It is impossible for United Methodists to imagine an in-person 2021 General Conference right now, with a raging pandemic, global inequality in treatment and vaccine availability. In the coming days, a task force considering the question of “could—or should—General Conference be virtual?” will submit a report and then have the General Conference Commission consider it on February 20th. As a technology-oriented pastor who isn’t on either team, the following are considerations I hope are covered, because there are many potential barriers to participation, not to mention increased opportunities for misuse of technology.
Virtual Accessibility vs. Virtual Conferences
Let’s be clear on terms. To find technology solutions for the full participation of delegates who cannot, because of the COVID-19+ pandemic, attend an in-person conference (virtual accessibility), is necessary and faithful work. We cannot punish those who represent our global church or who cannot attend due to medical concerns or lack of access to vaccines (which US Americans are also experiencing thanks to the criminal negligence of the 2017-2020 Republican administration).
But louder right now is the idea to make the whole of General Conference entirely online (virtual conferencing), similar to annual conference or local church conferences you’ve likely experienced this year.
To that question is where we move, and let’s start with practice: the experience of United Methodists gathering online for virtual conferences this year.
Presiding Fails during Annual Conference Virtual Sessions
By now, most annual conferences have had one or two virtual conference gatherings: an annual conference session and a clergy/laity session to get necessary yearly business done. While these were first-time experiences and they all had technical and decision problems, there are some egregious examples in those months. Problems with Zoom and people voting (which sometimes required two screens, a luxury requirement for some) were common, but most conferences worked the kinks out and people were gracious, or…well, they found out how to close the holes in engagement.
Even in my own tech-savvy annual conference, the first conference we held, people could chat and “upvote” questions to be answered, which gave the people a voice amidst the conversation. But the second virtual conference? Yeah, people were not allowed to use the chat after the first few minutes, and Q&A submissions became secret unless the conference chose to reveal them. The shutting down of interactions and participation was rampant as conferences sought to remove variables and potential sources of public conflict.
Perhaps most egregious in exhibiting why there is a lack of trust in the authorities presiding over online conferencing was the Upper New York Annual Conference session, as reported by Upper New York for Full Inclusion, which had myriad problems with presiding:
- UNY leadership chose to hold their session not on Zoom like other annual conferences but on another program unfamiliar to the participants.
- UNY “in no way” met the requirements for an accessible meeting: audio issues meant participants could not hear and transcriptions could not keep up.
- For members to speak in any way, they had to call via phone, whereas annual conference staff and cabinet members who were in the conference office could quickly and clearly speak and be heard (indeed, a hot mic moment allegedly revealed the bishop encouraging a parliamentary action by someone in the room).
- Closing speeches were generally not done due to the call-in situation, and sometimes the presiding bishop moved on before anyone could even get points of order or speeches through the phone line.
- Finally, the opening organizational motion, which passed (with the help of cabinet members’ live and clear video speeches in support of it as opposed to scratchy and quiet phone-in objections) eliminated participants’ ability to make any amendments on any legislation, allowing for only up or down votes, which radically changed how annual conference business was done and increased the immunity of the legislative crafters from challenge.
In short, there is a strong lack of trust in the presiding leadership of any virtual church conference due to these limitations in technology and clear choices in implementing them to avoid conflict. Virtual is not yet a safe place without wholly trustworthy leadership…which we clearly don’t have.
Questions for a Virtual Conference
Given these concerns in presiding authority, here are my questions for virtual conference, which includes questions about technology.
- Equity in access to technology: how can we have reliable internet and technology across the globe? Even if we shipped like technology across the globe, it takes months right now to get things across oceans and skies, and orders of tablets or laptops would take months (though we know traditionalists are really good at procuring surface laptops for central conference delegates…maybe we should ask them!).
- Equity in time zone participation: having traveled a lot, I know people can shift their body schedules and shake off jet lag when they travel TO a place, even though clearly reading the ADCA in what is the middle of their night is hard to do. But to expect people to do the same thing from various time zones where sessions would be through dark nights when internet services may have less bandwidth? That’s really unfortunate and a barrier to full participation.
- Clear practice and training of presiding officers: the power is in their hands, even more than in a real-life General Conference where even the most stodgy bishop couldn’t ignore entire rows waving their cards in support of a Point of Order. Transparency and care is important.
- Watchdog or Monitoring access to ensure fairness in representation: more than a monitoring report given later (“oh shucks, too many white men spoke, gosh darn, guess we’ll do better in four years”), we need active engagement and clear naming who is in queue and who is chosen to speak or act. But who would have that authority if it is not given by a bishop or the General Commission on General Conference?
- Consideration of engagement beyond spoken word: Allowing for text commentary rather than spoken ones might yield more participation, but transcription for the official GC languages would be necessary as well. Online allows for voice, video, and text interactions, and our procedures would be wise to utilize them all.
Breaking up is mean on a Post-It…much less online.
Let’s not mince words: the driving force behind virtual conferencing is to expedite the breaking up of United Methodism. The passage of the Yambasu Protocol would allow the Wesleyan Covenant Association to get out with $25 million dollars (while the money is still there, at least). In repeated communications, the WCA is pushing for a virtual conference and one that passes the protocol. They have the most to gain from it, and the feel the sands shifting against them as central conferences are tiring of their manipulation and support for regionalism grows. So Virtual Conference in 2021 is clearly their best shot.
But also, the remnant of The United Methodist Church could have a clearer path forward for full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons, although the WCA is expected to pour salt in the fields as they leave. To have a new breakthrough after almost 50 years of explicit exclusion? Clearly, people across United Methodism have a vested interest in a virtual conference as an expedited breakup.
Such a conference solely for breaking up would look more like GC2019 than GC2016, as a unified legislative body of all delegates wouldn’t have to piecemeal the legislation (indeed, the Alaska delegation has put the major proposals all together into one Omnibus bill to be passed as one). So even fewer chances for interaction, small group collaboration, and instead one big floor where the ones who understand the system the best will run the show.
And yet I cannot shake the feeling that this pandemic might have changed the calculus, the fault lines, the fears have ebbed further than flowed. Being in the COVID trenches might have turned enemies into siblings. Churches working together to survive, bemoaning disconnection, finally asking why traditionalist caucus groups have pushed for schism this year…maybe the world has turned upside down, and there isn’t energy anymore for breaking up. Maybe Taylor Swift was wrong: we might be able to ever, ever get back together, but only if we can muster the courage to remove harm from our polity.
We’ll never know it if only a few actors have the keys to the conversation and the communication and keep any of it from bubbling up. Maybe we need to find a way to be in person, safely and securely, while accepting this technology team’s recommendations for virtual accessibility for those who need it.
Solution: Postpone to 2022?
When the rescheduled dates for General Conference were announced, there was an uproar amidst a certain population of United Methodists. In May 2020, over 2000 United Methodists signed a petition naming the huge problems with scheduling a General Conference in late August 2021 for educators and students: disproportionately younger adults that already have many hurdles to clear to become delegates in the first place. Their solution? Reschedule to 2022, which would be more surely on the other side of a pandemic (now that the USA has sensible science-led leadership). We would lose deposits, but…that’s the price of failing to listen to young people in the first place.
As a straight white male who is not being personally harmed by the current antigay United Methodist polity, I cannot support the delay of a potential end to harm. And. Neither can I ignore the voices of those who would be silenced and pushed out in August are the ones who have to live with our collective choices the longest! Some bishops are even encouraging people to wait until a regularly-scheduled 2024 General Conference–which certainly is too long, though that would definitely force the WCA to leave according to the Disciplinary process they themselves supported for General Conference 2019.
Regardless, any consideration of delay (and I would argue we need it now too) would need to enforce the “hold in abeyance” language of the Yambasu Protocol to ensure that LGBTQ+ persons are not being actively harmed by The UMC’s antigay polity.
But even then, that’s. not. enough.
What would be, commenters? Leave your perspective in the comments.
Your turn…to wait also.
So we will wait until the General Commission on General Conference reveals its plans:
- Will the General Commission create a lopsided conference geared towards breaking up that traffics in the same mistrust that would put Upper New York to shame?
- Will they defer to 2022 or later without any safeguards for LGBTQ+ persons and refusing to continue to hold complaints in abeyance?
- Or will a reasonable solution come forward, with transparency and uncharacteristic acknowledgement that the people need to be empowered and connected, not the procedures air-tight against dissension.
The choice is theirs. Prayers for the General Commission on General Conference.
Thoughts? Which direction would you support or could see as possible for The UMC?
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At this point, I’m just inclined to add a provision in the Discipline for the following: Annual Conferences are empowered to specify that none of the apportionments they pay to the denomination may be used to support expenses of or services for Annual Conferences and bishops who enforce prohibitions against LGBT clergy or marriages. And allow the reverse as well. Build an accounting system to do this and let the bucks fall where they will.
I get that a total virtual event isn’t ideal, but I have to assume other businesses/industries have held global conferences/gatherings. With the amount of money we’d be “saving” could we not hire an organization to do this? I’m sure platforms like Attendify aren’t ideal, but would it not work? It can be completely app based. With the amount of money we spend having folks travel all over the world. Can’t we find a digital solution?
Well done, sir.
IMO, LGBTQ persons must be protected, a virtual conference is impossible, the wasted expense is unconscionable, the WCA people must leave without $25 million.