General Conference 2019

United Methodists met February 2019 in St. Louis for a special session of the United Methodist General Conference.

General Conference 2019
United Methodist Women member Bethany Amey Sutton talks with a delegate at the 2019 special session General Conference in St. Louis.

The United Methodist Church held a Special Session of General Conference February 23-26 in St. Louis, Missouri. Eight hundred and sixty-four United Methodist delegates from around the world met to discuss a report from the Commission on a Way Forward, which was tasked with creating a plan to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church amid the denomination’s historical divide regarding LGBT inclusion.

After a day devoted to prayer on Feb. 23, Sunday Feb. 24 began with opening worship and a report from the Commission on a Way Forward. Members of the commission shared reflections of their time together and presented the three plans it brought to the General Conference: The One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan and the Traditional Plan.

Presiding Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of the North Carolina Conference led delegates in a process of prioritizing the plans they deemed most important to address. The plans determined to be top priorities were: Wespath Recommendations-Pension Liabilities and CRS, Traditional Plan, Dissafiliation-Taylor-New Par. 2553, Disaffiliation-Boyette-New Par. 2549 and the One Church Plan. The Wespath petitions addressed local churches’ pension liabilities should a church change its relationship with The United Methodist Church, and the two disaffiliation plans also addressed pension liabilities and other financial implications of a church keeping its property but leaving the denomination. The Traditional Plan maintained the denomination’s restrictions regarding same-sex wedding ceremonies and openly gay clergy and increased penalties for nonconformity. The One Church Plan removed the restrictive language of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church and included protections for pastors and conferences whose convictions disallowed them from performing same-sex weddings or ordaining “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” The One Church Plan was endorsed by the United Methodist Council of Bishops.

The text for all legislation and amendments can be found in the Daily Christian Advocates published each day of the conference:

Because of the special nature of this particular General Conference in which all legislation addressed the same topic, instead of dividing into multiple legislative committees as in regular General Conferences, all 864 delegates became one legislative committee after electing Joe Harris of Oklahoma the committee chair, Betty Kazadi Musau from North Katanga the vice chair, and Carlene Fogle-Miller of the Florida Conference as secretary. With Harris presiding Sunday afternoon, the committee passed the Wespath recommendations.

On Monday morning delegates gathered together in legislative committee to address the petitions they prioritized on Sunday. Legislative committee is where petitions are “perfected” before the full body votes on them. Whatever passed in committee on Monday would be voted on by the General Conference on Tuesday.

Before legislation was addressed, Erin Hawkins, general secretary of the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race, asked delegates, “In our deliberations yesterday, have we demonstrated the spirit of Christian conferencing?” Only 19 percent answered yes.

The morning was spent discussing and amending the first four petitions, which all passed. The One Church Plan was defeated by a vote of 436 to 386 (53 percent to 46 percent), a difference of 50 votes.

The day ended with the committee voting to reject, all at once, all other plans except the Simple Plan, which did not pass but discussion of which gave an opportunity for more marginalized voices to be heard. The committee also voted to send all plans passed in committee to the United Methodist Judicial Council for review.

The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women asked that Musau be given a chance to preside over some portion of the day’s business, to give the seat of leadership to a Central Conference clergywoman from Africa. The chair of a legislative committee has discretion over who gets to speak. She was not given this opportunity.           

Women made up 40 percent of the speakers Sunday to Monday morning. On Monday afternoon, women made up only 25 percent of the speakers, as monitored by the United Methodist General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Many United Methodist Women member delegates put themselves in the queue to speak and were not called on. Young people’s voices were underrepresented as well.

The fourth and final day of General Conference 2019 was spent in plenary. Bishop Gregory Palmer of the Ohio West Episcopal Area presided over the morning session. The first petition addressed was moved by the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters allowing Central Conferences where English is not the primary language to have until 12 months after the close of General Conference 2020 to implement any legislation passed at the 2019 General Conference. It passed.

Gail Douglas-Boykin, governance committee chair for United Methodist Women’s board of directors, made a motion that this timeline apply to the entire church. 

“We should stop treating Central Conferences as an exception and start considering their needs as a core part of our work,” she said. “We should set a timeline that the whole church can observe.”

United Methodist Women members Karon Mann and Lynne Gilbert also made their way to microphones at different parts of the day to make this same motion to ensure the request remained in front of the body. It was never allowed to come back for a vote.

The percentage of women speakers on Tuesday morning was 39 percent. They were 37 percent of speakers in the afternoon session.

The Wespath petition passed with amendments. After Secretary of the General Conference Gary Graves reported that both dissolution plans and eight parts of the Traditional Plan were ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council the night before, a minority report was brought for the One Church Plan to replace the Traditional Plan as the main motion on the floor. After debate, this motion was defeated.

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey of the Louisiana Episcopal Area became the session’s presiding bishop in the afternoon.

“We need to acknowledge the pain and disappointment in the room and around the world,” Harvey said.

“We still have work to do for the sake of the mission. I hope that we’ll work together with a heart of peace. This is worshipful work.”

A motion to refer possible unethical behavior regarding bribery and votes to the Committee on Ethics was made, and the motion passed. The committee reported that it was unable to substantiate the allegation. A March 14 New York Times article reported, however, that at least four votes were illegally cast in support of the Traditional Plan. General Conference organizers have appointed a task force to investigate.

The body then discussed, amended and ultimately voted on the Traditional Plan, keeping the current church language regarding “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” maintaining the ban on same-sex wedding ceremonies and increasing penalties for violating this particular part of The Book of Discipline. It passed by a vote of 438 to 384.

Upon announcement of the vote, many delegates rose to sing “Blessed Assurance” and pray together. Protesters chanted “stop the harm” outside the arena seating area for the rest of the session.

A motion for a declaratory decision by the Judicial Council on the constitutionality of all plans passed was supported. The Judicial Council will address them at its April 2019 meeting. Graves announced that any piece of legislation declared unconstitutional will not be included in The Book of Discipline. At the end of the final day, delegates adopted a minority report amending the Taylor disaffiliation petition and took an omnibus vote to reject all remaining petitions. General Conference 2019 ended at 6:30 p.m.

What happens now

The United Methodist Judicial Council met in April 2019 to review the legislation that passed General Conference 2019. The disaffiliation plan was ruled constitutional, as was seven pieces of the Traditional Plan and part of an eigth. 

The ban on same-sex wedding ceremonies and openly gay clergy remains in place, but so does the church’s stance on all people being deemed of sacred worth.

The disaffiliation plan became effective immediately. The Traditional Plan goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020. Text for these plans can be found on the General Conference legislation tracking page, or at the links below.

The constitutional parts of the Traditional Plan that will become church policy set minimum penalties of a one-year suspension for first offense and a loss of orders for second offense for clergy who celebrate same-sex unions. The plan expands the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to include someone “living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union, or is a person who publicly states she or he is a practicing homosexual,” and it more specifically prohibits bishops from consecrating or ordaining bishops or clergy who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” It forbids district committees on ordained ministry and boards of ordained ministry from recommending “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” for ordination and opens up more opportunities to appeal church trials. It also requires that complainants in a just resolution process receive explanations of dismissals as well as a statement of harms. 

The new disafilliation paragraph added to the Book of Discipline requires that churches leave by Dec. 31, 2023, with two-thirds of the church's professing members voting to leave. Terms of disaffiliation will be set between the General Council of Finance and Administration and the annual conference board of trustees, with local churches paying unpaid apportionments for the 12 months prior to disaffiliation as well as the 12 months after and paying its share of unfunded pension obligations and any other debts, loans or liabilities. The local church can retain its “real and personal, tangible and intangible property” if all conditions and payments are met. 

Text for passed and constitutional legislation:
Disaffiliation plan
Traditional Plan Petition 90032
Traditional Plan Petition 90036
Traditional Plan Petition 90042
Traditional Plan Petition 90043
Traditional Plan Petition 90044
Traditional Plan Petition 90046
Traditional Plan Petition 90047
Traditional Plan Petition 90045 (excluding "In cases where the respondent acknowledges action(s) that are a clear violation of the provisions of the Discipline, a just resolution shall include, but not be limited to, a commitment not to repeat the action(s) that were a violation.")

United Methodist Women, we just celebrated our 150th anniversary. We have persisted through change before. We could not have been organized for mission for this long if we let our differences divide us. We will continue to be a place that welcomes all who are committed to serving women, children and youth.

You’ve been praying. You are praying. Keep praying.

You’ve been talking and sharing and listening. You’ve been comforting and supporting. Keep doing this too.

You are leaders. Keep leading. The church needs you. 

Tara Barnes is editor of response.


Posted or updated: 5/3/2019 12:00:00 AM

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