Even with COVID-19, United Methodist annual conferences around the world need to get business done by the end of the year.
The regional bodies of the denomination will get that done in a wide variety of ways: in-person meetings, virtual get-togethers and combinations of the two.
In-person annual conference meetings are the ideal for almost everyone.
“We are a connectional people,” said Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the California-Nevada Conference.
“We want to take opportunities to test where we can be together … and not linger out in isolation longer than we need to. Even to the point of taking a risk.”
In the U.S., annual conferences typically take place in May and June. The California-Nevada Conference has been rescheduled from June to Sept. 18-21 at the Doubletree Hotel in Modesto, California. Social distancing will be practiced during the meetings, if government officials still recommend it at that point.
A digital annual conference would be difficult because of sparse population in parts of northern California and Nevada, Carcaño said.
“We have whole swabs of rural communities where internet is not a possibility,” she said. “I’m not even sure legally you could do it without a great part of the annual conference membership.”
Conversely, in the Iowa Conference, a one-day virtual annual conference is planned for late summer or early fall. A virtual clergy session will take place June 5. Typically, the annual conference — which includes lay and clergy members — conducts business such as approving a budget and considering resolutions. The conference includes a clergy session that considers the qualifications of candidates for ordained ministry.
“Venues for a group our size (1,400 people), there really is only one in the state that can handle it,” said the Rev. Harlan Gillespie, assistant to Bishop Laurie Haller. That’s the Iowa Events Center, which is mostly booked with other events that were postponed because of COVID-19.
“So we figure the best thing for us to do is just simply plan for a virtual annual conference this legislative session,” Gillespie said. “We think we can get that done in a day, maybe about six hours of legislative time.”
He’s confident that remote voting is doable.
“We’ve been working with Option Technologies for the better part of 20 years now, doing electronic voting,” he said. “So it seems like a very viable alternative for us.”
It could be that more people will participate in this online annual conference than in-person.
“We’ve got one small church in northeast Iowa, the Volga United Methodist Church, that has been livestreaming their worship for a couple of years, and they have regular attenders from all across the world that are very much part of their community,” Gillespie said. “It’s been a really good way for many of our congregations to expand.”
Retired clergy who are homebound but connected through the internet are also a potential audience, he said.
“There are some trade-offs, but I also think there are some things that will help us expand our connection, too.”
In Africa, Europe and the Philippines, annual conferences are held throughout the year.
All annual conferences in the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area are being rescheduled in August, September, October and November, said Bishop Christian Alsted, who leads that area.
“We have decided that the church needs to gather physically for annual conference once the current restrictions are lifted,” the bishop said.
“Coming together as annual conferences in worship and prayer to discern Jesus’ direction in ministry is particularly important in a time of crisis,” he said. “The postponed annual conferences will emphasize the power of the connection and the value of union in Christ in mission and ministry, and I believe they will build cohesion in the church.”
Bishop Eduard Khegay of the Eurasia Area in the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference, said meeting in person this year became less important when the 2020 General Conference, scheduled this May, was pushed back to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Instead, we will have all five annual conferences meetings separately on Zoom,” Khegay said. Those are likely to be held this summer, he said.
The 17 annual conference meetings in the Philippines have been postponed indefinitely because of COVID-19.
Some annual conferences in Africa were held before the pandemic began, including Sierra Leone and Liberia, while others — like Zimbabwe’s December conferences — are scheduled later in the year.
Bishop Gabriel Yemba Unda said all annual conferences in the Eastern Congo Episcopal Area, originally scheduled for June and July, will be postponed until further notice.
"It will be impossible to hold the annual conferences on dates scheduled before this COVID-19 pandemic, where the DRC is still in a state of emergency and the cases continue to increase," he said.
"We will wait until the situation stabilizes, because we do not have efficient technology that can help us bring several people online for a conference," Unda said.
The Rev. Ezechiel Mathe, Bukavu District superintendent, said the Kivu Conference has been seriously affected by the coronavirus, with all three districts (Goma, Bukavu and Beni) reporting cases of COVID-19.
"(New annual conference) dates will be fixed when the authorities of the country lift the measures prohibiting Sunday worship," he said.
The Côte d’Ivoire Conference has been postponed until the government allows group meetings, said Bishop Benjamin Boni. Boni said 400 people attend the annual conference and right now, just 50 to 200 people are allowed to meet, providing they maintain social distancing.
In the Susquehanna Conference in central Pennsylvania, Bishop Jeremiah Park has scheduled an abbreviated annual conference on Oct. 3, at the Williamsport Community Arts Center in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
“We will conduct only the business that is absolutely essential,” Park said in a letter posted to the Susquehanna Conference website. “We will hold all submitted resolutions until the 2021 annual conference.”
Holding such a reduced annual conference was a hard decision, said the Rev. Gary Weaver, the incoming superintendent for the Lewisburg District.
“We are a people who believe that faithful fellowship is important,” Weaver said. “In having a one-day event, we’re not eating many meals together and not fellowshipping around vendor tables and displays.
“We will greatly miss that.”
Annual conference business in the Western Pennsylvania Conference is being split into several parts this year. Legislation will be handled in-person on Oct. 3 at the Erie Bayfront Convention Center. The clergy session, recognition of retirees, ordination services and memorial services will be held separately as different events.
“When you group those pieces off, as we looked at it, we really thought the rest of the business could be done in one day,” said the Rev. Alan Morrison, conference sessions chair for the Western Pennsylvania Conference.
“We’re going to do actually five regional ordinations based on two districts per ordination, since it will keep the numbers smaller,” Morrison said.
Saving money during a time when COVID-19 is taking a toll on church giving is another reason virtual annual conference meetings are attractive right now, Gillespie said.
“Bishop Laurie Haller (of the Iowa Conference) has repeatedly said that we would much rather do this in person,” Gillespie said. “But a side benefit from this is that for us to do an annual conference is expensive.”
Annual conference meetings cost between $250,000 and $300,000, Gillespie said.
“Figure in the expenses of local churches and pastors and laypeople have in terms of two to three nights of hotel expenses plus their food expenses,” he said. “It’s really easy to come up with a figure that’s close to half a million dollars or more. … (An online annual conference meeting) would be an added benefit in terms of relieving some of the pressure on not only the conferences’ finances, but especially the local churches’ finances.”
The coronavirus outlook could change a lot before the fall, Morrison said.
“It still really does come down to the unknown piece of the pandemic and what scenario really plays out,” Morrison said. “Will it be the worst case scenario or will it be some other scenario that gives us a little more freedom and ability to do things?”
Flexibility is key, he said.
“We are not going to do the same thing exactly like we’ve always done them.”
Patterson is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. Communicators Isaac Broune in Côte d’Ivoire, Karl Anders Ellingsen in Norway, Philippe Kituka Lolonga in the Congo, Joao Sambo in Mozambique and the Rev. Pavel Serdukov in Russia contributed to this story.
To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.