Do not expect a special session of General Conference in advance of the 2012 meeting in Tampa, Fla.
The limited amount of time available to put together a special session, the cost and the U.S.-focused agenda for a worldwide meeting of United Methodist leaders are among the reasons such a session is unlikely, church leaders said in interviews this week.
“My personal read suggests there may not be a call” for a special session, said Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops. “I don‘t see the votes to do it.”
Bishop John Hopkins, chair of the Connectional Table, has a similar perspective. He said there is a “slim to none” chance the church will hold a special session of the denomination’s chief legislative body, which meets every four years.
The board of directors of the General Council on Finance and Administration late last year encouraged the Council of Bishops to call a special meeting of General Conference to deal with concerns about pension funding in the United States and the reorganization of the denomination. The bishops at their November meeting also discussed the possibility of a special session for both matters.
The Connectional Table is expected to discuss the request at its April meeting in the Philippines. The Council of Bishops, which has the authority to call a special session, is expected to act on the request during its May 2-7 meeting in Columbus, Ohio.
When the executive committee of the Council of Bishops met in January, “there was no big energy to move forward” on a special session, Palmer said.
One of the major issues is timing.
Palmer said GCFA reported that a slimmed-down General Conference, one that would be shorter and held perhaps in a large church instead of a convention center, would cost an estimated $3 million.
But even if the bishops voted in May for a special session, the earliest it could be held would be January 2011.
“One thought was … that’s only 15 months before the start” of the regular quadrennial meeting planned for April 25-May 4, 2012 in Tampa, Palmer said.
The January date also assumes that specific proposals would be developed in the interim.
Hopkins and Palmer were in Nashville this week as part of an early meeting of the Call to Action Steering Team created with the support of the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table to develop a plan that will lead to the reordering of denominational structures and practices for a more effective and vital church. The steering team will make its recommendations to both bodies at their fall meetings.
Now in the process of collecting data, the steering team is inviting church members to participate in an online survey to identify factors that contribute to the vitality of the church.
Another major concern is that the other agenda item for a special session deals with U.S. pensions, while some 40 percent of delegates to General Conference come from outside the United States.
A lot of people think “that’s out of kilter,” Palmer said. Hopkins added that there is a sense, “The U.S. needs to have a conversation about its pension problems.”
The partial recovery of the stock market also has reduced some of the urgency for calling a special session on pensions, officials said.
Among other issues, Palmer said, there is a concern the special session would not be limited to the issues of pensions and church reorganization.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline states a special session of the General Conference may be called by the Council of Bishops. A special session before the 2012 meeting would be composed of the delegates to the 2008 General Conference “except when a particular annual conference or missionary conference shall prefer to have a new election it may do so.”
The purpose of the special session should be stated in the call and only that business should be discussed unless there is a two-thirds vote by the delegates to add other business. The last special session was in 1970 and was called to deal with the 1968 merger with the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which created The United Methodist Church.
*A UMNS story by David Briggs. Briggs is news editor of United Methodist News Service.