Bishop David Bard comments on two important decisions made this week. The General Conference has been postponed until August 2022. In the meantime, an online session in May 2021 will deal with sevearl important matters.
Dear Friends in Christ in The Michigan Conference,
The Commission on the General Conference for The United Methodist Church has released a statement announcing its decision to further postpone the 2020 General Conference given that the trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic does not seem to allow for the planning and holding of a large, in-person international gathering in late August and early September of this year.
Furthermore, the Commission, after hearing a report from its Technology Task Force, did not think a full General Conference could be held virtually given challenges of internet access and time differences involved. It is important to know that there is a 16 hour time difference between the Philippines and the United States West Coast time zones. The Commission sought to do justice and avoid harm. General Conference is now scheduled for August 29-September 6, 2022, in Minneapolis.
Following the Commission’s announcement on the General Conference, the United Methodist Council of Bishops announced it would call a special session of the General Conference to be held virtually on May 8, 2021. The agenda for this special called session will be strictly limited to the consideration of a few changes to The Book of Discipline that will help The United Methodist Church move forward on issues related to jurisdictional conferences, the retirement of bishops, certain annual conference elections, and procedures, and budgetary matters. Since the General Conference’s initial postponement, the bishops have found that the language of our current Book of Discipline offers little flexibility in situations such as a pandemic. Voting on these few petitions will be done by paper ballot.
If you have ever been to or closely followed a General Conference, you will understand why a full-agenda General Conference is essentially impossible as a virtual meeting. It is difficult to conceive ten long days, with committee meetings and multiple amendments being compressed into a virtual format.
“While the postponement of General Conference delays important decisions for The United Methodist Church and puts us in a waiting mode in some ways, it does not mean we have simply hit pause in our life and ministry together.”
While the postponement of General Conference delays important decisions for The United Methodist Church and puts us in a waiting mode in some ways, it does not mean we have simply hit pause in our life and ministry together. In the coming weeks and months, we will be engaged in the on-going work of creating a post-pandemic church. When the Michigan Conference came together, we agreed upon a shared vision to form a conference that equips and connects to foster Christ-centered mission and ministry, to form bold and effective leaders, and to create vibrant congregations.
A broad, aspirational statement of direction was approved at the 2019 Annual Conference that identified important values and directions for the Conference. The conference, in its life together pursuing our vision, will hold space for persons of diverse viewpoints by creating “time and space for reflection, forgiveness, and reconciliation” among those who differ, while also creating new space for LGBTQIA people and joining together in the work of sharing the Gospel and creating a more just, equitable conference and world. This space can be a wide and broad space, a space for grace, and we remain committed to living toward this vision, embodying these values, and welcoming all willing to be part of this adventure. The extensive anti-bias/anti-racism work we are undertaking in our conference is evidence that we are not at a standstill. Further evidence is found in every one of our local churches engaged in faithful ministry for Jesus Christ in the sharing of good news that frees and heals, in feeding, in caring, in doing justice, in fostering reconciliation and doing the works of love.
At the same time, I understand there is disappointment with this decision. We are being asked to wait yet again to make important decisions about the future of The United Methodist Church, and waiting is not always our strongest asset, particularly now when we have been asked to wait so often and about so many things. There is understandable disappointment among many United Methodists that the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation will not be among the items included in a special called session of General Conference in May. Many believe that the petitions related to the Protocol are one of the best ways forward for The United Methodist Church, acknowledging our significant divisions and providing for a gracious and amicable separation. I am not ignorant of the fact that a number of Michigan United Methodists do not see themselves aligned with the direction the conference has claimed and desire to be part of something else. If some kind of structural change, division, or separation is inevitable, waiting can feel onerous. The Protocol was carefully negotiated, and a simple up or down vote may not seem complicated.
“It is important to know that no congregation needs to be voting on its future direction right now.”
Yet is any separation of our United Methodist Church simple? Should such a significant proposal be voted upon without robust conversation, debate, and opportunities to consider accompanying proposals? The Council of Bishops does not think so. Also, since the release of the Protocol, other ideas for moving The United Methodist Church into the future have been proposed, not necessarily as substitutes to the Protocol, but some as important addendums to it. Some propose regional forms of governance for The United Methodist Church, no matter if there is division. Among these additional proposals, I would call your attention to The Christmas Covenant initiated in the Philippines; Africa Voice of Unity; Out of Chaos… Creation; and A Protocol for Graceful Unity. My inclusion of these proposals and ideas here does not represent an endorsement of them. I am merely pointing out reasons why the Protocol petitions are more complicated than some might imagine.
Here we are – more waiting and more uncertainty. In response to these announcements, I don’t know if those working with the Wesleyan Covenant Association or the Liberation Methodist Connexion to create a new Wesleyan denominations/structures/organizations will choose to separate before the postponed General Conference. These groups, and perhaps others, are actively dispensing information about their organizations. I hope you will receive information graciously and ask good questions about what you receive and how issues may be framed. I am committed to doing my best to communicate with you clearly and transparently. I will work with others, even those who may be intending to be part of a new denomination, as cooperatively as possible in this uncertain time. It is important to know that no congregation needs to be voting on its future direction right now.
General Conference has been postponed, except for the limited-agenda special session called by the Council of Bishops. The large decision about restructuring, division, or separation will not be made this year by a General Conference. Restructuring, division, or separation in one form or another remains highly likely at some point. Regardless of when and how that may occur, I am committed to working with graciousness and kindness toward mutual blessing with all persons and churches. The overall witness of the church is only weakened by acrimony and failure to treat others as we would like to be treated.
In Acts 15, an argument between Paul and Barnabas “became so intense that they went their separate way” (v. 39). Yet Barnabas is not trashed following the separation. The only negative thing said about him by Paul is in Galatians, where he notes that Barnabas got a little carried away with some other Jewish Christians.
When I think about a potential separation, the image from Genesis 25 is in my heart and mind. “Abraham took his last breath and died after a good long life, a content old man, and he was placed with his ancestors. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave in Machpelah” (v. 8-9). Two brothers, almost strangers to each other, come together to bury their father. I picture them standing together outside this burial cave, each with their own memories of their father, each with their own memories of the years they were together. There is shared grief and lamentation and a desire for mutual blessing.
“While we are together, I am committed to working with you as your bishop with graciousness, kindness, and toward mutual blessing.”
Some form of separation is likely to come but has not yet arrived. While we are together, I am committed to working with you as your bishop with graciousness, kindness, and toward mutual blessing. As long as we are together, and I continue to believe there is genuine strength in our togetherness, we share in the ministry of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our conference has indicated a direction in which it wishes to travel in this transformational ministry, and we will work to embody that vision. And even when there is disagreement about elements of our vision or dimensions of our values, there remains much we share. We all want to see people come to know God’s saving grace in Jesus. We all want people to grow in the love of God and neighbor. We all want the hungry to be fed and the homeless housed. We all want to overcome the racial divides that have plagued our country and hampered our witness and ministry. We all want to be a force for justice, reconciliation, and healing in our world. We want our congregations to be communities of transformation. Let this be our focus. Let this be the work to which we devote our primary energy. Let our prayers be devoted to transformed lives, vibrant congregations, and vital ministries to heal a broken world.
Some have also asked about the related proposals from the Council of Bishops regarding Jurisdictional Conferences. The proposal is for virtual sessions of Jurisdictional Conferences to be held this coming July to place bishops into retirement, determine the number of new bishops to be elected at in-person Jurisdictional Conferences following the 2022 session of General Conference, and announce a plan for episcopal oversight until that time. The North Central Jurisdiction Committee on the Episcopacy and the College of Bishops will work cooperatively to ensure that every conference has solid episcopal leadership for this interim time. I don’t know if I might be asked to continue to be bishop for a conference beyond Michigan. What I do know is that the Michigan Conference is blessed with solid, faithful, courageous, and creative leaders, and we will make whatever arrangements are needed for the church work for this conference. It continues to be my joy and privilege to work with these people and with you all as your bishop.
Bishop David Bard