General Conference: What we know now

2/15/2021

By Bishop R. Lawson Bryan

With our attention appropriately focused on our local South Georgia congregations and ministries during this pandemic, it has been a while since I’ve updated you on denominational matters and what is happening in the connectional system of The United Methodist Church. 

I know this may be a longer article than you’re used to from me, but my hope is that it will keep us all on the same page and well informed about the important goings-on in our denomination. I want to remain open and transparent as we walk this journey together.


-- GENERAL CONFERENCE PRIMER –

Here is a primer on all things related to General Conference:
  1. General Conference: General Conference is the top policy making body of The United Methodist Church that meets every four years. It includes nearly 1,000 delegates elected from Africa, Eurasia, the Philippines, and the United States. South Georgia has eight delegates - four laity and four clergy. General Conference last met in 2016 followed by a special session in 2019 focused on matters of human sexuality. The special session approved a “traditional plan” that retained the traditional language in the Book of Discipline concerning LGBTQ marriage and ordination. That is the Book of Discipline under which we continue to operate. Even after this special session, there continues to be division as the church struggles to achieve consensus and compliance with regard to matters of human sexuality. (Note: Bishops do not vote at General Conference; the voting is by the laity and clergy delegates.)

    The General Conference was scheduled to next meet in May 2020, but the pandemic caused a postponement until late summer 2021 (Aug. 29 - Sept. 7). However, it still remains to be seen if a global meeting of that nature will be possible with current travel and in-person gathering restrictions. A decision will be made by the Commission on General Conference in the coming week.

    This past Saturday, U.S. delegates participated in a webinar where they heard reports about churchwide finances, the Episcopal Fund, General Conference options, the Jurisdictional Study Committee report, and a recommendation from the Council of Bishops about Episcopal Elections. (Click here to view.)
     
  2. Commission on General Conference: The Commission on General Conference, comprised of laity and clergy, is charged with planning the global gathering of General Conference delegates. Due to the continuing pandemic, it does seem unlikely that a regular two-week General Conference session could occur in late summer in Minneapolis as planned. There is a sub-committee of the Commission looking into whether the conference could take place online. Even with that, many factors must be taken into account: Internet connectivity, 16-hour time zone difference, interpretation for nine languages, safeguarding voting procedures, how our rules fit electronic meetings, presiding officers, legislative committees, and Christian conferencing. You can read more in this article about the kinds of considerations being made by the Commission on General Conference. Their next meeting is February 20. It is anticipated that the Commission will announce their decision soon after their meeting, and the leadership of South Georgia will be monitoring this closely.
     
  3. Legislation: Delegates to General Conference consider all the legislative petitions that have been sent in by individuals, churches, conferences, boards, and agencies. Many plans have already been submitted concerning ways to move The United Methodist Church beyond the impasse over human sexuality. Once General Conference actually occurs, these various plans can be debated and amended during the session in order to determine which of them might be appealing to the laity and clergy delegates. Questions have been raised about submitting new legislation/plans. Paragraph 507 in the Book of Discipline lays out the process for how new petitions could be received
     
  4. Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation: Sometimes referred to as “The Protocol” or “A Protocol for Separation,” this plan grew out of a group of 16 people who used a professional mediator to see if they could come up with a way to move beyond the impasse over sexuality. The result is a plan that would lead to a separation in which there would be a new traditional Methodist denomination and a continuing expression of the current UMC, referred to as “the post-separation UMC.” The legislation providing for this plan would have to be approved by the delegates at General Conference. If approved, annual conferences could decide to join one expression of Methodism or the other. A local church that disagreed with the decision of its annual conference could decide to withdraw and move to the other expression where it was better aligned. Clergy would have the same option. If the Protocol for Separation were to be approved, there would be a period of a year or more during which these decisions could be considered by annual conferences, local churches, and clergy. Some questions that would be uppermost in everyone’s mind would be: What will be the specifics of each of the two denominations? What will be their basic beliefs and core values? How will they be structured? How will clergy be credentialed and appointed? How will they be funded and how will money be spent? It is good to note that while the Protocol does seem to have support, nothing prohibits the Protocol from being amended at General Conference.

    I am aware of one group made up of clergy and laity from every U.S. jurisdiction and three Central Conferences who are working on what a new traditional Methodist global denomination might look like. It is my understanding they will be sharing their plans soon.
  1. Protocol for Graceful Unity: There is also another plan that is circulating that I am aware of called the Protocol for Graceful Unity, also referred to as the “Overlapping Conferences Plan.” This is a new plan that emerged during the past year among United Methodists who felt that the options offered by the Protocol for Separation were too limiting.  These persons long for a United Methodist Church that provides a place for as many United Methodists as possible, while guaranteeing them defined space to live out their theological convictions. To accomplish this, the Protocol for Unity provides for two large conferences (one traditional and one progressive) in each region of The United Methodist Church. In the U.S., for instance, there would be a traditional conference that covers the entire nation, and there would be a progressive conference that covers the entire nation. The two conferences would have a separate Book of Discipline, separate bishops, and separate funding. They might choose to work together on things such as disaster response, but they would be separate and distinct entities under the global umbrella of The United Methodist Church.  
     
  2. Scenarios: I am already in the process of discussing various scenarios with the leadership teams of our conference: the Appointive Cabinet, the Compass Group, the Laity Cabinet, and the leaders of our General Conference delegation. Since 2018, the Leadership Forum Task Force has been meeting to study proposed plans and ask how they would affect South Georgia. You can be certain that these conversations will continue once we have clarity from the Commission on General Conference as to when the postponed 2020 General Conference will actually be held. 
     
  3. Jurisdictional Conference: I also want to say a word about Jurisdictional Conference. In the U.S., there are five geographical regions called “jurisdictions.” We are in the Southeastern Jurisdiction (SEJ), which includes 13 annual conferences in the southeastern region of the U.S. The SEJ normally meets for a conference every four years a few months after General Conference. One of the primary items of business is the election and assignment of bishops within the jurisdiction. South Georgia has 16 delegates - the eight General Conference delegates plus four additional laity and four additional clergy. (Note: Bishops do not vote at Jurisdictional Conference; the voting is by the laity and clergy delegates.)

    Just as General Conference was postponed, Jurisdictional Conference was also postponed. Because of these postponements, no new elections of bishops have been made. Five bishops were slated to retire in the SEJ in 2020. I was one of these. All five of us agreed to continue to serve until a date can be set for a jurisdictional gathering.

    The SEJ Committee on Episcopacy, who makes the assignments of bishops in our jurisdiction, has brought forth three recommendations they presented last month to the SEJ delegates and again this past Saturday. Of course, nothing can be formally considered until the SEJ Conference meets and votes. (We have been given permission to share a video that was presented to the SEJ delegations that will provide more information on the three recommendations.) The three recommendations are:

    --The 5 bishops who were planning to retire in 2020 would retire in 2021 (Ward, Taylor, Swanson, Leland, and Bryan). 
    --The SEJ Conference would elect no new bishops in 2021. This would create a significant cost savings and would allow churches and conferences to make decisions related to the upcoming General Conference so that the proper number of elections would take place at the right time. By not electing bishops in 2021, this would mean that an annual conference might share a bishop with another annual conference. 
    --The Committee on Episcopacy would make recommendations for the assignment of episcopal coverage of the 15 Annual Conferences in the SEJ by the 8 remaining active Bishops.
     
--  WHAT WE KNOW NOW --
 
I realize this is a lot to take in. There are so many moving pieces and so many unknowns. For now, however, here are some things we DO know: 

First, whether General Conference occurs this year or at some time in the future, we will continue to be Alive Together as the South Georgia Conference. Many leading indicators, including your strong apportionment giving in spite of the global pandemic, show that we are glad to be the South Georgia Conference, and we plan to stay that way. 

Second, the South Georgia Conference will continue to operate under the Book of Discipline as approved by the 2016 and 2019 General Conferences. 

Third, prior to the next General Conference, whenever that may be, conference leadership and I will continue to provide information and feedback opportunities to the laity and clergy of South Georgia. 

Fourth, once General Conference has acted, the leadership of the South Georgia Conference will implement the process we have already established. We will assess the decision made and do a comprehensive evaluation of the implications. We will develop at least one option for our conference to consider and move together. This will enable us to chart a course for the future in which we can continue to serve and remain together as an annual conference. Of course, we don’t know what the options will be, but we can choose the option that will enable the South Georgia Conference to write our own story that best enables us to remain Alive Together as an annual conference.

Fifth, we will take whatever comes from General Conference and process it in “South Georgia time.” In other words, we will give ourselves time to gain a thorough understanding of the implications for our 588 local churches. We will be Alive Together at the Table so that laity and clergy have ample opportunity to ask questions, receive information, and seek God’s guidance through prayer, conversation, worship, study, and collaboration. Remember, the South Georgia table is ours. Let’s use it.  

 -- SCENARIOS --

With this knowledge in mind, let us take a look at two possible scenarios:  

Scenario One: The Commission on General Conference announces that General Conference will occur in 2021, either in person or electronically. The Commission will also have to announce what the agenda will be and how the legislative petitions will be considered by the delegates. In that case, I will work with our General Conference delegation and other leadership groups in our conference to share specific information about legislation that is of particular interest to South Georgia. There will also be provision for laity and clergy to give feedback concerning proposed legislation. Our conference website is already the go-to place for accurate, up-to-date information. This primary communication channel will be augmented by videos, zoom conversations, and district communication events. The newly formed Laity Cabinet is in the process of building out a communication network to connect local church lay leaders, district lay leaders, and the annual conference lay leader. If a General Conference comes about this year we have the infrastructure in place to enable everyone in South Georgia to be Alive Together at the Table.  

Scenario Two: The Commission on General Conference announces that General Conference will not be held in 2021. If this occurs I expect to hear disappointment from some and a sigh of relief from others. For example, those who have seen the Protocol for Separation as a hopeful plan for orderly, gracious separation so something new can emerge will, understandably, have a sense of sadness over the delay. On the other hand, those who long for an alternative to the Protocol might view a delay as an opportunity to consider alternatives such as the Protocol for Gracious Unity.

If there is a delay, the Commission will also announce the new projected dates for General Conference. In that case, we will continue to operate under the current Book of Discipline and focus major attention on helping our churches and communities recover from the pandemic.  We will also want to encourage continuing adaptive behavior among our churches. Many congregations have embraced new ways of being church, and we want to support their ongoing efforts. In addition, we could use the extra time to study legislation such as the plans listed above to prepare ourselves for the next General Conference.  

As soon as possible after February 20, I will share more details as they are released by the Commission on General Conference. Through ongoing communication and conversation, I want to keep you well informed and up to date. I have complete confidence that God is at work to achieve His ultimate will. 

You have done a remarkable job staying focused on Christ and the work of the Gospel during this unprecedented past year. Let’s continue being Alive Together in radical openness to God’s preferred future for South Georgia.