Called General Conference set for 2019
The Council of Bishops has announced the call to a special General Conference on Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri.
The special meeting of The United Methodist Church's top lawmaking assembly will be limited to acting on a report by the Council of Bishops, based on the proposals from the Commission on a Way Forward. The 32-member commission, appointed by the bishops, has the charge of finding ways for the denomination to stay together despite deep differences around homosexuality.
In 2016, by a vote of 428 to 405, General Conference decided not to take up any legislation related to homosexuality and instead authorized the bishops to form the Commission on a Way Forward. The vote came after rumors of a potential church split reached a fever pitch.
When Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, presented the proposal for the commission to General Conference delegates in May 2016, he also raised the possibility of a special session in 2018 or 2019. The bishops do not have a vote at General Conference. However, they do have the authority under The Book of Discipline to call for a special session of the assembly.
Ough announced last fall that there would be a special General Conference, but did not give a specific date. At the time, he said, "A requirement that materials be in the hands of delegates at least 230 days before such a session makes it unlikely that the Commission could complete its work in time to meet that deadline for a 2018 meeting, so 2019 seemed to us to be the best option."
Continue unceasing prayer
"The Council of Bishops encourages the entire church to continue in deep, unceasing prayer for Holy Spirit breakthroughs for the Commission on a Way Forward and the special session of General Conference," said Ough in a letter released April 25.
Among the tasks of the Commission, which will next meet in July, is examining every paragraph in The Book of Discipline related to human sexuality and possibly recommending revisions. The Discipline bans same-gender weddings and "self-avowed practicing" gay clergy. However, debate over those rules has intensified recently.
The Commission on a Way Forward includes two leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, as well as at least three openly gay members. The Wesleyan Covenant Association is a member-based network that, according to its website, "connects Spirit-fillled, orthodox congregations, clergy and laity." The commission includes eight bishops, 11 laity, 11 elders and two deacons from nine countries. Serving as moderators are Central Congo Bishop David Yemba, Florida Bishop Ken Carter and West Virginia Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball.
2016 delegates to serve
Delegates to General Conference 2016 will serve in the called special session unless their annual conference chooses to elect new delegates.
The Commission on General Conference, which plans the lawmaking assemblies, has set the delegate number at 864 — about 58 percent from the United States and 30 percent from Africa. The remaining delegates are from the Philippines, Europe and Eurasia as well as 10 from "concordat" churches with which The United Methodist Church has formal relationships.
Discussing the location for the called session, Sara Hotchkiss, General Conference business manager, said the St. Louis Convention Center and hotel packages were reasonably priced and able to meet United Methodists' needs.
"Explore St. Louis, the convention and visitor bureau, has a volunteer corps that can assist in some of the areas that are often done by a local host committee," she added. "With limited planning time, this was a benefit from a host city."
In 2016, Moses Kumar, chief executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration, told church leaders that a special General Conference session would cost $3.39 million for two days or $4.12 million for three days. Kumar is also the treasurer of General Conference.
To pay for such a gathering, Kumar recommended shortening the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis by the number of days used for any special General Conference session.
Since The United Methodist Church formed in 1968, it has only held a General Conference once outside of the normal four-year schedule. That was in 1970, and its purpose was to organize the merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren denominations. A special session was considered to address the worldwide economic crisis of 2008. The bishops in 2009 ultimately opted not to call that session.
The hope is that the 2019 special General Conference will help strengthen the denomination that will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.
Adapted from a story by Heather Hahn, United Methodist News Service reporter. This story was originally published on April 25, 2017, at umns.umc.org.