Commission sets dates for postponed General Conference; will explore new uses of technology
The Commission on the General Conference has announced new 2021 dates for General Conference following the postponement of the event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The quadrennial legislative event will take place on August 29 - Sept. 7, 2021, at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
"We're grateful that we were able to secure new dates while keeping the site of General Conference in Minneapolis. Nearly seven years of pre-planning and preparations by the host team have gone into this event," said Kim Simpson, chair of the Commission on the General Conference.
The Commission decided to focus on 2021 as it was not feasible to schedule any earlier with so much uncertainty over international travel and the spread of COVID-19. Business manager Sara Hotchkiss was authorized by the Commission in March to pursue negotiations for new dates with the venue and area hotels after the Convention Center canceled May events due to concerns over coronavirus.
Hotchkiss said that it was surprising to find an available time block long enough to accommodate General Conference needs with so much competition for event space and lodging with other events shifting their dates as well.
“The hospitality industry has been devastated by COVID-19 with staffing levels significantly reduced, so negotiating amid the pandemic was a much slower process. 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,” said Hotchkiss. “Another challenge was to secure agreements for the number of hotel rooms and room types that we needed. Again, many of our partners faced furloughs and reduced staff hours.”
In making the announcement, the Commission expressed regret that they were not able to accommodate a request from a group of young delegates regarding the reported dates of the postponed General Conference. The group asked the Commission to not schedule meeting dates that would conflict with the start of the academic year in the U.S. They cited concerns that the timing would disproportionately affect young leaders and hinder their participation, as well as that of educators who might not be able to take off work at that time.
The leadership of the Commission met with the group and invited them to address the full Commission, which includes young adult members, at their May 16 meeting to hear the requests directly and consider their concerns.
“Including young adults in the General Conference is always an important consideration. We affirm that their voices need to be heard,” said Simpson. “Unfortunately, this request did not come to the Commission until late in the process. By that time, the available dates were secured and any attempt to change the dates would endanger the carrying forward of the deposits to the newly agreed-upon dates. This is at least a half-million dollars. To move the event now would require either finding a new meeting location and host annual conference(s) or pushing the event to 2022, both of which would involve cancelling contracts and significant penalties.”
Simpson said the impact would go beyond finances. “To meet in 2021, if at all possible, is very important in the life of the church. Many things hinge on the dates for General Conference. Pushing it to 2022 affects budgets, jurisdictional conferences, central conferences, the election of bishops, bishops’ retirement dates, terms of office of general agency boards and elected denominational leadership, and more. After listening carefully and discussing it thoroughly, we felt we had to proceed with the dates we’ve secured.”
Hotchkiss said “Our partners in the hospitality industry moved mountains in good faith with us to help us find dates for a postponed General Conference. There could be significant repercussions, not just financially, but also affecting those who would even be willing to assist us into the future if we do not honor our agreements and all the work that has gone into this.”
However, the Commission did take steps to address a second request contained in a letter from the young adult group to consider alternative methods of accommodating full participation, including utilizing technology to enable virtual voting.
In response to this request, the Commission 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, but not limited to, the possibility of utilizing technology and online voting at the General Conference. The recommendations of this group will be presented to the Commission for consideration.
“We know this would not be a simple task,” said Simpson. “We must consider the integrity of the voting and credentialing processes, legal ramifications, and the global nature of our church.”
The coronavirus pandemic is not the first health crisis to affect the timing of a General Conference. According to historical documents, the start date of the 1800 General Conference was moved up from October 20 to May 6 because of the prevalence of yellow fever during the fall – which is how the General Conference came to be held in May.
The topic of General Conference dates was also discussed at a meeting of the Joint Commission on Unification of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1920. Bishop Richard Cooke said, “The General Conference has full power to do many things. But it is lacking in divine omniscience, and cannot predict the possibility of an epidemic … Now, if there should arise any time in the providence of God such an epidemic as would render the meeting of the General Conference impracticable, the Commission would have the right … to fix such other time as might be necessary.”