Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
As explained last week, there is real reason, based on the best available expertise on how the coronavirus pandemic may play out, to expect that the General Conference delayed to August/September of 2021 may not happen. If true, this further postponement would raise significant questions about how the denomination will address pressing problems and keep the machinery of the denomination running. This piece will examine what a further delayed General Conference would mean for denominational budgets, boards, and bishops.
General Conference sets the denomination’s quadrennial budget, and this power is reserved to this body. Other groups, especially GCFA and the Connectional Table, have a role in proposing a budget to General Conference, and GCFA has a good deal of authority to administer apportionment money and set payout rates based on the budget, but General Conference makes the budget. No General Conference in 2021 means no updated budget for the denomination.
It is easy enough to roll over current budgets, and GCFA has indicated that they will continue to operate based on the previous quadrennium’s budget until General Conference convenes in 2021, though they recognized that this decision was taken on shaky authority. Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons (membership declines, denominational division, the pandemic, the economy) the UMC’s budget going forward will need to be different and smaller than the previous quadrennium’s budget.
What then happens in this situation? Does the UMC continue to operate based on percentages of the 2016–2020 budget, since that was the last one approved, even if it does not reflect the financial realities of the church? This would impose proportional cuts on all budget lines. Or is there some move to try to prioritize within these cuts? If so, who will have the authority to make these difficult decisions?
Board members for most denominational boards and agencies and chosen following General Conference, though not directly by it. General Conference does appoint members to certain denominational committees, such as the Judicial Council, University Senate, and study commissions. For now, these boards, agencies, and committees have asked their members from last quadrennium to continue to serve until new members can be elected following General Conference 2021.
But that becomes more difficult the longer the situation endures, especially if denominational division happens in the meantime. If people are no longer United Methodist, they are presumably no longer serving on United Methodist boards, agencies, or committees. Even for those who remain United Methodist, life circumstances may change in a way that prohibits members from continuing to serve. In some cases, changed life circumstances (new jobs, retirement, shifted family responsibilities) may make some members unwilling to continue to serve. In other more severe instances, circumstances (death, major illness) may make some members unable to continue to serve.
Boards typically have some amount of fluctuation in membership, and in normal times, they are set up to handle that fluctuation. But if a significant portion of the membership of the board does not continue, that can raise issues that impact the board’s ability to function, including quorum, officers, etc. Especially if responding to significant budget reductions or selecting new leadership, a fully functioning board can be quite important to an organization. Boards and agencies are likely to not wait indefinitely to replenish their membership if needed, even if this means departing from convention.
Full membership is potentially quite important for the Judicial Council as well. Although there are alternates for the Judicial Council, it is still possible that the Council could end up short of members before the next General Conference. And if there are significant judicial issues surrounding denominational division, it would be very important to have a fully functional Judicial Council. The alternative is that judicial review becomes less significant in the denomination.
General Conference does not elect bishops (at least not anymore.) But Jurisdictional and Central Conferences, which do elect bishops, are set to happen after General Conference. No General Conference likely means no Jurisdictional or Central Conferences. Jurisdictional and Central Conferences may also face the same sorts of pandemic-related restrictions that could scuttle GC2021.
If Jurisdictional and Central Conferences are further postponed, it raises questions for bishops’ tenure and replacement. In most instances, active bishops have agreed to postpone their retirement and continue to serve through 2022, when successors elected at delayed Jurisdictional and Central Conferences could begin their terms.
But bishops may not be willing to do the same until 2023 or 2024. And some active bishops may leave with the WCA. This may leave episcopal vacancies. How would they be filled? Would remaining bishops then cover expanded territories? Would bishops be called back out of retirement?
Alternatively, significant numbers of churches in an episcopal area might leave with the WCA, leaving a bishop supervising a much smaller number of remaining churches. How could episcopal areas be reconfigured without Jurisdictional or Central Conferences to do so?
The upshot is that a further delayed General Conference may have a significant impact on the extent and quality of episcopal leadership in the denomination over the next four years.
On all of these issues, and on issues surrounding denominational division, authority and leadership will be devolved to lower levels of the denomination, whether that is individual churches deciding to leave with the WCA, GCFA and the Connectional Table making budget decisions, boards and agencies deciding how to fill board vacancies, or district superintendents stepping up to cover some duties during episcopal transitions. As part of this trend, local churches will probably have to get along with less support from the denomination at a time when they are already under great strain from the pandemic. Many pastors may decide to retire early or leave ministry as a result.
The corollary of this devolution of leadership is that not just General Conference, but the Book of Discipline will be undercut as a source of authority. The Book of Discipline did not anticipate and made no provision for many of the extraordinary circumstances in which the church now finds itself. That means that people will need to find ways to run the church in the next couple of years that skirt around or, in some cases, flat out ignore what the Book of Discipline says. A Judicial Council hobbled by incomplete membership would be less able to resist this trend.
Once the Book of Discipline becomes something that can be ignored in certain circumstances, though, a precedent has been set. It will become easier to ignore the Book of Discipline in the future, even under less dire circumstances.
That scenario of a diminished Book of Discipline is likely unavoidable. But it is another sign that, even when things return to “normal” post-pandemic, it will no longer be business as usual as it was before the pandemic. We—individuals, churches, and as a denomination—will bear the impacts of the present pandemic on us for a long time to come.