By Jeremy Steele*, adapted for the South Georgia Annual Conference
As the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference approaches, churches are presented with unique communication opportunities with their members. This may feel like an overwhelming job to some, but there are a number of resources available to help you cover topics ranging from the structure of the church to details of what happens during the three-day legislative meeting.
As you begin talking about General Conference, some members will need a refresher on the structure of the church. This foundational knowledge equips them to better understand what General Conference is and how its work functions within the denomination. It's also important to explore why it is meeting in February and focusing on one topic outside of the normal quadrennial multi-issue session.
Gathered for Mission, Structured to Serve: A General Conference Primer offers a short introductory guide about what General Conference is, how it works and who participates.
The best place to learn more about the structure of The United Methodist Church is the church's official website. United Methodist Church Training is also offering a free online course, Exploring General Conference, through March 1.
In the clergy portal, there are videos you can access from Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, and Sara Hotchkiss, business manager of the General Conference, that focus on why we are having a special called General Conference; what makes this General Conference different; and basic rules of operation, legislative committees and voting.
United Methodist Communications has produced a detailed Special Session Q&A page answering everything from why the conference was called to what the bishops do at General Conference.
The most critical task you face is explaining its main purpose: to receive and act on a report from the Commission on a Way Forward that examined paragraphs in The Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explored options to strengthen the unity of the church. (Summaries of the Way Forward Commission Report and the Finding a Way Forward handbook will help you introduce the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and the plans put forth.) You may find this overview of the three plans provided courtesy of the Great Plains Conference helpful.
The key to communicating this effectively is to be clear without fostering anxiety. We all need a safe space to consider and process the important work of this special session of the General Conference.
The Judicial Council has ruled that General Conference is "limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Council of Bishops based on the recommendations of the Way Forward." The work of the commission has been received and translated for download into the official languages of the General Conference.
In addition to that report, petitions have been submitted that outline other plans and related pieces of legislation. All of the petitions received by the deadline have been published in the Advanced Edition of the Daily Christian Advocate, which can be downloaded or read in its entirety online.The General Conference Committee on Reference has determined that 78 petitions submitted for consideration by the 2019 General Conference are in harmony with the purpose of the special session to be held February 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri.
During the district meetings this fall, Bishop Bryan shared a video narrated by Debbie Hudgins, lay person from White Bluff UMC in Savannah, where she outlined the three plans - Connectional Conference, One Church, and Traditional. You may find this video helpful in explaining the three plans with your leadership and/or congregation.
Bishop Bryan has released several other videos you may find helpful. One is a video about the March 9 information session; the other is an overview of the Task Force he has appointed to help discern ways the conference might respond to the decisions made at General Conference.
In its efforts to inform The United Methodist Church on its processes and work, the Commission on a Way Forward released a number of video resources that document the experiences, hopes, dreams, concerns, approach and learnings of the 32-member Commission. Links to the videos originally shared on June 20th,June 26th and July 5th can be found on the denomination's main website.
There have been, and will continue to be, many voices in conversation around the work of the Special Session. Engaging in that conversation is healthy, but it is also important to give members the tools they need to evaluate news sources and understand who has authority to speak for The United Methodist Church.
To be clear, General Conference is the primary legislative body of The United Methodist Church. It is the only body that officially speaks for the church. Everything else is commentary on the work of the General Conference.
As a primer for Special Session of the General Conference conversations, you might consider showing selections of the Seeing a Way Forward video series produced by United Methodist News. The series features bishops, church leaders and members offering their perspectives on the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and the upcoming assembly.
In addition to clarifying who speaks for the church and sharing the video series, Discipleship Ministries has a useful Courageous Conversations resource that provides structure for deep conversations and introduces a safe method for discussing difficult or divisive topics. Similarly, United Methodist Communications has aggregated conversation models from agencies and annual conferences that will help you through difficult conversations.
Once General Conference begins, you can use a host of tools to stay current on what has transpired without being there in person.
Since the work of the General Conference will be done as a single group rather than breaking into the typical legislative subcommittees, the event will be streamed by United Methodist Communications in its entirety - beginning with worship on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 10 a.m. EST and adjourning at 7:30 p.m. EST on Tuesday, Feb. 26. That livestream will be available online in both English and French.
Ask the UMC will continue to field questions during the Special Session.
Whichever tools you use, we hope everyone will continue to pray for the work of the General Conference and the ongoing mission of The United Methodist Church as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
*Thanks to Jeremy Steele, teaching pastor at Christ UMC in Mobile, Alabama, for curating this list. The South Georgia Conference Communications Team has added resources specific to South Georgia to help you communicate with your members about the 2019 Called Special Session of General Conference.