The denomination heads into “uncharted waters” as it prepares for a special General Conference in 2019, said the Rev. Gary Graves, a key planner of the lawmaking body.
Since The United Methodist Church formed in 1968, it has only held its top legislative assembly once outside of the normal four-year schedule. That was in 1970, and General Conference itself called the session to complete the merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren denominations.
“So when the body left in 1968, they knew they would be gathering back in ’70,” said Graves, the secretary of the General Conference. “We are in a different situation for this one. It’s the first time a session has been called in the interim by the Council of Bishops for a particular matter, and so we are in uncharted waters.”
Nevertheless, Graves and other organizers are making quick work of planning the special session the bishops have called. The Commission on General Conference approved those plans during its Oct. 6-8 meeting at United Methodist-related Camp Sumatanga in Gallant, Alabama.
The bishops have set the special General Conference for Feb. 23-26, 2019, at the America’s Center Convention Complex in downtown St. Louis, Missouri.
The legislative body will be limited to acting on a report by the Council of Bishops, based on recommendations from the Commission on the Way Forward. The 2016 General Conference authorized the bishops to form the commission to seek a way through the denomination’s potentially church-splitting impasse around how the church ministers with LGBTQ individuals.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document, requires petitions to be submitted 230 days before the opening day of General Conference. That means the bishops must submit their report by July 8, 2018.
The first day of special General Conference will be the culmination of the bishops’ “Praying Our Way Forward” campaign to petition God’s help for church unity. That will also give time to accommodate any travel delays caused by winter weather, so delegates are much less likely to miss a vote due to weather concerns.
The estimated cost of the four-day meeting will be a little under $3.7 million, said Moses Kumar, the General Conference treasurer and top executive of the denomination’s finance agency. That’s less than his early estimate last year that the special session could cost up to $4.12 million for three days.
Kumar said the General Council on Finance and Administration, the finance agency, will provide $3 million for the meeting’s costs. Both the finance agency and General Conference itself are supported through church giving to the denomination’s General Administration Fund.
The remaining roughly $700,000 will come from registration fees charged to visitors and others who are not General Conference delegates.
Last year, Kumar suggested that shortening the 2020 General Conference by the number of days of the special session would help pay for the extra assembly.
That option is no longer on the table because General Conference 2016 later mandated all petitions get a vote, meaning the 2020 gathering will need its full 10 days.
General Conference organizers have found other cost savings.
“The joy of February in St. Louis is that it’s not a popular time in the city, so we have some great hotel rates,” Sara Hotchkiss, the General Conference business manager, told the commission. Her office also will develop plans related to the possibility of inclement weather.
The General Conference also will see cost savings because it will be sharing the convention center with a high school and middle school volleyball tournament. And, the General Council on Finance and Administration negotiated a break from city hotel taxes.
Hotchkiss said United Methodists in both the Missouri and Illinois Great Rivers conferences will provide hospitality ministry for those attending. The United Methodists will collaborate with Explore St. Louis, the city’s convention and visitors commission.
Most of the 864 delegates to the special General Conference will be the same as who attended the 2016 legislative gathering. The Book of Discipline allows annual conferences to elect a new slate of delegates, so long as they keep the same number assigned for 2016.
At this point, Graves said he knows of two annual conferences — California-Nevada and New York — that have made plans for a new election of delegates. He said the Red Bird Missionary Conference has made plans to elect new reserve delegates.
About 58 percent of the delegates will come from the United States and 30 percent from Africa. The remaining delegates are from the Philippines, Europe and Eurasia as well as 10 from “concordat” churches with which The United Methodist Church has formal relationships.
The special General Conference also will be using the same rules for legislative action approved by the 2016 body, Stephanie Henry told United Methodist News Service. She is chair of the commission’s Rules Committee.
One question the Commission on General Conference cannot answer at this point is just how much what happens in 2019 will affect what comes before the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.