Update on the 2021 United Methodist General Conference

The 2021 General Conference has been postponed—now to 2022—delaying once again the closure many of us have been hoping for in a definitive path forward on the LGBTQ question for the greater UMC organization. Despite the additional delay, factions within our global organization are already taking directional steps, most notable of which being the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) leading the formation of a new denomination called the Global Methodist Church.

As many of us can recall, the outcome from the February 2019 United Methodist General Conference was an unexpected shock carrying disastrous implications for the UMC organization. Not only did the General Conference double-down on language in the Book of Discipline which many members see as hurtful toward LGBTQ people, but the Conference also adopted additional protocols which sought to punish churches and clergy which did not abide by the renewed language (some of which was later deemed unconstitutional). At the time, many members on both sides of the issue did not see how our overall organization could survive this divisive issue.

Many of us are still caught in disbelief as to how we got here. Since that meeting in 2019, our organizational leadership has sought a path forward that enables our 12 million plus members to get back to focusing on their vision of God’s work and Jesus’ teachings, rather than the current chasm that divides us. That anticipated path forward was expected to be presented to this year’s General Conference planned for May, but (due to Covid) has now been rescheduled for August/September 2022.

To understand the complexities of the current path forward, we need to review some of the details of the events of 2019 and since, as they have impacts on our current status of today. As many of us can recall, the anti-LGBTQ language in the Book of Discipline has been the subject of debate amongst UMC members for decades. The 2016 General Conference was widely expected to define a compromise, but instead ended in stalemate, so a Special Commission was directed to produce options for consideration. A special General Conference was convened in 2019 to consider the options presented by the Special Commission, and officially voted on two options—a Traditional Plan, and a Connectional Conference Plan. The Traditional Plan called for affirming and enhancing the existing wording in the Book of Discipline, while the Connectional Conference Plan called for a vastly complex reorganization of the UMC global network, likely requiring years to calibrate and finalize. A third option, the One Church Plan, allowed individual Annual Conferences, even individual churches, to purse their own direction on the LGBTQ topic, but this plan was removed from consideration the day before the final vote.

After the Traditional Plan was approved in February 2019, a series of mediation meetings were conducted in the last half of 2019 to define a path forward. Participants in the mediation were various UMC bishops, reverends, and other UMC leaders from all over the world—each representing their greater regional area and/or specific Methodist network, such as UMCNext, Mainstream UMC, Uniting Methodists, Confessing Movement, Good News, WCA Affirmation, Methodist Federation for Social Action, Reconciling Ministries Network, and the UM Queer Clergy Caucus. The outcome of that mediation is the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation document. This protocol outlines the specific approach by which a split of our organization could be conducted—i.e., how congregations, and groups of congregations, would be able to leave the current UMC organization. The text of this document is available here.

The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation is set to be reviewed and voted upon at the next General Conference (rescheduled from May 2021 to Aug-Sept 2022), however several congregations are already moving forward in line with the new protocol. Several Annual Conferences have already passed or are currently working on resolutions supporting LGBTQ rights. Additionally, a new network of progressive Methodists have formed, named the Liberation Methodist Connexion, which is focused on setting an inclusive direction for the Methodist organization in the aftermath of an expected split. Finally, a new conservative Methodist denomination led by the WCA, called the “Global Methodist Church” has also launched. This group has threatened to split from the existing UMC organization if delegates do not approve the proposed Traditional Plan protocols in the upcoming General Conference in 2022. The possible departure of the Global Methodist Church from the overall UMC organization was in fact negotiated into the protocol mentioned above, which included a settlement of $25M.

Bottom line, while an eventual split of our global UMC organization appears inevitable, it appears that the more conservative members are looking to be the ones departing and start an organization of their own. Regardless, the matter will not likely be finalized until the next General Conference in 2022.