The denomination heads into "uncharted waters" as it prepares for a special General Conference in 2019, said the Rev. Gary Graves, a key planner of the lawmaking body.
Since The United Methodist Church formed in 1968, it has only held its top legislative assembly once outside of the normal four-year schedule. That was in 1970, and General Conference itself called the session to complete the merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren denominations.
"So when the body left in 1968, they knew they would be gathering back in '70," said Graves, the secretary of the General Conference. "We are in a different situation for this one. It's the first time a session has been called in the interim by the Council of Bishops for a particular matter, and so we are in uncharted waters."
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Nevertheless, Graves and other organizers are making quick work of planning the special session the bishops have called. The Commission on General Conference approved those plans during its Oct. 6-8 meeting at United Methodist-related Camp Sumatanga in Gallant, Alabama.
The bishops have set the special General Conference for Feb. 23-26, 2019, at the America's Center Convention Complex in downtown St. Louis, Missouri.
The legislative body will be limited to acting on a report by the Council of Bishops, based on recommendations from the Commission on the Way Forward.
The first day of special General Conference will be the culmination of the bishops' "Praying Our Way Forward" campaign to petition God's help for church unity. That will also give time to accommodate any travel delays caused by winter weather, so delegates are much less likely to miss a vote due to weather concerns.
The estimated cost of the four-day meeting will be a little under $3.7 million, said Moses Kumar, the General Conference treasurer and top executive of the denomination's finance agency. That's less than his early estimate last year that the special session could cost up to $4.12 million for three days.
Most of the 864 delegates to the special General Conference will be the same as who attended the 2016 legislative gathering. The Book of Discipline allows annual conferences to elect a new slate of delegates, so long as they keep the same number assigned for 2016.
About 58 percent of the delegates will come from the United States and 30 percent from Africa. The remaining delegates are from the Philippines, Europe and Eurasia as well as 10 from "concordat" churches with which The United Methodist Church has formal relationships.
One question the Commission on General Conference cannot answer at this point is just how much what happens in 2019 will affect what comes before the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis.
Heather Hahn, multimedia news reporter for UMNS
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