Preparing for General Conference 2021 and Beyond

By Walter Fenton

Bishop Ken Carter (Florida Episcopal Area) addresses the 2019 special General Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. Photo credit: Kathleen Barry, UMNS.

Last week the Commission on General Conference announced the official dates and location for the postponed 2020 General Conference. The Conference will be held August 29 – September 7, 2021, at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the planned location for the event prior to its postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


The Commission is responsible for planning The United Methodist Church’s General Conference, which involves, among other things, securing a host site, negotiating contracts for hundreds of hotel rooms, assisting over 300 international delegates in securing visas, and making sure all conference materials are available in the UM Church’s five official languages. Planning for General Conferences typically begins seven to eight years prior to the event and planning for this one has presented unprecedented challenges.


“The hospitality industry has been devastated by COVID-19 with staffing levels significantly reduced, so negotiating amid the pandemic was a much slower process,” said Sarah Hotchkiss, the Business Manager for the General Conference. “I am grateful for our partnerships in the industry we have built over the years that assisted us in getting our foot in the door early enough to find any dates in 2021.”


“I trust all United Methodists are mindful of the huge challenges the Commission has had to work through over the past few months,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, President of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). “The small General Conference staff and the volunteer members of the Commission are to be commended for their perseverance and patience as they negotiated with many organizations in order to reschedule a major event in the midst of a terrible pandemic.”


On May 5, 2020, 862 delegates were planning to attend what many regarded as the most important General Conference since the organization of the UM Church in 1968. Early this year a group of 16 United Methodist leaders shared a proposal calling for an amicable separation of the denomination. The group included individuals representing all the major advocacy organizations affiliated with the church and eight bishops from around the world, including Bishop Kenneth Carter, then president of the Council of Bishops, and Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, the council’s then president-elect. The distinguished attorney Kenneth Feinberg served, pro bono, as the mediator who guided the diverse group to an agreement called “A Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.”


A drafting team prepared legislation for the Protocol agreement and at least three annual conferences approved the legislation at special sessions to ensure it was properly forwarded to the 2020 General Conference.


“Of course no one could say with certainty whether the legislation would have passed, but I think its chances of doing so were well above 50 percent,” said Boyette, who was one of the leaders who signed the Protocol agreement. “When you have leaders like Jan Lawrence [Director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an advocacy group for LGBTQ+ inclusion], Pat Miller [Executive Director of the Confessing Movement, an advocacy group for traditionalist], Bishop Cynthia Harvey [the episcopal leader in the Louisiana Annual Conference], and Bishop John Yambasu [episcopal leader in Sierre Leone] all advocating on behalf of the same plan, then GC delegates are going to take such a plan very seriously. And frankly, after the divisive 2019 special General Conference, I think most United Methodists had reached the conclusion that it was time to pass a plan for amicable separation.”


Had the Protocol’s implementing legislation passed at the scheduled 2020 General Conference, local churches and annual conferences could have begun the process of deciding to join either a post-separation UM Church (largely populated by centrists and progressives), a new traditionalist Methodist church, or perhaps a separate progressive Methodist church. It was possible that by late 2021, two or three new denominations would have formed out of the UM Church.


“There’s no silver lining to a pandemic that kills hundreds of thousands of people, wrecks the global economy, and impoverishes millions of people who have lost jobs with no safety net,” said the Rev. Dr. Jeff Greenway, senior pastor at Reynoldsburg UM Church in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, and the chairman of the WCA’s Global Council. “Local churches and the denomination in general are right to do whatever they can to relieve the suffering and grief people all around the world are experiencing right now. We will all continue to press ahead with our plans for what’s next, but at the local and global level we all know we have much work to do to relieve burdens caused by the pandemic.”


On May 5, at least two advocacy groups held gatherings to mark the convening date of the 2020 General Conference and pray for those impacted by the pandemic. The Reconciling Ministries Network held a virtual worship service and Mainstream UMC, a centrist advocacy group, held a virtual townhall meeting. After a time of prayer for those suffering from the pandemic, the Rev. Dr. Mark Holland, Mainstream’s Executive Director, made a presentation regarding its plans in light of GC 2020’s postponement and then answered numerous questions pertaining to the organization’s strategy going forward.


“It’s no secret we’ve had our disagreements with Mainstream UMC,” said the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Moore, the WCA council’s vice-chairwoman, and the lead pastor at Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia. “However, we were pleased to hear that Mainstream and other advocacy groups continue, as we do, to support the Protocol agreement.”

If the 2021 General Conference delegates pass the Protocol legislation, local churches would be able to vote to join a new church within weeks, and then officially part ways with the post-separation UM Church shortly thereafter. Annual conferences and central conferences (i.e., regional groupings of annual conferences Africa, Eurasia, and the Philippines) would have the opportunity to join a new church at their regularly scheduled meetings or at special sessions. While annual conferences in the U.S. typically meet in May and June, many of those in Africa, Eurasia, and the Philippines meet earlier or later in the year.


“This will all take some time to unfold,” said Boyette. “That’s why we’ve been working on creating a traditionalist Methodist church with a transitional governing structure that local churches, annual conferences, and central conferences can join until a convening conference meets to make any changes in that transitional governing structure. At the convening conference we’ll definitely want representatives from around the world to attend, so we’ll need to allow time for conferences to meet to make their decisions. I think we’re probably looking at a date in the fall of 2022 or spring of 2023 for a convening conference. Essentially, everything has been pushed back a year, but fortunately a new traditional church will be launched immediately after adoption of the amicable separation legislation. It will allow churches to part ways and start focusing on what’s next.”


Since late 2018 the WCA has been working on a draft “Book of Doctrines and Discipline” and has shared on its website the sections it has already completed. It has also joined forces with several UM bishops, renewal and reform group leaders, and non-aligned traditionalist leaders to create a Transitional Leadership Council. The Council will help shepherd traditionalists to the convening conference.


“I know things are taking longer than we anticipated, but General Conference is just 15 months away,” said Boyette. “That leaves everyone with important time to learn about their options and prepare for what’s next. The WCA is not going to let the time go to waste; we’re very excited about a new Methodist movement!”


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