By Heather Hahn
April 21, 2020 | UM News
After the pandemic-caused postponement, the new prospective dates for The United Methodist Church’s General Conference are Aug. 31-Sept. 10, 2021.
The Council of Bishops disclosed the proposed dates, including a Council of Bishops meeting starting Aug. 26, in an email to its members and other church leaders. The proposed dates also were discussed among delegates of at least one jurisdictional conference in late March.
General Conference organizers have not confirmed the dates.
Previously, the organizers announced that they resolved to keep the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly in the Minneapolis Convention Center. General Conference was originally scheduled to meet at the convention center May 5-15 of this year.
With the legislative assembly on the calendar, other church gatherings also will get new dates.
The Council of Bishops said that once the General Conference dates are official, new dates will be announced for the five jurisdictional conferences —simultaneous meetings where new U.S. bishops are elected. The jurisdictional conferences, originally scheduled for July, are now on hold.
The seven central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines — also are rescheduling their meetings and bishop elections. Still to be determined is what the delay in bishop elections means for bishops who were to retire this year. The Council of Bishops plans to have a virtual meeting on April 29-May 1.
The yearlong postponement of General Conference is unprecedented, according to the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History.
The United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies typically have held a General Conference at least every four years since 1792. The Methodist Episcopal Church South replaced General Conference with a two-day informal meeting in 1862during the turmoil of the U.S. Civil War, but it continued its meeting as scheduled in May 1918, the early days of the influenza pandemic.
However, organizers had to postpone the 2020 General Conference after the Minneapolis Convention Center canceled events into May to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The shutdown would have affected the first five days of 10-day gathering.
Planning the 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 and 66 bishops from four continents as well as potentially thousands of others.
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. Among other factors, the budget affects how many bishops the denomination will financially support and thus how many can be elected.
The 2020 gathering also was set to consider multiple proposals to split the denomination and divide assets after longtime debate over biblical interpretation and the status of LGBTQ people. Those proposals are now on hold.
The deadly virus that causes COVID-19 has threatened and disrupted lives around the globe. It has led to shuttered businesses and suspended in-person worship services.
As of April 21, Johns Hopkins University — which is tracking cases — reported that the coronavirus had infected more than 2.5 million people and killed more than 171,000 worldwide. In the U.S., more than 42,300 people have died from COVID-19.
Even before the Minneapolis Convention Center’s cancellation, United Methodist bishops urged that this year’s General Conference be postponed because of the global health emergency and related travel restrictions.