Q&A: What delay means for General Conference

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For more than two centuries, General Conference has met at least once every four years.
Outside forces left their mark. In 1800, church leaders moved the gathering to the spring to avoid fall yellow fever outbreaks. In 1862, Southern Methodists shortened their session to two days because of the U.S. Civil War.
But until COVID-19, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have never delayed the church’s top lawmaking assembly by more than a year.
With General Conference now postponed from May this year until Aug. 29-Sept. 7 in 2021, organizers of the big meeting are navigating uncharted territory.
The Commission on the General Conference answered questions from Heather Hahn of United Methodist News about what the delay means for how the denomination does its decision-making.

The United Methodist constitution states that General Conference is to meet every four years. With a special General Conference in 2019, does the church meet that constitutional requirement even with the postponement?

The Commission on the General Conference feels that the requirement of Paragraph 14 is being met and worked to secure the first available date, attempting to not move any further away from the original dates than was necessary.

Who is on the commission?

The Commission on the General Conference has the responsibility of planning logistics for what is usually a 10-day legislative meeting held every four years. General Conference itself elects the commission’s 25 voting members. 

The officers are Kim Simpson, chairperson; the Rev. Mujinga Kashala, vice chairperson; the Rev. Gary George, secretary.

The commission members are Mary Ellen Beasley (appointed August 2019 to finish Duncan McMillan’s term); Helene Bindl; the Rev. Francis Charles; the Rev. Beth Ann Cook; Phebe Cosmiano; the Rev. Joseph DiPaolo; Christine Flick; Dr. Steven Furr; the Rev. James Haun; Stephanie Henry; the Rev. A. Lynn Hill; the Rev. John Hiller; Stanislas Kassongo; Betty Katiyo (deceased August 2019); Marie Kuch-Stanovsky; Jorge Lockward; Mills Maliwa; Duncan McMillan (resigned July 2019); the Rev. Laura Merrill; the Rev. Joseph Mulongo; Ellen Natt; the Rev. Juliet Spencer; and Audun Westad.
Ex officio members are Bishop Thomas Bickerton, Council of Bishops representative; the Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference; Sara Hotchkiss, business manager; and Moses Kumar, treasurer. Bishop Rodolfo Alfonso “Rudy” Juan also serves in an advisory role.

The commission also receives staff support from Susan Brumbaugh, coordinator of the calendar; the Rev. Abby Parker Herrera, petitions secretary; Brian Sigmon, Daily Christian Advocate editor; Raymond Trapp, worship and music director; Raquel Perez-Molloy; assistant business manager; Douglas Ward, director of IT; and Diane Degnan, communications. 
With General Conference postponed until August 2021, what will happen to petitions — that is, legislative proposals — already properly submitted for 2020?
All petitions that were included in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate will be considered by the postponed 2020 General Conference.
Valid petitions that were submitted by annual conferences between the 230-day deadline and the 45-day exception (in the Book of Discipline) will be presented to the Committee on Reference for assignment to the appropriate legislative committee.
The Committee on Reference will also conduct its regular review of invalid petitions and late petitions.
(Editor’s note: The 24-member Committee on Reference convenes the day before General Conference opens. The panel, appointed by the Council of Bishops, determines whether to accept late submissions. It also determines which committee will initially consider valid petitions. The next General Conference will have 14 legislative committees as well as the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. The standing committee reviews petitions related to central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.) 

With the delay, can additional petitions be submitted?
The Commission on the General Conference is still considering the process for petitions submitted between the original dates of the 2020 General Conference and the postponed session in 2021. An announcement on this matter will be issued at a later date.

What happens to existing petitions with dates for implementation affected by General Conference’s postponement?

It will be the responsibility of the legislative committee or plenary body to amend the petition as submitted to include a new implementation date and any other dates that were included in the petition as originally submitted. The Committee on Correlation and Editorial Revision and the Advance Legislative Research Panel will also monitor these considerations.

(Editor’s note: The bishop-appointed, eight-member Committee on Correlation and Editorial Revision reviews and reports legislation for any contradictions, duplication and inconsistencies. Committee members cannot be General Conference delegates.
The Advance Legislative Research Panel comprises United Methodists with extensive knowledge about church law and previous experience in the general church. Panel members review proposals and identify any closely related rulings by the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, as well as any related paragraphs in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document. The panel’s information is strictly advisory.)

In Paragraph 502.3, the Book of Discipline says delegates are to be elected “not more than two annual conference sessions before the calendar year preceding the session of the General Conference.” Does the delay mean any annual conferences will need to hold delegate elections again for 2021?

The sessions of the annual conferences held in either 2018 or 2019 elected delegations to the regularly scheduled sessions of the General Conference, jurisdictional conferences and central conferences to be held in 2020 and 2021.
Those conferences have not been canceled. They have been postponed to the next possible time allowed by public health and other international governmental bodies.
The postponement was due to extraordinary circumstances beyond the control of anyone, especially the annual conferences that elected their delegations in good faith and in accordance with existing church laws. The intent of those elections was to send the elected delegations to the next meeting of the respective bodies to which they were elected. In fact, those same delegations will continue to be seated throughout the quadrennium in order to meet the requirement of (the Discipline’s) Paragraph 14, which applies to called sessions of the General Conference, and the applicable paragraphs, which refer to called sessions of the jurisdictional and central conferences.

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Should there be changes within the delegation that arise due to change of residence, membership standing, change of lay/clergy status, illness, death, etc., those would be cared for by moving reserve delegates forward in order of their election. It is important to remember that delegates to the jurisdictional or central conference serve as reserve delegates to the General Conference in order of election.
However, in addition to this category of reserve delegates, there are additional reserve delegates to the jurisdictional or central conference. These additional reserve delegates were elected by the same annual conferences in 2018 or 2019 and are part of the annual conference delegation.
Each annual conference was allowed to determine the number of additional reserve delegates elected as reserve delegates for the jurisdictional or central conference prior to those elections being held.

It is the position of the Commission on the General Conference that the delegations for the 2021-2024 quadrennium stand as submitted and certified by the annual conference secretary. No further action is necessary.

The commission said May 26 that it voted to gather a group of “creative thinkers, including young delegates, to explore the implications of options for accommodating full participation at General Conference,” including the possibility of online voting. Who are the people serving in this group?

This group has not yet been named. That process is ongoing.

If you are still working on any of these questions, do you have a timeline for when you’ll have an answer?

The Commission on the General Conference will be working through the issues and questions raised by the need to postpone the 2020 General Conference. Statements will be released as these issues are resolved.

Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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