Safety, health of participants ‘paramount’
Bishop L. Jonathan Holston and other leaders are working diligently to discern a plan of action for the 2020 session of the South Carolina Annual Conference, which has been postponed from June 7-10 because of safety concerns associated with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
As of May 22, no new date had been set.
“Clearly, the 2020 Annual Conference session will be like none other before it,” said the Rev. Ken Nelson, who, as conference secretary, is responsible for leading the planning effort for the annual gathering of delegates from across the conference.
“We know how much our clergy and laity look forward to coming together each year in shared worship, in celebration of ministry well served and the dawn of new ministry, and in fellowship and communion with our corner of the Connection.
“As we redesign this Annual Conference, the safety and health of our delegates and other participants is our paramount concern.”
Among the issues Bishop Holston, the Cabinet and the Conference Committee on the Annual Conference are considering, many center on COVID-19 precautions.
Some 2,000 people have attended Annual Conference each of the past several years. While some restrictions on public interactions have been loosened in recent weeks, gathering that many people in the same space remains contrary to the clear guidance of public health experts.
Historically, a significant majority of those attendees—especially those 65 and older and persons with serious underlying health conditions—would be considered at higher risk for severe illness or death should they contract the disease.
Once it is determined that delegates can gather safely in one place, participants still would need to practice proper social distancing and wear masks and other personal protective equipment. A process for regularly cleaning and disinfecting common touch points in public spaces would need to be in place, and other safety protocols would need to be followed.
There are a number of complicated legal, disciplinary and church polity considerations when determining how the business of the Annual Conference is handled.
It is likely that the traditional four-day Annual Conference schedule will be reduced to one or two days. This would reduce the potential for delegates to be exposed to COVID-19.
There are matters that The Book of Discipline mandates delegates must vote on each year during Annual Conference, including certain reports from conference boards and commissions. Conference leaders are working to ensure that the focus of delegates’ time together is centered on what must be accomplished.
Annual Conference planners are exploring options that might result in the scheduling of some events—Commissioning and Ordination Service, Service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving, Service of Recognition for Retiring Ministers—at another time.
Often-confusing logistical and parliamentary issues related to how delegates debate and vote on issues before the Annual Conference could become even more complicated within a compacted schedule. For example, how to handle the potential introduction of proposed amendments or new business from the floor.
After ensuring the safety and health of participants, the next priority of Annual Conference planners is making sure all 968 South Carolina churches and charges have the opportunity to be represented properly and fairly.
“When we can safely gather for Annual Conference this year, no one should expect a return to business as usual,” Bishop Holston said. “We must remember that adhering to healthy practices is part of our obligation as Christians to care for one another. We are committed to the safety and protection of each lay and clergy member of the South Carolina Annual Conference.
“We are committed to continuing vital ministry in communities across South Carolina well into the future. Practicing necessary flexibility now will ensure sustained good health as we continue making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”