In response to two announcements made Feb. 25, one about General Conference 2020 being postponed until 2022 and another about the Council of Bishops calling a virtual Special Session of the General Conference on May 8, 2021, Bishop David Bard released the following pastoral letter to Minnesota United Methodists.
Dear Friends in Christ in the Minnesota Conference,
The Commission on the General Conference for The United Methodist Church has released a statement announcing its decision to further postpone the 2020 General Conference given that the trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic does not seem to allow for the planning and holding of a large, in-person international gathering in late August and early September of this year. Furthermore, the Commission, after hearing a report from the Technology Task Force it established, did not think a full General Conference could be held virtually given challenges of internet access and time differences involved. It is important to know that there is a 16-hour time difference between the Philippines and the U.S. West Coast time zones. The Commission sought to do justice and avoid harm. General Conference is now scheduled for August 29-September 6, 2022 in Minneapolis.
Following the announcement of the Commission on the General Conference, the United Methodist Council of Bishops announced it will call a Special Session of the General Conference to be held virtually on May 8. The agenda for this special called session will be strictly limited to the consideration of a few changes to The Book of Discipline that will help The United Methodist Church move forward on issues related to jurisdictional conferences, the retirement of bishops, certain annual conference elections and procedures, and budgetary matters. Since the initial postponement of General Conference, the bishops have found that the language of our current Book of Discipline offers little flexibility in situations such as a pandemic. Voting on these few petitions will be done by paper ballot.
If you have ever been to or closely followed a General Conference, you will understand why a full-agenda General Conference is essentially impossible as a virtual meeting. It is difficult to conceive of 10 long days, with committee meetings and multiple amendments being compressed into a virtual format.
While the postponement of General Conference delays important decisions for The United Methodist Church and puts us in a waiting mode in some ways, it does not mean we are at a standstill. In the coming weeks and months we will be engaged in the ongoing work of creating a post-pandemic church. The Minnesota Conference is clear about its vision: that every congregation be a vital community for growing in love of God and neighbor, reaching new people with the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, and working to heal a broken world. The conference, in the vision statement approved at the 2019 Annual Conference session, has identified four core value clusters for our Journey Toward Vitality: We are and seek to be even more rooted in Jesus. We desire to deepen our identity as people who live the Jesus way in the Wesleyan tradition where grace pervades our understanding of the Christian faith and life. We will be inclusive of all persons. We will be engaged in the work of reconciliation and justice. Living into our vision and embodying our core values means that we are committed to a place at the table for all persons, creating new places for LGBTQ persons, changing the table conversation to listen more deeply to voices that have often been marginalized, and including any and all who can see themselves in this vision. We believe we are stronger and better together and are committed to living into our vision and embodying our values. We are not at a standstill.
At the same time, I understand there is disappointment with this decision. We are being asked to wait yet again to make important decisions about the future of The United Methodist Church, and waiting is not always our strongest asset, particularly now when we have been asked to wait so often and about so many things. There is understandable disappointment among many United Methodists that the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation will not be among the items included in a special called session of General Conference in May. There are many who believe that the petitions related to the protocol are one of the best ways forward for The United Methodist Church, acknowledging our significant divisions and providing for a gracious and amicable separation. I am not ignorant of the fact that not all Minnesota United Methodists see themselves in the vision the conference has claimed. If some kind of structural change, division, or separation is inevitable, waiting can feel onerous. The protocol was carefully negotiated and a simple up or down vote may not seem complicated.
Yet, is any separation of our United Methodist Church simple? Should such a significant proposal be voted upon without robust conversation, debate, and opportunities to consider accompanying proposals? The Council of Bishops does not think so. In addition, since the release of the protocol, other ideas for moving The United Methodist Church into the future have been proposed, not necessarily as substitutes to the protocol, but some as important addendums to it. Some propose regional forms of governance for The United Methodist Church no matter if there is division. Among these additional proposals I would call your attention to: The Christmas Covenant initiated in the Philippines, Africa Voice of Unity, Out of Chaos... Creation, and A Protocol for Graceful Unity. My inclusion of these proposals and ideas here does not represent an endorsement of them. I am merely pointing out reasons why the protocol petitions are more complicated than some might imagine.
Here we are—more waiting and more uncertainty. In response to these announcements, I don’t know if those working with the Wesleyan Covenant Association or the Liberation Methodist Connexion to create a new Wesleyan denominations/structures/organizations will choose to separate prior to the postponed General Conference. These groups, and perhaps others, are actively dispensing information about their organizations. I hope you will receive information graciously and ask good questions about what you receive and how issues may be framed. I am committed to doing my best to communicate with you clearly and transparently and will work with others, even those who may be intending to be part of a new denomination, as cooperatively as possible in this uncertain time. It is important to know that no congregation needs to be voting on its future direction right now.
General Conference has been postponed, with the exception of the limited-agenda Special Session called by the Council of Bishops. The large decision about restructuring, division, or separation will not be made this year by a General Conference. Restructuring, division, or separation in one form or another remains highly likely at some point. Regardless of when and how that may occur, I am committed to working with graciousness, kindness, and toward mutual blessing with all persons and churches. The overall witness of the church is only weakened by acrimony and failure to treat others as we would like to be treated.
In Acts 15, an argument between Paul and Barnabas “became so intense that they went their separate way” (v. 39). Yet Barnabas is not trashed following the separation, and the only negative thing said about him by Paul is in Galatians where he notes that Barnabas got a little carried away with some other Jewish Christians.
When I think about a potential separation, the image from Genesis 25 is in my heart and mind. “Abraham took his last breath and died after a good long life, a content old man, and he was placed with his ancestors. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave in Machpelah” (v. 8-9). Two brothers, almost strangers to each other, come together to bury their father. I picture them standing together outside this burial cave, each with their own memories of their father, each with their own memories of the years they were together. There is shared grief and lamentation, and a desire for mutual blessing.
Some form of separation is likely to come, but has not yet arrived. While we are together, I am committed to working with you as your bishop with graciousness, kindness, and toward mutual blessing. As long as we are together, and I continue to believe we are stronger together, we share in the ministry of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our conference has indicated a direction in which it wishes to travel in this transformational ministry, and we will work to embody that vision. And even when there is disagreement about elements of our vision or dimensions of our core values, there remains much we share. We all want to see people come to know God’s saving grace in Jesus. We all want people to grow in love of God and neighbor. We all want the hungry to be fed and the homeless housed. We all want to overcome the racial divides that have plagued our country and hampered our witness and ministry. We all want to be a force for justice, reconciliation, and healing in our world. We want our congregations to be communities of transformation. Let this be our focus. Let this be the work to which we devote our primary energy. Let our prayers be devoted to transformed lives, vibrant congregations, and vital ministries to heal a broken world.
I want to say a deep word of appreciation for our local General Conference Host Committee led by the Rev. Jim Haun and Becky Boland. This team has worked tirelessly for this General Conference, only to have it postponed yet again. Its members have my support, prayers, and love, and the support, prayers, and love of our conference.
Some have also asked about the related proposals from the Council of Bishops regarding Jurisdictional Conferences. The proposal is for virtual sessions of Jurisdictional Conferences to be held this coming July for the purpose of placing bishops into retirement, determining the number of new bishops to be elected at in-person Jurisdictional Conferences following the 2022 session of General Conference, and announcing a plan for episcopal oversight until that time. The North Central Jurisdiction Committee on the Episcopacy and the College of Bishops will work cooperatively to ensure that every conference has solid episcopal leadership for this interim time. Minnesota is blessed with wonderfully creative, courageous, and faithful leaders with whom any bishop is blessed to work. It is my joy and blessing to be that bishop now.
Grace and peace,
Bishop David Bard
Interim Bishop, Minnesota Conference
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church