Michigan Conference delegates to the next General Conference reflect on the pluses and minuses of the delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
JOHN E. HARNISH
Michigan Conference Communications
“The postponement of General Conference has given United Methodists the gift of time and space,” says the Rev. Paul Perez, a member of the Michigan delegation and the newly appointed Michigan Conference Director of Connectional Ministry. Paul believes this time and space has provided an opportunity “to focus on being in vital and essential ministry during the pandemic and in soul searching about the sin of racism.”
The General Conference, which would have decided the future of the denomination and the potential split into two or more separate branches of Methodism, was scheduled to take place in May 2020. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been rescheduled for August 2021. The Michigan delegation members have been reflecting on what the delay of more than a year will mean for the church as we seek to find our way into a new future.
Paul is not the only one who feels some good has come out of this time of waiting. Nichea VerVeer Guy says, “It has been frustrating, but it has given me a chance to meditate and fine-tune my thoughts and coordinate my actions more acutely.” The Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai’s role as the executive for the denomination’s Connectional Table usually involves extensive travel on behalf of the church. Instead, the stay-at-home orders gave her time to watch the birds at her backyard bird feeders and to “…connect more fully with the God of creation.”
“Slowing down and making space for the birds has given me a type of Sabbath,” Kennetha added. “It has been one of the gifts of this pandemic.” Diane Brown shared a similar experience of this time of waiting. She said, “Mostly, I’ve been using this time to strengthen my personal relationship with God.” She credits her Bible study, her local church, and observing other churches on-line as key parts of that journey.
The Rev. Joy Barrett, an elected delegate to eight previous General Conferences, expressed a somewhat different perspective. She feels most delegates and many congregations have already made up their mind how they will vote and that the delay in moving forward has not been helpful. As the pastor of Chelsea First United Methodist Church, she said, “The pandemic forced our congregation to decide what really matters and focus on who we want to be. Instead of staying in limbo, we are determined to move forward and begin living into the future we feel called to, not waiting for the General Conference to act. Just holding in place is not going to work.”
First-time delegate Laura, Witkowski, who co-chairs the delegation along with Bigham-Tsai, shares Joy’s dismay. She acknowledged it is difficult to get ready mentally, physically, and spiritually for an event like General Conference. One of the difficulties for her is the belief that delaying action is unhealthy for the church. “Pushing out decisions,” she says, “continues to do harm. United Methodist exclusion continues, and it remains untenable.”
The delay caused by the pandemic has not stopped the delegates from preparing for the conference and doing the work which goes into it. For example, Nichea says she has been able to be in conversation with other delegates worldwide and have a more deliberate dialogue. “We have had time,” she says, “to really talk through outcomes and look at designing better pathways.”
For both Kennetha and Paul, involvement in the birth of a new initiative called “Out of Chaos…Creation” has been a source of encouragement and a way of connecting with other delegates who share their desire to see the church move in a positive direction in its commitment to justice and inclusion.
At the same time, various caucus groups have been working toward the upcoming General Conference as well. The Wesleyan Covenant Association has been actively encouraging congregations to leave the United Methodist Church and connect with “like-minded, orthodox Christians to build a new global Methodist Church.” The group has chosen a Transitional Leadership Team (the membership remains confidential) and has prepared the draft of a new “Book of Doctrine and Discipline.” They are providing resources for congregations considering exiting the denomination, including legal advice.
Most of the Michigan General Conference delegates agree that the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” still has a good chance of being adopted. This plan was crafted by a broadly representative group and has a strong base of support. It would allow congregations that choose to leave the denomination to take their property with them, under certain provisions. Bishop Thomas Bickerton of New York said, “The protocol provides a pathway that acknowledges our differences, respects everyone and graciously allows us to live out the mission of making disciples for Jesus Christ, albeit in different expressions.”
One of the concerns Paul Perez raised was whether the financial impact of the pandemic would undermine the viability of the Protocol’s financial arrangements for the separation. This, along with many other details, await the action of the General Conference. “And,” Joy Barrett says, “you never know how the Holy Spirit might lead.”
Looking forward, Diane Brown acknowledged the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to think coherently and collaboratively about these issues. “I can only hope,” she says, “that later in 2021, we will be able to refocus our efforts and energies while resuming where we left off.” Laura Witkowski believes, “The pandemic as taught us we can innovate, we can do new things. Heading to General Conference, I don’t want to forget what I have learned during this time.”
In the same spirit, Kennetha Bingham-Tsai adds, “Perhaps the delay was a God-given opportunity to slow the feverishness of our church politics to make time and space for reflection and visioning.” If so, it will mean the 862 delegates who gather in Minneapolis next August will be better prepared to make major decisions about the future of United Methodism.