Looking ahead to General Conference next year


Key Points:

  • General Conference organizers held their final in-person meeting before The United Methodist Church’s lawmaking assembly meets next year.
  • Commission members heard an update on visa invitations and discussed the handling of certain proposals coming before delegates.
  • They also briefly discussed plans from the Council of Bishops to call a special General Conference in 2026.

After a four-year delay, the next General Conference is rapidly approaching in just over four months.

With time of the essence, the commission that plans The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly met Dec. 12-15 in Charlotte, North Carolina, to iron out some final details.

The coming General Conference is now set to take place April 23-May 3 in that city’s convention center — bringing together United Methodists from four continents who will make decisions that will shape the global denomination for years to come.

During their December meeting, commission members also heard updates on efforts to ensure General Conference delegates from outside the United States receive the required visas to attend. Long waits for visas — exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — were a major reason for General Conference’s continued postponement.

The United Methodist Church typically holds its General Conference every four years. Before the pandemic shut down world travel, the coming session was initially scheduled in May 2020 in Minneapolis. There, delegates expected to take up legislation for a denominational separation after decades of intensifying debate and defiance over United Methodist bans on same-sex marriage and noncelibate, gay clergy.

A separation of sorts already has taken place. The 2024 General Conference comes as the denomination is grappling with the withdrawal of more than 7,600 U.S. congregations from The United Methodist Church.

Those departures represent about a quarter of U.S. churches leaving the denomination under a disaffiliation policy passed by the 2019 special General Conference. The bulk of those departures took place this year before the disaffiliation policy officially ends on Dec. 31.

Whether that church-exit policy will be extended beyond this year or expanded to include churches outside the United States will be up to General Conference. The same is true for any change in the denomination’s policies related to LGBTQ people.

The lawmaking assembly faces many proposals dealing with topics as varied as the denomination-wide budget, social teachings, ecumenical relations and international structure.

All told, General Conference has received 1,100 properly submitted petitions — basically the United Methodist equivalent of bills before a legislature. And just like a bill on Capitol Hill, the first stop for a General Conference petition is in one of the gathering’s legislative committees. In 2024, General Conference will have 14 legislative committees.

The Book of Discipline — the denomination’s policy book — requires that all petitions must receive a vote in their assigned committee and all legislation approved by a committee must receive a vote by the full General Conference plenary.

“We really, as a commission, cannot set priority on legislation. That’s not what we’re called to do,” Kim Simpson, the chair of the Commission on the General Conference, said during the December meeting. “We are called to make sure that the facilities, the (language) interpretation, the hospitality — everything — is ready so that delegates can do their best work.”

Here is a look at some of what the commission did at its recent meeting.

Impact of disaffiliations

Part of helping delegates do their work includes dealing with some of the implications of the disaffiliations that already have occurred.

At its previous in-person meeting in May, commission members discussed how to handle petitions submitted by people who, for whatever reason, are no longer part of The United Methodist Church.

The Book of Discipline states that any United Methodist organization, clergy member or lay member may submit a petition to General Conference. The key phrase in that provision, the Discipline’s Paragraph 507, is “United Methodist.”

The commission approved a recommendation from its rules committee that will allow the Rev. Gary Graves, General Conference secretary, to enter a report identifying petitions submitted by people who have now left The United Methodist Church. Graves will base his report on information provided by chairs of delegations. His report will be shared with legislative committee chairs and printed in the Daily Christian Advocate, a daily report on General Conference proceedings.

“Everyone in the body would have that information in front of them as we begin our work together,” said Marie Kuch-Stanovsky, a commission member from the Pacific Northwest Conference.

Annual conferences — regional bodies consisting of multiple congregations — elect the delegates heading to General Conference. Disaffiliations and other changes since 2020 also have affected who serves on those delegations.

The Judicial Council — The United Methodist Church’s top court — has ruled that annual conferences could hold elections to fill any vacancies in their General Conference delegations if their pool of reserve delegates is empty.

However, the church’s high court has left it up to General Conference to decide how to handle vacancies in delegations to jurisdictional and central conferences, which meet after General Conference takes place.

Jurisdictional conferences in the U.S. and central conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines are the bodies that elect bishops. General Conference delegates as well as an additional number of elected delegates serve these bodies. Delegates elected solely to their jurisdictional or central conference also serve as General Conference reserves.

A number of U.S. annual conferences held elections earlier this year to fill vacancies in their jurisdictional conference slates. For now, those delegates are only provisionally elected. General Conference will have final say on whether those additional delegates can be certified to serve. Similarly, if General Conference chooses to allow those vacancies to be filled, annual conferences that have not yet filled vacancies on their jurisdictional and central conference slates will have the chance to do so after General Conference meets.

However, if General Conference opts to leave those vacancies unfilled, then the provisional delegates will not be certified and no new elections will need to be held.

“General Conference will need to make that call and then we will implement whatever that decision is,” Graves told the commission.

Visa updates

The commission also received an update on where things stand in ensuring elected General Conference delegates have the required visas to attend.

Commission plans call for the coming General Conference to have 862 voting delegates — 55.9% from the U.S., 32% from Africa, 6% from the Philippines, 4.6% from Europe and the remainder from concordat churches that have close ties to The United Methodist Church. Half are to be clergy and half lay. Bishops preside at General Conference sessions but do not have a vote.

Of the 862 delegates, 360 are to come from Africa, the Philippines and Europe. Simpson, the commission’s chair, reported that letters of invitation have been sent out to 262 of those delegates — the first step in obtaining visas. Simpson said the commission is currently waiting to receive passport information from another 45 delegates. For the remaining 53 delegates from central conferences, the commission is still waiting on their credentials from their annual conference secretaries.

“Credentialing is to make sure these are the right delegates, the ones who have been elected,” Simpson said. The commission previously found that four people who were not elected delegates cast votes during the 2019 special General Conference.

Handling regionalization legislation

The commission also spent time discussing how to handle the multiple proposals coming to General Conference that affect the denomination’s global structure.

A number of United Methodists have submitted legislation aimed at putting the U.S. and central conferences on equal footing in church decision-making. At this point, central conferences have the authority to adapt the Book of Discipline to their contexts but the United States does not. One result is that U.S. concerns end up dominating General Conference, and the U.S. dominance has contributed to the debates over LGBTQ policies that rage at the global meeting.

The most prominent of the regionalization proposals aimed at changing this dynamic comes from the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, a permanent General Conference committee that meets between sessions.

All regionalization proposals, including the standing committee’s plan, are currently assigned to be first considered in the conferences legislative committee.

The committee, whose members have already started discussing the proposals, would have responsibility for refining the legislation and voting on what heads to the full plenary for more possible changes and a vote.

But because regionalization has the potential to affect other legislation at General Conference, the commission wanted some way for all delegates to at least keep the proposals in mind during their time in legislative committees.

The commission approved a recommendation that all legislative committees set aside time to discuss regionalization and how it will affect the work of their committee. That discussion would take place as the first order of business when legislative committees meet on April 25. The committees will receive a resource, including some questions for discussion, prepared by General Conference’s steering committee.

“Regionalization is at the forefront in the minds of every delegate coming, no matter how they feel about it,” said the Rev. Andy Call, a commission member from the East Ohio Conference. “We know that there are going to be significant conversations.”

Looking ahead to 2026

The United Methodist Council of Bishops has announced plans to call a five-day special session of General Conference in 2026 — which the Book of Discipline allows bishops to do.

“A special session of General Conference in 2026 would allow the church to see our work as having two important next steps, the first being the regular session of the General Conference in 2024, and the second to make continued progress in 2026,” the bishops said in a statement.

Special sessions can only deal with a set purpose stated in the bishops’ call. The bishops have announced that the purpose of the called session will be unveiled next year.

A special session in 2026 would have the same delegates who serve in 2024, unless an annual conference chooses to elect a new slate.

Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton asked commission members and staff to consider what a 2026 special session should entail. A number of commission members suggested that bishops wait to see what the coming General Conference does before specifying a purpose. Commission members also brought up the desire to see a gathering that focuses more on spiritual formation than legislation.

“Everything is on the table at this point,” Bickerton told the commission. “And our goal is to really think seriously about how would a gathering in the middle of the quadrennium help us get down the road in terms of the future expression of The United Methodist Church and what we need to do.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.

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