GC postponed to 2022, with online Special Session in 2021
February 25, 2021
By: Christa Meland
The Commission on the General Conference just announced its decision to further postpone the 2020 General Conference until Aug. 29 – Sept. 6, 2022 in Minneapolis, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the safety of mass gatherings and travel.
In response to the further postponement, the Council of Bishops (COB) is calling a Special Session of the General Conference to be convened online on May 8, 2021. The purpose of the 2021 Special Session 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. The use of paper ballots is designed to allow for the fullest participation of delegates from across the denomination.
“Our current Book of Discipline was never written with a worldwide pandemic in mind,” said Council of Bishops President Cynthia Fierro Harvey. “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.” She noted 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.
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.
General Conference 2020 was originally scheduled to take place in May 2020 in Minneapolis, and the Dakotas-Minnesota Area has been preparing for several years to host this international denominational gathering. But last March, as COVID-19 made its way around the world, it was postponed until late summer 2021. Today's announcement represents a second postponement.
The Commission on General Conference is responsible for selecting the site and setting the dates of General Conference, and the Book of Discipline requires the Commission 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 to postpone until 2022, the Commission cited a number of barriers:
• The number of COVID cases continues to rise, with nearly 2.49 million confirmed cases the week of February 15.
• The coronavirus 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 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.
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.).
The Commission’s decision to postpone until 2022 was informed by the report of a 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. 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
Commission chair Kim Simpson said the Aug. – Sept. 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.
General Conference is the top policy-making body of The United Methodist Church. The assembly meets at the beginning of each quadrennium to consider revisions to church law, as well as adopt resolutions on current moral, social, public policy and economic issues. It also approves plans and budgets for church-wide programs for the next four years.