General Conference postponed to 2022; Bishops call Special Session of General Conference, issue timeline forward

2/25/2021

Today two important announcements were released regarding the postponed 2020 General Conference of The United Methodist Church.

First, the Commission on General Conference has further postponed the worldwide meeting until August 29 – September 6, 2022, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, the Council of Bishops is calling a Special Session of the General Conference to be convened online on May 8, 2021. The purpose of the 2021 Special Session of the General Conference will be limited to gaining a quorum in order to suspend the rules for the sole purpose of allowing the use of paper ballots to act upon 12 pieces of legislation that would enable the church to effectively continue its work until the postponed 2020 General Conference is held in 2022.

Below are the official news releases:

General Conference Postponed to 2022

Meeting on February 20, the Commission on the General Conference made a decision to further postpone the 2020 General Conference until August 29 – September 6, 2022, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the safety of mass gatherings and travel.

It is the Commission’s responsibility to select the site and set the dates of General Conference. Further, the Book of Discipline requires the Commission on the General Conference to "take necessary measures to assure full participation of all General Conference delegates." The Commission concluded that mandate was not achievable by means of either an in-person meeting in 2021 or a virtual meeting.

In making the decision, the Commission determined that it was not feasible to safely hold an in-person meeting involving all delegates as currently scheduled for August 29 - September 7, 2021, due to a number of barriers:

  • The number of COVID cases continues to rise, with nearly 2.49 million confirmed cases the week of February 15.
  • Vaccine is not expected to be widely available this year in many countries, and new variants of the virus which may be resistant to vaccines are emerging globally.
  • International travelers to the U.S. must show proof of negative COVID-19 test results no more than three days prior to travel, but in many places, testing is not readily available or provided free of charge.
  • Visa services remain limited in some areas.

There also remains the possibility that a temporary six-month visa bond program which requires bonds of $5,000 - $15,000 per person for residents of some countries could cost up to $2.5 million in bonds for affected delegates if the program should be extended beyond June.

The Commission’s decision was informed by the report of the Technology Study Team appointed 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, in considering whether the meeting should be held virtually.

According to their report, “The study team considered a number of challenges and implications, including how to keep participants safe, providing for global participation, safeguarding the integrity of the voting and credentialing process, and meeting legal requirements …”

The Technology Study Team analyzed a variety of options, including an entirely electronic General Conference with participation from individual locations; an entirely electronic General Conference with delegates gathering at regional satellite hubs; and two sessions, with the first part being electronic and the second part in-person when it is safe to convene. None of these options were determined by the study team to be viable.

The study team did find that a more traditional method—utilizing mail ballots to vote on emergency actions—could help The United Methodist Church to address important, urgent matters through the General Conference. Their report recommended utilizing mail ballots for making a limited number of “Emergency Interim Actions” on which the General Conference delegates would indicate a yes or no vote for each item.

“The Commission shared the study team’s findings and recommendations with the officers of the Council of Bishops in a collaborative effort to jointly explore how this alternative might be utilized to address critical matters until an in-person gathering of delegates can be safely convened next year,” said commission chair Kim Simpson.

Some of the concerns mentioned in the report regarding having a virtual session include:

  • Lack of infrastructure in some areas, including Internet access, Internet speed, and electricity
  • Lack of technology for equitable Holy Conferencing
  • Complexity of the legislative committee process
  • Concerns about accurate credentialing and verification of identity
  • Difficulties in seating reserve delegates properly
  • Security of voting
  • Safety concerns about regional satellite gatherings

Simpson said the August-September dates in 2022 will mean that General Conference will be one day shorter than planned for 2021; however, these dates were the only option available. Simpson said that the Commission regrets the fact that these dates once again conflict with the start of the academic year in the U.S. which a group of young adults had asked the Commission to avoid, but there were no other dates available.

Bishops call Special Session of General Conference, issue timeline forward

In response to the further postponement of the 2020 General Conference, the Council of Bishops (COB) is calling a Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church (UMC) to be convened online on May 8, 2021.

According to the call letter signed by COB President Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, the Special Session will be held in accordance with Division Two - Section II - Article II of The Constitution of The United Methodist Church as recorded in Paragraph ¶14 of The Book of Discipline (2016).

The purpose of the 2021 Special Session of the General Conference will be limited to gaining a quorum in order to suspend the rules for the sole purpose of allowing the use of paper ballots to act upon 12 pieces of legislation that would enable the church to effectively continue its work until the postponed 2020 General Conference is held in 2022. While other potential amendments were considered, it was agreed that these 12 pieces of legislation would enable the church to continue its administrative functions appropriately. Click here to read the 12 pieces of legislation.

All decisions will be limited to paper ballots and confined to the designated twelve (12) amendments to the Book of Discipline in order to fulfill the mandate of ¶511.4.d., which calls for the Commission on the General Conference “to assure full participation of all General Conference delegates,… ”

Bishop Harvey stated, “The exclusive use of paper ballots will allow for the fullest participation of delegates from across the denomination. Full participation on the part of all elected delegates is a justice issue that must not be ignored or sacrificed. This is why the convened session online must be confined solely to gaining permission for the mailed-in paper ballots.”

The decision to call the Special Session came in conjunction with the Commission on the General Conference’s announcement of a further postponement of the 2020 General Conference to August 2022. The General Conference had been previously postponed to August 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now scheduled to take place August 29 to September 6, 2022, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Click here to read the Commission’s announcement.

“Our current Book of Discipline was never written with a worldwide pandemic in mind. When we became aware of the need for a further postponement, we knew that some action needed to be taken in order to free the church to operate and continue to fulfill its current mission until we could gather in person,” Bishop Harvey stated, noting that substantive issues related to separation and regionalization should be reserved to an in-person forum where debate, amendment, and discernment could be conducted with integrity and full participation.

The Council of Bishops and the Commission on the General Conference have been working collaboratively to determine the best way for the General Conference to meet and maintain the Church’s current commitment to mission and ministry as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Constitution of the Church, the Special Session of the General Conference shall be composed of the delegates elected to the postponed 2020 General Conference or their lawful successors.

The Secretary of the General Conference will communicate with annual conference secretaries regarding the logistics of the Special Session.

In addition, The Council of Bishops and the Commission on the General Conference have agreed on a timeline of events that will create a pathway for the church in this liminal time. This timeline includes Special Sessions of the Jurisdictional Conferences to be held virtually in July 2021 (for the purpose of retiring bishops, announcing coverage of areas, and determining if or how many bishops will be elected in each Jurisdiction) and regular in-person Sessions of the Jurisdictional Conferences following the postponed 2020 General Conference in the Fall of 2022 (for the purpose of electing bishops, making assignments for the new quadrennium, electing members to General Boards/Agencies, etc.).

Under this timeline, General Boards & Agencies would maintain their current memberships until after the postponed General Conference in 2022.

Click here to read the full letter sent to the Secretary of the General Conference, the Chairperson of the Commission on the General Conference, heads of delegations to the 2020 General Conference (or successors) and conference secretaries.


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