determine when a cancellation or postponement is completely outside either party’s control. “But there really is no way to totally avoid a financial impact in the case of a cancellation being announced without the supporting governmental or public health restrictions and requirements,” commission leaders added.
While the unprecedented General Conference delay has had little effect on most United Methodist congregations, a number of church leaders see further postponement as a non-starter.
In addition to weighing separation proposals, the coming General Conference will determine the denomination’s budget as well as how many bishops the denomination has. The lack of General Conference action has delayed bishop retirements, held up plans to add five bishops in Africa and hit pause on proposed reductions in apportionments — that is, recommended giving from conferences.
“We understand that this is a time of anxiety and uncertainty for the church and that many people are deeply invested in this event and would like to have answers as soon as possible,” commission leaders said.
The commission first came up with the idea of a technology team in May in response to young adult delegates urging the commission to move General Conference from the start of the academic year when many young adults would be unable to attend in person.
The commission did not publicize who would serve on that team until Oct. 27.
The United Methodist Church is not the only denomination to see its main policy-making gathering upended by the pandemic.
This year, the Southern Baptist Convention canceled its June annual meeting for the first time in 75 years. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) moved its biennial General Assembly entirely online. Plans for The Episcopal Church’s General Convention next year remain up in the air, with church leaders considering postponing the big meeting until 2022 if people cannot gather safely.
What distinguishes the United Methodist General Conference from these other denominational meetings is just how international it is.
The commission plans to meet in December, but leaders don’t expect many decisions to be made until the spring meeting.
“We take our responsibility seriously to provide the delegates, to the greatest extent possible, a safe environment in which to make important decisions affecting the life and future of the denomination,” commission leaders said.
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