(UMNS) - General Conference organizers are exploring potential new dates for The United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly after the coronavirus pandemic forced postponement.
“Details are not yet being released because the business manager is negotiating arrangements,” the Rev. Gary George, the secretary of the Commission on the General Conference, said at the conclusion of the group’s meeting.
George said the group would share more information March 23. That information will include the process for canceling travel and housing arrangements for the General Conference previously scheduled this May.
The multinational commission held an emergency meeting by teleconference March 21 after the venue that was to hold General Conference canceled events into May to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Most of the commission’s two-and-a-half-hour meeting took place in closed session to allow members to discuss contract negotiations. Negotiations, “when general knowledge could be harmful to the negotiation process,” are an activity listed as an exception to the denomination’s open-meetings rules.
For meeting participants, the teleconference started as early as 6:30 a.m. on the U.S. west coast and as late as 9:30 p.m. in the Philippines.
George said that the group heard recommendations from Sara Hotchkiss, the General Conference business manager, and the Rev. Gary Graves, General Conference’s top executive.
“As soon as negotiations are complete specific dates will be announced,” George said.
In opening the meeting, commission members acknowledged they were dealing with an unprecedented challenge.
“Almighty and loving God, we have made plans and they have been upended,” prayed the Rev. Beth Ann Cook, a commission member. “We are at a loss and feel disoriented, but we know that you are God.”
The spread of the deadly virus that causes COVID-19 has threatened and disrupted lives around the globe and has required people to keep their distance from public spaces.
Cook prayed for the church around the world to respond to people in crisis and especially for health care workers on the front lines of combatting the disease.
As of March 21, Johns Hopkins University — which is tracking cases — reported that the coronavirus had infected more than 286,000 people and killed more than 11,900 worldwide. In the U.S., more than 250 people have died from COVID-19.
Kim Simpson, General Conference commission chair, reminded fellow commission members that they are dealing with only one part of the public health crisis.
However, she also acknowledged that planning the 10-day international assembly comes with multiple moving parts that must align. These include securing visas, hotel space, transportation, interpreters and a large-enough venue for a gathering set to draw 862 delegates from four continents and potentially thousands of others.
General Conference typically has met every four years since 1792. But in the past three years, the volunteers who serve on the commission have needed to plan two such large gatherings, including a special General Conference in 2019.
“I do commend you as a commission,” Simpson said. “You have done more in our three years than most commissions do in eight.
Under The United Methodist Church's constitution, General Conference is to meet every four years “at such time and in such place” as determined by General Conference itself or “by its duly authorized committees.”
The gathering — the only body that officially speaks for the entire United Methodist Church — is responsible for many crucial decisions. These include electing members of the Judicial Council, the denomination’s equivalent of the Supreme Court, and voting on the four-year budget that funds denomination-wide ministries.
Bishop Thomas Bickerton, the Council of Bishops representative on the General Conference commission, said the bishops are discussing with their chancellor the ramifications of the constitution’s four-year requirement.
“We are cognizant of those issues and are exploring those at this point,” he said.
He and other bishops urged the postponement because of the coronavirus and related travel restrictions.
In this time of pandemic, it remains unclear how many other United Methodist gatherings can go on as planned.
United Methodists in the Philippines, Cote d’Ivoire and Germany already have postponed 19 annual conferences indefinitely. The Judicial Council, which like General Conference was set to meet in Minneapolis, also postponed its spring meeting because of the ongoing threat.
Whatever happens, Simpson spoke with confidence that General Conference organizers are up to the challenge.
“We are strong people, and we are fit for what comes ahead,” she said at the meeting’s end. “And I hope we’ll all come together, as we’ve done in the past, to try to find the best way to bring the vehicle for General Conference.”
Several weeks ago, I outlined the appointment process and asked for your prayers. On behalf of the cabinet, we have felt and appreciated your prayers around this vital work. We were scheduled to begin contacting pastors this coming Monday, March 23rd. However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus and other factors have caused some of this work to be placed on hold. This year’s timeline was earlier than most years due to General Conference in May. With the pandemic and the recent postponement of General Conference, it allows us to give more intentional time to this process.
I know there is a lot of anxiety around the health crisis and the appointment process. The cabinet’s desire is that we perform our work well while keeping it centered in prayer. Therefore, in the spirit of transparency, I want to update you on our progress.
-We will begin calling some pastors next week. Most pastors and SPRC chairs receiving calls will be those who are being appointed as associate pastors in our large membership churches.
-Next, the district superintendents will contact those serving part-time pastoral appointments.
-All others receiving new appointments will be contacted at a later date. My desire is for this to take place in the next two weeks.
These are uncertain times, and a new normal is yet to be determined. Again, thank you for your prayers and patience as we do this work.
Bishop David Graves
Alabama-West Florida Conference
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On Wednesday, March 18, 2020, the Commission on General Conference announced that the 2020 session of General Conference has been postponed due to the spread of COVID-19. The Minneapolis Convention Center notified the commission that they were restricting events involving 50+ people at the venue through May 10, 2020, following recommendations by the Minnesota Department of Health, the Governor of Minnesota and the Mayor of Minneapolis.
At this time, it is not possible to predict what this outbreak will mean for the 2020 Annual and Jurisdictional Conferences. Should any changes be made to those events, we will inform you as soon as possible.
There will be many questions that we do not yet have the answers for related to this postponement. I am committed to communicating with you as I receive information related to this topic. Please make sure you visit www.awfumc.org often and subscribe to our newsletter here (select NewsCONNECTION).
In this time of waiting and experiencing new realities, I again encourage you to focus on the mission of the United Methodist Church. In every way life looks different in the coming days and weeks. This is true in our homes, offices and worship spaces. It will be a unique time for churches to demonstrate creativity and compassion in ministering to their communities. I am grateful to be your bishop and challenge you to continue to change your corner of the world. Your adaptive leadership in such an historic time has given me great hope. Join me in praying for all of those affected by this virus.
Bishop David Graves
Alabama-West Florida Conference
These are unbelievable times for us all. As one who could not imagine canceling worship services, I cannot remember a circumstance in my lifetime when churches were asked to suspend worship services and meetings.
As I watched social media this weekend, I marveled at the creativity and leadership of our churches and pastors. The Alabama-West Florida Conference is filled with Christ- centered followers. It is a blessing to be your bishop.
Yet, I write to you today specifically around the COVID-19 pandemic. Health experts warn us that it is in the best interest of church members, especially those in the high-risk categories, the community, the states of Alabama and Florida, our nation, and the world for us to stop assembling for a time of worship services and other group meetings. We have been told the best time to slow down the spread of the contagious coronavirus is now. We need to take measures to avoid large gatherings of people along with practicing social distancing. Many of you did that this past Sunday by canceling worship services and using social media to reach your congregation and beyond.
It is out of the plea from national and local health officials that I urge and request for at least the remainder of March all our Alabama-West Florida United Methodist Churches suspend in-person worship and other large gatherings. We will assess the situation week-by-week to determine when it is safe to resume worship services. It is a day-to-day, week-to-week and at times hour-by-hour situation.
In the spirit of this request, we have already planned to close conference office for meetings. Staff are working remotely except for a few people each day. Click here to read the full statement.
Though we are calling for a suspension of in-person church worship services, the church will continue to be in ministry. Some of our churches offer on-line and Facebook live stream or video service. I have been blessed by the number of our churches already reaching out in creative and caring ways. I have heard several stories of how churches are assisting the neighborhoods where they are located. The conference staff has put together a tool kit and resources of how to assist you in carrying out the mission of the church in these uncertain times. Click here to access this information.
Please remember that although worship services are canceled for a season, our relationship with Jesus and the Church continues each day. Be mindful, expenses of each local church continue everyday as well. Please look for a way to give electronically or simply mail in your tithes and financial offerings. Click here for information about electronic giving methods. Your continued faithful giving will ensure the church is ready to respond to the needs as they arise. In fact, I feel the church will be asked to do more in these days. Therefore, your faithful giving is critical. As I think about all these things, I continue to recall this scripture from Ephesians 3:14-19 NLV, When I think of all this, I fall on my knees and pray to the Father. The Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And you may have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.
Thank you for being who you are. I just believe amid all we are going through that this will be one of the church’s greatest moments that we have seen in a long time. Revival!
David W. Graves