By Jessica Brodie
As the coronavirus death toll rises and the disease continues to spread worldwide, organizers of General Conference have postponed the quadrennial church gathering.
As of press time, that date had not yet been determined, but organizers said they are working toward a date in 2021.
General Conference of The United Methodist Church had been scheduled for May 5-15 in Minneapolis, but a host of issues caused by the rapidly spreading pandemic prompted the Council of Bishops to send a letter to the Commission on the General Conference March 13 asking that they postpone the event. Days later, the Minneapolis Convention Center—host of the GC2020—announced it would be canceling all events through May 10 because of the coronavirus. As a result, the Commission on the General Conference on March 18 announced the postponement and said it hopes to have the rescheduled date soon.
Kim Simpson, chair of the Commission on the General Conference, said the news was “not unexpected” based on the current guidance from health officials. Simpson said the commission will need to navigate complex issues to reschedule the event, and given that, it does not seem feasible to plan for 2020.
“These issues include the undetermined length of the pandemic, uncertainty around travel bans in different areas of the world, delays in processing visas due to government and business closures and other questions,” Simpson said, noting they plan to keep the event at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Jackie Jenkins, South Carolina’s GC2020 delegation chair, said she fully concurs with the postponement given that scientists still don’t know enough about the virus and how it spreads, and the UMC has a responsibility as a global church to bear concern for the health, safety, wellbeing and connectional ministry of the full church. She said the rest of the South Carolina delegation agrees there is no choice but postponement.
“God expects us to be compassionate with one another,” Jenkins said, noting the delegation will talk more about this when they gather for their regular monthly meeting, now to be held by video conference. “Currently, we are striving to be the church that God is calling us to be right now. In South Carolina, we are people of hospitality, and we are using technology to reach one another by the grace of God.”
South Carolina Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston said he also supports the decision to postpone.
“As a member of the Executive Committee, I support this recommendation for many reasons—the most critical of which is the health and safety of all General Conference delegates,” Holston said. “While the business of our quadrennial General Conference is important, no matter is so pressing that it is worth risking the health—and potentially the life—of even one delegate.
“In addition—given the global nature of the United Methodist Connection and the fact that the pandemic already is wreaking havoc with international travel—convening the General Conference amid the possibility that some conferences might not be represented would violate the covenant nature of our United Methodist polity.”
Holston urged people to pray for those affected by illness and the medical professionals caring for them, as well as for those making public health decisions.
The virus, or COVID-19, was first identified in Wuhan, China, in 2019. It spreads person to person, and there are currently coronavirus cases in every state in the United States, including Minnesota, where GC2020 was to be held. As of March 23, the World Health Organization reports more than 334,000 confirmed cases worldwide and more than 14,000 deaths.
The Commission on the General Conference noted that it was already considering many requests to postpone the event because of the growing pandemic and processing the complexities that would result from that decision. It said the announcement by the Minneapolis Convention Center that those dates will no longer be possible means that the church will not incur significant financial penalties for cancellation of the contract.
Sara Hotchkiss, business manager of the General Conference, said steps are being taken by their travel agency regarding flights booked for delegates and others who booked through ADTRAV. ADTRAV will cancel all flights booked for primary delegates. Travelers will only need to call ADTRAV if they booked a personal ticket for themselves and/or a family member with ADTRAV (855-417-8789). Regarding hotel reservations, Connections Housing will be sending emails regarding individual reservations made through them for the GC2020 hotel block. There is no penalty for this cancellation. No deposit was charged for reservations, therefore no refund is due and no further action is required regarding hotel reservations.
In their letter requesting the commission postpone GC2020, the Council of Bishops urged the action because of international travel restrictions and because of the “grave risk” resulting from both travel and from large meetings that could enable the virus’s spread.
“We note the possibility that a large group infection may result in a quarantine,” the COB letter stated. “We also identify the essential value of a global church that gathers with a fairness of representation. We note the injustice if a number of delegates from a particular area are not able to be present, due to visa or health restrictions. We note the damage such a General Conference would do to the trust level if matters of great and lasting importance are voted upon. We are guided here by the core value of justice.”
General Conference is the highest legislative body in the UMC. It usually convenes once every four years to determine the denomination’s future direction. Lay and clergy delegates from every conference in the UMC—including eight lay and eight clergy from South Carolina—attend and vote on the matters, considering revisions to church law, adopting resolutions, passing budgets and more.
South Carolina’s GC2020 delegates are as follows:
Laity: Jackie Jenkins, James Salley, Michael Cheatham, Herman Lightsey, Chris Lynch, Martha Fridy Thompson, David Braddon, Emily Evans, and alternates Betty Void and David Salter.
Clergy: The Rev. Ken Nelson, Dr. Robin Dease, the Rev. Keith Hunter, the Rev. Susan Leonard, the Rev. Emily Sutton, the Rev. Will Malambri, the Rev. Tiffany Knowlin, the Rev. Karen Jones, and alternates the Rev. Tim Rogers and the Rev. Cathy Mitchell.