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.
There has been a lot of recent debate about vaccine requirements as a bar to participation in General Conference by delegates from outside the United States. This debate has surfaced important issues about international equality and equity within the church. It has, however, overlooked the second big bar to participation in General Conference by delegates from outside the United States: visas.
Heather Hahn's recent article about UMC debates emphasizes, though, that visas are just as important as vaccinations for allowing General Conference to happen. And new data show that it may be visas, rather than vaccinations, that are the more insurmountable obstacle. Up to a third of General Conference delegates (and three-quarters of those from outside the United States) may not be able to obtain visas in time to participate in an August 2022 General Conference.
Visas are difficult to obtain even in normal times, as previously reported. But the pandemic has created anything but normal times over the past two years, making the process much slower and more difficult.
The wait times for visa processing depends on both the demand for visas from a country and the capacity of the consulate in that country to process visas. Visa wait times vary somewhat by country and from year to year, but normally, they are around two months.
COVID has disrupted normal wait times in many countries, however. During some parts of the pandemic, the US government was not issuing visas at all, at least to particular countries. This has created a backlog of demand for visas in some countries. COVID may have also diminished the capacity of various consulates to process visas in some cases.
The result is that in a number of countries, including countries where UMC General Conference delegates reside, wait times for obtaining visas have become quite long. Moreover, visas are still completely unavailable in a few countries where General Conference delegates reside. Other countries have returned to fairly normal wait times.
Based on the visa appointment wait times reported by the US State Department, there are up to 286 General Conference delegates who, if they were to start the process today in the US consulate in the capital of their country, would not even be able to get a visa application interview before General Conference is scheduled to meet. This is approximately a third of the total number of delegates and just over three quarters of the delegates from outside the United States.
Moreover, having a visa application interview is no guarantee of getting a visa, and in some cases there is additional processing time required to issue the visa. That additional processing time could mean that several more delegates would not be able to get visas before General Conference is scheduled to meet in August if they started the process today.
This group includes all of the delegates from the DRC (the country with the second highest number of United Methodists) and the Philippines (representing an entire central conference). It also includes a variety of other African and European countries, including Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Russia, all of which have substantial delegate counts. If they start now, at current rates, Nigerian delegates couldn’t get visas in time for General Conference in 2024.
Of course, some of these delegates may already have started the visa process. The US government began processing visas again in most countries three months ago. Not only did that represent an earlier start to the process, if delegates applied then, the timing of their interview would be based on wait times at that point, which may have been lower.
Some delegates may already have visas for other purposes. In a typical General Conference year, some delegates have visitor visas already because of travel to the United States for other church meetings or business or personal travel. That number is likely to be lower this year because of the pause in travel due to the pandemic.
It is possible that the visa application wait times could come down, though in many cases, they would need to come down substantially to allow delegates to participate. There are also sometimes other work arounds – for instance, applying in another nearby country (which is not allowed in all cases).
Part of the challenge of visas is that, because the process is controlled entirely by the US government, the UMC has little leverage to affect the outcome or timing. UMC leaders can advocate on behalf of delegates, and the Commission on General Conference is undoubtedly doing so, but such advocacy has limited effectiveness even in normal times.
Thus, even with the exceptions noted above, an in-person General Conference held in the United States in August would likely not allow representatives from a substantial portion of the church to participate.
Obviously, I cannot speak for the Commission on General Conference. But given their previous statements about their desire to have an in-person General Conference with representation from a wide and representative array of United Methodists, the outlook for holding General Conference this year does not look good.