Questions, anger follow General Conference delay

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Key Points:

  • United Methodists are responding to the third General Conference postponement with strong emotions ranging from outrage to relief.
  • Some theological conservatives are no longer waiting for General Conference to act and plan to launch a new denomination in May.
  • At the same time, many questions surrounding the delay and planned launch remain unsettled.

United Methodists reacted to General Conference’s third postponement — this time to 2024 — with strong emotions ranging from outrage to relief. Many also expressed weariness with the uncertainty that has faced the denomination since before the pandemic.

The hope was that The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking body would resolve the denomination’s longtime debate over LGBTQ inclusion and avoid costly litigation by adopting a formal separation plan.

The most endorsed of these proposals, the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation, would allow theologically conservative churches and annual conferences — church regional bodies — to leave with property and $25 million in United Methodist funds to form a new denomination.

Now, some theological conservatives announced that they no longer are waiting for General Conference to act but launching that new denomination, the Global Methodist Church, on May 1.

Even those committed to remaining in The United Methodist Church feel the frustration.

“At the end of the day, I think we are all becoming weary and drained from waiting for the inevitable in perpetuity,” said Jessica Vittorio, a General Conference delegate from the North Texas Conference.

“This will hopefully allow churches to make their decisions, and will leave the denomination as a whole better positioned to address needed changes with the congregations that intend to stay long term. We previously would have had a General Conference focused almost exclusively on separation and departure; this may just be God’s way of gifting us with a General Conference where we can instead focus on resurrection through the process of renewing and rebuilding the new UMC.”

Nevertheless, both the postponement and the planned new denomination’s launch are leaving United Methodists across the theological spectrum with plenty of questions.

Chief among those is: Will delegates elected to the 2020 General Conference be able to serve in 2024, or will annual conferences need to elect new slates? That question will likely land before the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court.

Other questions:

The Commission on the General Conference announced March 3 that the international legislative assembly — already twice postponed from May 2020 by the pandemic — could not go forward this year because of long waits for visas. General Conference draws delegates from four continents.

The Rev. Andy Bryan is among the General Conference delegates who see the third postponement as regrettable but necessary.

“I both understand the reasoning behind it, and at the same time lament the further harm the delay will inevitably produce,” said Bryan, chair of the Missouri Conference delegation and lead pastor of Manchester United Methodist Church in Missouri. He said the pastors of his church are on record as wanting to remain United Methodist and work toward inclusion.

“For Manchester, the delay will mean a few more years in the wilderness,” he said. “We continue to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, seeking creative ways to be in mission and ministry as ambassadors of God’s unconditional love.”

The Rev. George Wilson, a General Conference delegate from Liberia, said the postponement is good and timely.

“It will help most of the African delegates to the GC to sort out their visa problems,” he said.

The Rev. Kalema Tambwe, a clergy delegate from Eastern Congo, said holding General Conference this year ran the risk of seeing many delegates absent because they had difficulties related to vaccinations and obtaining visas.

He hopes that by 2024 “many people will already be vaccinated, and on the international level, the problems of movement of people will not be able to arise so that we can attend the General Conference in this large family.”

However, the delay has sparked anger, especially from theological conservatives who supported the ability to leave The United Methodist Church in an orderly fashion.

“I believe the commission’s decision to postpone General Conference until 2024 is exactly the wrong decision,” said the Rev. Rich Jones, Northwest Texas Conference delegate and lead pastor of Wolfforth United Methodist Church.

More responses to postponement

Advocacy groups across the theological spectrum responded to the third postponement of General Conference.

Some have long advocated for General Conference to remove United Methodist bans on same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. Other groups have advocated for maintaining those bans but in recent years have worked toward building the new, theologically conservative Global Methodist Church.

In a nonbinding vote last year, the Northwest Texas Annual Conference signaled its plans to join the Global Methodist Church under the protocol. Jones hopes the Council of Bishops will call a special General Conference to take up the protocol.

In an essay for the theologically conservative advocacy group Wesleyan Covenant Association, the Rev. Joseph F. DiPaolo announced that he had resigned from the General Conference commission. He argued that the decision to postpone was both unwise and unnecessary.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association has been shepherding the formation of the Global Methodist Church, and DiPaolo serves on the association’s leadership council.  

Commission members, including DiPaolo, voted to deliberate in closed session Feb. 24. After 3½ hours of discussion, he said, the vote to postpone was 14-9 with one abstention. “I fear we will shortly see renewed and intensified internal conflict across our connection,” he wrote.

Kim Simpson, the General Conference commission chair, said that moving the General Conference was the commission’s decision by majority vote.

“The commission’s responsibility is not to ensure that the postponed General Conference would be held as scheduled this summer but to take necessary measures to assure full participation of all General Conference delegates,” she told United Methodist News.

The continued uncertainty resulting from the General Conference delay presents challenges to a variety of ministries.

The Rev. Kent Millard, president of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, said his enrollment staff have heard from prospective students who feel a call to United Methodist ministry but are reluctant to begin formal studies.

“People think, ‘Will there be a church for me to serve when I finish this (degree)?’” Millard said.

The further postponement of General Conference has implications for Wespath, the United Methodist pension agency that the Global Methodist Church also plans to use. At present, some big legislative changes submitted by Wespath are on hold.

That includes legislation to move United Methodist clergy to a new retirement plan as well as a proposal to give more flexibility to disaffiliating churches in handling pension liabilities. At present, a disaffiliating church must pay a share of its conference’s unfunded clergy pension liability. That share can mean a hefty price tag.

“We continue our steadfast scenario planning, seeking security and certainty for our customers — first and foremost,” said Andy Hendren, Wespath’s top executive, “and also working with stakeholders from all viewpoints, in a neutral, bridge-building, and non-anxious way, to serve the church as it changes — even as its future is still in flux.”

The delay is difficult for the denomination’s progressives too.

The Rev. Alka Lyall, chair of the Northern Illinois Conference delegation, is the senior pastor of Chicago’s Broadway United Methodist Church — a congregation that has long welcomed and advocated for its LGBTQ members. However, she said she respects that some members feel they have to leave for their own survival.

“The restrictive language is painful and harmful, and I remain committed to its removal from our Book of Discipline — but the delay in getting it changed does not impact our ability to love all people of God,” she said. “The delay gives the denomination an opportunity to slow down, sit back and re-evaluate what we are being called to do and be.” 

With the commission’s decision now made, many United Methodists are moving forward with plans for the future. 

Asbury Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which played host to the WCA’s global gathering in 2019, has announced its plans to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church and possibly join the Global Methodist Church.

With no protocol, annual conferences are responsible for handling church disaffiliations.

During a March 9 webinar on General Conference and disaffiliation, Oklahoma Conference Bishop Jimmy Nunn said two Oklahoma churches have entered the disaffiliation process. He said he would not comment on individual congregations.

“I value all of our churches, and I don’t want any church to disaffiliate,” he said. “But what I want doesn’t matter.”

He went on to say that he hopes to help congregations live into their conscience. He has called a special session of the Oklahoma Conference on Oct. 21-22 to vote on church disaffiliations.

The South Georgia Conference also plans to have a special session on Aug. 20 to address matters related to church disaffiliations.

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“This allows churches additional time to have any necessary conversations they feel they need to have,” explained Bishop David Graves, in a video following the announcement of General Conference’s postponement. “I want to give everyone the space to do what needs to be done without feeling like anyone is missing a window of opportunity.”

In the meantime, both the Western North Carolina Conference delegation and the Minnesota Conference leadership announced how they hope to live into a hopeful and inclusive future.

“We will fulfill our baptismal vows by being a church with a bias toward the vulnerable and the marginalized, and those who have been hurt, excluded, or judged by the Church, as we fulfill our baptismal vows,” the Western North Carolina delegation said in its joint statement.

Similarly, the Minnesota Conference leadership committed to live into the vision conference voters approved in 2019. For the Minnesota Conference’s Bishop David Bard and his cabinet, that means affirming the gifts of LGBTQ clergy.

The Rev. Cristine “Tintin” Carnate-Atrero, a reserve delegate and district superintendent from the West Middle Philippines Conference, sees the delay as giving more time for the study and prayer work Filipino United Methodists are already engaged in.

“As the theatrical credo says, ‘the show must go on,’” she said. “The Philippines Central Conference is more attentive to the post-quarantine era as far as ministry is concerned.”

Even amid uncertainties, ministry continues.

The Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, a delegate from the Michigan Conference, is also the top executive of the Connectional Table that coordinates denomination-wide mission and ministries.

“I believe that we are at an inflection point that is forcing us to think beyond our legislative processes. We are going to have to find ways to move forward without a General Conference, for now,” she said.

“The Holy Spirit is moving in The United Methodist Church. Mission and ministry will continue in our church.”

The Rev. SoYoung Kim, pastor of Salem United Methodist Church in Barrington, Illinois, said now is the time to prioritize church recovery and revitalization — not separation.

“The members of the church have been sick and tired of COVID-19 for the last two years,” she said. “It is about to get eased from COVID-19, and we have time to breathe to focus on mission and ministry because of the postponement of the General Conference.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. UM News staff Sam Hodges, Jim Patterson, the Rev. Tom Kim, Chadrack Longe, E Julu Swen and Phileas Jusu also contributed to this report.

Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].


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