Skip links

Church court reverses call for extra General Conference (UM News)

November 2, 2023

Reversing part of an earlier decision, The United Methodist Church’s highest court revoked its call for an additional regular session of General Conference between 2025 and 2027.

However, the Judicial Council maintained its earlier ruling that no new delegates be elected to the coming General Conference, except under very limited circumstances.

The next regular session of the international denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, originally planned for May 2020, is now scheduled for April 23-May 3, 2024, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In Memorandum 1485, the Judicial Council ruled — with italics and bolding for emphasis — “the regular session of General Conference that is to be convened following the upcoming 2024 regular session, would be held four years thereafter, in 2028.”

With the memorandum released on Nov. 2, the church court modified its earlier determination in Decision 1472 related to the scheduling of General Conference after the 2024 session.

The modification to the decision comes as the Judicial Council and other United Methodist leaders are contending with delays in General Conference unseen in the nearly 240-year history of the denomination and its predecessors.

The United Methodist Church’s constitution in the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 14 says the legislative assembly — whose decisions affect the entire denomination — “shall meet once in four years … .”

But COVID threw off that quadrennial schedule, when in 2020, the global pandemic shut down General Conference’s initial venue in Minneapolis as well as  travel around the globe.

General Conference draws clergy and lay delegates as well as bishops from four continents. In Memorandum 1485, the Judicial Council noted, “restrictions and emergency measures were not completely lifted internationally until 2023.”

With General Conference now delayed eight years from the last regular General Conference in 2016, the Judicial Council initially said in Decision 1472 that to get the schedule back on track another regular session of General Conference would need to be held between Jan. 1, 2025, and Dec. 31, 2027. Four of the church court’s nine members dissented from that part of the ruling.

The denomination’s Council of Bishops welcomed the ruling and urged the denomination to move forward with planning another regular session in 2026.

However, the board of the General Council on Finance and Administration — the denomination’s finance agency — asked the Judicial Council to reconsider its decision, citing in part the denomination’s financial constraints.

On its own motion, the Judicial Council decided to amend its earlier decision.

“Paragraph 14 of the Constitution establishes the frequency at which the General Conference must convene, not the actual year when this occurs,” Memorandum 1485 said.

The memorandum also clarified its earlier rulings in both Decisions 1472 and 1451 related to delegate elections to the coming General Conference.

“There shall be no elections to replace the delegates elected to serve at the regular session of General Conference initially scheduled for 2020,” the church court said, bolding for emphasis. “Furthermore, there shall be no elections to fill vacancies except in the very limited circumstance referenced herein.”

United Methodist annual conferences — more than 130 church regional bodies around the globe — are responsible for electing the lay and clergy delegates who vote at General Conference.

Regular sessions of General Conference are different from special called General Conference sessions like The United Methodist Church held in 2019. Special sessions, which can be called by the Council of Bishops or General Conference itself, can only serve a limited purpose stated in the call.

However, a regular session of General Conference deals with all kinds of legislation affecting church policies and administration. The regular session of General Conference determines the denomination-wide budget and elects members of various church bodies, including the Judicial Council.

The Judicial Council has issued other rulings in the past few years dealing with General Conference’s delay.

In 2021, the Judicial Council ruled that the denominational budget and apportionment formula passed by the 2016 General Conference remains in place until General Conference passes a new budget and formula.

Last year, the church court also ruled each General Conference postponement resets the deadlines for legislative petitions to be submitted to the body, meaning the next General Conference will have more legislation to consider than initially submitted for the 2020 gathering.

Memorandum 1485 marks the first time the Judicial Council referred to the cancellation of the 2020 gathering rather than simply its postponement.

The memorandum also stressed that these rulings dealing with General Conference’s delay should not be deemed as precedent for other General Conferences. 

“We have issued these decisions only because these circumstances — triggered by the global pandemic — were not envisioned by General Conference and provided for in the Discipline,” the church court said.