- As they deal with rising church disaffiliations, United Methodist bishops see a need for the denomination’s top lawmaking body to meet three times between 2024 and 2028.
- Their recommendation supports a ruling by the denomination’s top court saying an additional General Conference needs to be scheduled.
- In the meantime, the denomination’s finance agency is asking the church court to reconsider its ruling.
The Council of Bishops is recommending that The United Methodist Church hold a five-day session of its top lawmaking assembly in May 2026.
This gathering would be in addition to the regular General Conference sessions already planned for 2024 and 2028.
“This also would be a regular session,” Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton, who also leads the New York Conference, told UM News.
“But we are asking for it to be framed a different way to enable us to make the kind of shifts that the denomination needs to make.”
The denomination’s General Conference draws lay and clergy delegates, bishops and others from four continents. The delegates typically consider legislative petitions and elect various church leaders over a period of 10 days. The bishops are suggesting the extra General Conference meet for half as long.
The bishops’ request, announced at the conclusion of their April 29-May 5 meeting, comes as the denomination continues to deal with rising church disaffiliations following decades of disputes over same-sex weddings and gay clergy.
In a statement released after the meeting, the bishops said the additional General Conference “would focus on re-establishing connection, lament and healing, celebration, recasting the mission and vision for The United Methodist Church.”
The bishops’ resolution also supports a recent ruling by the Judicial Council, The United Methodist Church’s top court.
With the pandemic-caused postponement of the 2020 General Conference to 2024, the Judicial Council majority said in Decision 1472 that another regular session must convene between the beginning of 2025 and the end of 2027 to get the schedule back on track.
The denomination’s constitution in Paragraph 14 says General Conference “shall meet once in four years.”
The Judicial Council majority said that since the paragraph “stipulates one session per every four years, another regular session of General Conference is therefore required.”
However, four of the nine Judicial Council members dissented from that part of the ruling.
With that division in mind, the General Council on Finance and Administration — the denomination’s finance agency — is asking the church court to reconsider its decision.
The Judicial Council’s ruling would result in holding three General Conference sessions over five years.
The agency’s request for reconsideration argues that the denomination’s constitution “does not establish the total number of sessions of the General Conference there is to have been at any given time in the life of the denomination. Instead, it states how often the General Conference should convene.”
The agency’s request goes on to discuss the denomination’s financial constraints. The finance agency said the 2016 General Conference — the most recent regular session — cost about $10 million, and costs have only gone up. The added expense of planning another General Conference within the same four-year period would reduce funds “allocated to other areas/functions of the general Church, with reductions in some areas approaching a total of 50%,” the agency said.
Under the Judicial Council’s Rules of Practice and Procedure, a majority of the church court’s members must vote for reconsideration for the decision to be revisited.
The bishops also plan to file their own brief in the case, in support of the church court’s recent ruling.
Ultimately, the Commission on the General Conference is the body responsible for selecting the site and setting the dates of the legislative assembly. The top executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration is also the General Conference treasurer.
The commission plans to hold its first in-person meeting since 2019 at the end of this month where completing plans for next year’s General Conference tops the agenda. Bickerton, the Council of Bishops president, plans to be at the commission’s coming meeting.
The next General Conferences is slated for April 23-May 3, 2024, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Bishops do not have a vote at General Conference, but preside at its plenary sessions.
In the meantime, bishops continue to seek to lead the denomination through this wave of church exits.
A church law, the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 2553, that went into effect in 2019 allows U.S. congregations to leave with property if they meet certain obligations. Those requirements include majority approval by their annual conference — a church regional body consisting of lay and clergy voters from multiple churches.
Immediately after the Council of Bishops meeting, some of the bishops in attendance presided at special sessions of annual conferences scheduled to take up disaffiliation requests.
By a UM News count, annual conferences have approved nearly 3,000 church disaffiliations under the church law. That translates to roughly 10% of U.S. congregations withdrawing since Paragraph 2553 went into effect. More departures are expected before the church law expires at the end of the year.
Still, bishops see many reasons for hope in the denomination’s future, especially for a more cohesive denomination going forward that can focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ rather than internal conflict.
“The Cross and Flame means something distinctive and impactful in our world,” preached Iowa Conference Bishop Kennetha Bigham-Tsai during one morning worship service.
“This symbol is recognizable around the world because of the power of our witness that backs it up.”
That witness, she said, includes feeding the hungry, providing disaster relief, seeking justice for the marginalized, as well as praying and working for the dismantling of racism and oppression in all its forms.
“Even in the midst of our turmoil,” Bigham-Tsai preached, “God will empower us and is empowering us to find innovative ways to grow our mission.”