2019 Special Session FAQs
Why a Special Session of General Conference?
History of Human Sexuality in the UMC
About the Commission on a Way Forward
The Three Plans
Processing the Commission on a Way Forward Report at Special Session
What happens at the local church, Conference, and Jurisdictional levels?
Leading up to Feb. 2019 Special Session
1. What’s the difference between a called General Conference and the one in 2020?
¶ 14. Article II. —The General Conference shall meet once in four years at such time and in such place as shall be determined by the General Conference or by its duly authorized committees.
A special session of the General Conference, possessing the authority and exercising all the powers of the General Conference, may be called by the Council of Bishops, or in such other manner as the General Conference may from time to time prescribe, to meet at such time and in such place as may be stated in the call. Such special session of the General Conference shall be composed of the delegates to the preceding General Conference or their lawful successors, except that when a particular Annual Conference or missionary conference shall prefer to have a new election it may do so. The purpose of such special session shall be stated in the call, and only such business shall be transacted as is in harmony with the purpose stated in such call unless the General Conference by a two-thirds vote shall determine that other business may be transacted. - from 2016 United Methodist Book of Discipline
2. What are Central Conferences?
Annual Conferences outside of the United States are organized in seven Central Conferences. Click here to learn more.
3. Why will there be a Special Session of General Conference in 2019 instead of waiting until the regularly scheduled session in 2020?
The Council of Bishops, which has been given the authority to make such decisions by The Book of Discipline, believed it would be helpful to have a Special Session 2019 that could focus solely on matters related to human sexuality rather than trying to squeeze it into the regular quadrennial General Conference 2020 that will have to consider many other items.
4. Will there be other petitions submitted?
Judicial Council Decision 1360 rules that petitions in harmony with the purpose of the called General Conference will be received for consideration by the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference delegates. Seventy-nine petitions have been submitted in addition to the 48 offered by the Commission on a Way Forward. Eighteen have been ruled out of order based on format or other errors. If no formatting issues are found with the remaining 61, they will be printed in the Advance Daily Advocate (the official journal of the General Conference). However, all decisions about “harmony of petitions” will ultimately be reviewed by the Committee on Reference, in accordance with the Plan of Organization and Rules of Order of the General Conference. Any petitions that they deem to be not “in harmony” will be withdrawn from consideration.
5. What is the order of the presentation of the proposals?
We do not yet know the order of agenda for the 2019 Special Session of General Conference. The Commission on the General Conference is working to determine this and will publish it when they deem appropriate.
6. What will be the rules under which the 2019 Special Session of General Conference operates?
The 2019 Special Session of General Conference will operate under the current standing rules established by the 2016 General Conference unless sometime during the 2019 Special Session of General Conference two-thirds of the voting delegates vote to change them.
7. What is required to pass a constitutional amendment?
The first step in passing a constitutional amendment is for two-thirds of the General Conference to vote for it. Then it goes back to the Annual Conferences for a vote. If two-thirds of the voting members of all 129 Annual Conferences across the globe vote in favor of an amendment affirmed at General Conference, it passes.
8. Do the Upper New York delegates of Special Session vote their conscience or vote to represent their constituency?
Those elected as delegates to a General Conference including a Special Session are not elected as representatives. Delegates are en trusted to vote their conscience.
1. Who makes decisions on behalf of the United Methodist Church concerning issues related to human sexuality?
Since the beginning of The United Methodist Church over 200 years ago, the General Conference has been the only body that has the authority to speak officially on behalf of the entire United Methodist Church, including issues related to human sexuality. The General Conference is a legislative body comprised of delegates on a proportional basis from all the Annual Conferences that make up the global United Methodist Church. Over 40% of the delegates come from outside the United States.
There are 864 delegates to General Conference, half laity and half clergy.
2. Why has all of this come to a head now?
The United Methodist Church has been dealing with these issues for a long time. The 2016 General Conference in Portland asked the Council of Bishops to provide leadership in finding a way forward in the midst of the reality of significant and long-term disagreement concerning issues related to LGBTQ persons and ongoing disobedience to The Book of Discipline by church leaders.
1. How was the Commission on a Way Forward established and why is it playing such an important role?
The Council of Bishops created the Commission on a Way Forward to work on its behalf in developing a recommendation to the General Conference of The United Methodist Church about the best way to address issues concerning human sexuality.
2. What is the meaning of the judicial council ruling that other plans could be submitted to the 2019 Special Session of General Conference in addition to those submitted by the Commission on a Way Forward?
The July 9, 2018, revised call for a Special Session of the General Conference states that the “purpose of this Special Session of the General Conference shall be limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Commission on a Way Forward based upon the recommendations of the Council of Bishops.” Judicial Council Decision No. 1360 states that other petitions may be submitted by organizations and lay/clergy members as long as they are in harmony with the purpose declared for the called General Conference.
The executive committee of the Commission on the General Conference is collaborating with the design team consisting of representatives of the Commission on a Way Forward, Council of Bishops, and 2019 Special Session hospitality team to design a process for determining what petitions are in harmony with the called General Conference. The ultimate authority for these decisions lies with the Commission on the General Conference. (For more information see: www.umc.org/who-we-are/commission-on-the-general-conference-determines-petition-process.)
3. What is the result of the Commission on a Way Forward’s work?
The Commission issued a report that includes three plans, each of which outlines a possible future the delegates attending the 2019 General Conference might choose to adopt a One Church Plan, a Connectional Conference Plan, or a Traditionalist Plan.
4. Did the Commission on a Way Forward make a recommendation about which plan it prefers?
No. A number of members of the Commission of a Way Forward supported each of the three plans and most Commission members worked to perfect at least two of them.
5. Was each of the three plans representative of a subset of the Commission on a Way Forward?
Each of the plans has the support of several Commission on a Way Forward members. Also, Commission members worked as a team on the entire report.
6. Where can the entire Commission on a Way Forward Report be found?
Click here to view the report in English, French, Portuguese, or Swahili.
7. Once the Commission on a Way Forward report was completed, why did it take several weeks to translate it?
The four languages of the General Conference are English, French, Portuguese, and Swahili. The Council of Bishops and the Commission on the General Conference felt that releasing the report in the four languages of the General Conference was important as it allowed persons throughout the denomination access to the material in their preferred language simultaneously.
The time required for translation combined with negotiating for less expensive rates by packaging the 2019 and 2020 General Conference translation contracts together resulted in several weeks elapsing between the submission of the Commission on a Way Forward Report to the Commission on the General Conference and the release of the report in four languages.
8. Once the Commission on a Way Forward report was completed, why did it take so long to publish?
The Council of Bishops and Commission on the General Conference believed it was important to release the report simultaneously in all four official languages of the General Conference: English, French, Portuguese, and Swahili. The translation process took longer than expected to complete.
9. Why is the Commission on a Way Forward, and not the Council of Bishops, submitting the report to the Special Session?
Judicial Council Decision No. 1360, issued in late May 2018, includes a footnote that clarifies the Council’s understanding of the relationship between the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops. Footnote 6 reads, “The undertaking of a ‘complete examination’ of the subject of human sexuality presupposes that there will be some kind of report, document or study which supports the ‘possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality,’ which, in turn, presupposes that the Commission (not the Council of Bishops) will put forth legislation to fix the problem. The special General Conference is to consider ‘their work,’ i.e., whatever the Commission desires to put before General Conference in terms of its ‘complete examination.’”
In response to this important footnote, the Council of Bishops and Commission on a Way Forward agreed that the Commission would present the report.
Click here for an overview of the three plans.
One Church Plan
- removes current language in The Book of Discipline that states, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
- changes the definition of marriage to a monogamous relationship between two adults.
- gives pastors the authority to perform same gender weddings and congregations the right to determine whether same gender weddings can be held in their facilities.
- protects the right of pastors not to conduct same gender weddings.
- protects the right of Bishops not to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals, “The Jurisdictional College of Bishops shall provide for the ordination, commissioning, and licensing of all persons recommended by the Board of Ordained Ministry and the Clergy Session of the Annual Conference in the bounds of its jurisdiction.” (proposed Amendment to ¶415.6)
- allows the Clergy Session of the Annual Conference to vote on motions by the Board of Ordained Ministry regarding the certification, ordination, and appointment of self-avowed homosexuals only once every 30 months, unless agreed to by the presiding Bishop.
- requires churches leaving the denomination to contribute money equal to their share of the Annual Conference’s unfunded pension liability.
1. Can a clery person perform a same-gender wedding if the church they're appointed to votes to not allow same gender weddings in their facilty(ies)?
Yes, if they are an elder. If they are a local pastor they can perform a same gender wedding outside the church facility as long as the couple are member or active participants in the congregation they are assigned to or members of the community which that congregation serves.
2. If the Annual Conference decides not to allow Commissing/Ordination of self-avowed homosexuals, does that impact the local church's decision to allow same-gender marriages?
3. How often can a local church call for a vote on use of their facilities for same-gender marriages?
The plan does not specify.
Connectional Conference Plan
- maintains a common unified theological core consisting of the proposed General Book of Discipline that includes the Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, the General Rules and other agreed upon items.
- utilizes shared services by the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits, General Council on Finance and Administration, Archives and History, Publishing House and parts of the General Board of Global Ministries.
- creates three ‘Connectional Conferences’ (Progressive, Unity and Traditional) based on theological perspectives related to accountability, contextualization and justice perspectives.
- allows Central Conferences outside the United States to remain as geographical entities or align with a Connectional Conference.
- gives Jurisdictional Conferences the authority to determine which Connectional Conference with which to align.
- allows Annual Conferences, congregations, pastors, and Bishops to align with another Connectional Conference rather than the one chosen by their Jurisdiction or Annual Conference.
- assigns much of the authority currently given to the General Conference to the Connectional Conferences, including matters concerning the election, assignment, funding, and accountability of Bishops, ordination standards and the writing of the proposed Connectional Conference Book of Discipline.
- redefines and limits the roles of the General Conference, Council of Bishops, and Judicial Council.
- requires eight constitutional amendments for implementation.
- maintains the United Methodist Church’s current stance that states, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching,” the definition of marriage as between a woman and man, and the prohibition of self-avowed practicing homosexuals being certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve.
- requires active and retired Bishops, Annual Conferences, and Boards of Ordained Ministry to certify that they will uphold, enforce, and maintain disciplinary standards regarding marriage and ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
- prohibits Bishops from consecrating Bishops and commissioning or ordaining individuals who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
- provides a number of measures, including mandatory actions, to ensure increased accountability by clergy and Bishops.
- prohibits Annual Conferences that fail to certify their willingness to uphold disciplinary standards regarding marriage and ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals from using the United Methodist name and logo or receiving any funds from The United Methodist Church beginning in 2021.
- allows Annual Conferences or any group of 50 congregations to form a self-governing church if they are in “irreconcilable conflict for reasons of conscience with the doctrine or moral teachings and requirements of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church on the issues of human sexuality.”
- allows local churches that disagree with their Annual Conference's decision to withdraw and unite with an “autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church.”
- requires churches leaving the denomination to contribute money equal to their share of the Annual Conference’s unfunded pension liability.
4. Can the Special Session come their own plan, not one already presented?
5. What is the proposed timeline for the implementation of each of the three plans?
The timeline depends upon which plan is adopted, although revisions changing the timeline could be made by the 2019 Special Session of General Conference or the Judicial Council.
The One Church Plan could take effect as early as January 1, 2020 (See ¶508 – Legislation Effective Date). However, in order to give the church time to prepare for the changes, it is recommended the plan not fully go into effect until December 31, 2020.
The Connectional Conference Plan would be implemented in the following stages:
- Annual Conferences vote on constitutional amendments in 2019 and early 2020.
- Jurisdictions and Central Conferences align with a Connectional Conference in 2020.
- Bishops align with a Connectional Conference by August 1, 2021.
- Annual Conferences not in agreement with their Jurisdictional Conference decision align with a different Connectional Conference by August 1, 2021.
- Local Churches not in agreement with their Annual Conference decision align with a Connectional Conference by July 1, 2022.
- Clergy align with a Connectional Conference by July 1, 2022.
- Organizational Conferences of Connectional Conferences occur in Fall 2022.
- First General Conference occurs in 2025.
The Traditional Plan would be implemented in the following stages:
- Annual Conferences certify that they will “uphold, enforce, and maintain The Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination” by Feb. 2020.
- Local congregations and clergy decide whether to remain in the denomination during March-April 2020.
- 2020 General Conference addresses unfinished or deferred work flowing from the 2019 Special Session of General Conference.
- Annual Conferences discern their leadership for 2020-2024 in May-June 2020.
- Residential Bishops must approve one of the two statements in ¶2801.7 in May-June 2020.
- Jurisdictional Conferences meet in July 2020 to elect new Bishops based on previous decisions of Annual Conferences, local churches, Bishops, clergy, and need.
- General Council on Finance and Administration no longer will receive funds from, or send funds to, Annual Conferences that have not certified they will “uphold, enforce, and maintain the Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination” as of January 1, 2021.
6. What action did the Council of Bishops take concerning the Commission on a Way Forward's report?
The Council of Bishops was involved in an ongoing feedback process with the Commission that involved prayer, conversation, and informal straw polls. The Council, however, only formally voted once. This occurred at its May 2018 meeting when the following three-part motion was adopted by an overwhelming majority of active Bishops:
Motion: Having received and considered the extensive work of the Commission on a Way Forward, the Council of Bishops will submit a report to the special session of the General Conference in 2019 that includes:
- All three plans (The Traditionalist Plan, The One Church Plan, and The Connectional Conference Plan) for a way forward considered by the Commission and the Council.
- The Council’s recommendation of The One Church Plan.
- An historical narrative of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans.
Rationale: In order to invite the Church to go deeper into the journey the Council and Commission has been on, the Council makes all the information considered by the Commission and the Council of Bishops available to the delegates of the General Conference and acknowledges there is support for each of the three plans within the Council. The values of our global church are reflected in all three plans. The majority of the Council recommends The One Church Plan as the best way forward for The United Methodist Church.
7. Did all the Bishops who voted for the motion support the One Church Plan?
No. While the One Church Plan received a substantial majority, a significant number of Bishops supported one of the two other plans. Many of those who did not support the One Church Plan voted for the final motion because it ensured that all three plans would be available for consideration by the 2019 General Conference.
8. Was each of the three plans representative of a subset of the Council of Bishops?
Each of the three plans has the support of several Bishops.
9. Why weren’t the Bishops’ votes recorded individually?
The process used to determine the Council of Bishops recommendation did not involve formal votes on who would support which of the three models. Rather the active Bishops took written straw polls at various points in the discernment process. The only formal vote taken was on a motion and rationale that combined: a) sending forth all three proposals considered by the Commission and the Council of Bishops; b) communicating that a majority of Bishops preferred the One Church model; and c) including a historical narrative of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans. The straw votes and the vote on the motion were all done by written ballot without names attached.
10. Why is this out of the hands of the Council of Bishops?
Judicial Council Decision 1360 included a footnote that gave clarity to the question about the relationship between the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops. Footnote 6 reads, “The undertaking of a ‘complete examination’ of the subject of human sexuality presupposes that there will be some kind of report, document, or study which supports the ‘possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality,’ which, in turn, presupposes that the Commission (not the Council of Bishops) will put forth legislation to fix the problem. The special called General Conference is to consider ‘their work,’ i.e., whatever the Commission desires to put before General Conference in terms of its ‘complete examination.’”
11. Has the Judicial Council made its final ruling on the three plans?
The Council of Bishops’ requested that the Judicial Council review the constitutionality of the three plans submitted by the Commission on a Way Forward. Constitutional issues identified by the Judicial Council with one, two, or all three of the plans will enable delegates to make corrective amendments during the Feb. 23-26, 2019 General Conference.
1. How will the Special Session process the Commission on a Way Forward’s report?
The Book of Discipline establishes the Commission on the General Conference as the entity responsible for structuring the work of any General Conference. This Commission currently is finalizing the Special Session’s agenda, which will be made available once it is published.
The standing rules governing how the 2019 Special Session conducts its business will be those that governed the 2016 General Conference, unless the 2019 Special Session delegates vote to change them.
2. What happens once the 2019 Special Session acts?
It depends. Any legislative action that is adopted by majority vote of the delegates will be implemented. It’s a bit more complicated, however, if the Special Session adopts Constitutional Amendments. These require two-thirds support of the General Conference delegates, as well as an aggregate total of two-thirds of the voting members of all the Annual Conferences across the globe. This means it would be over a year before any Constitutional Amendments were implemented.
However, any Judicial Council rulings made after the 2019 Special Session concludes possibly could impact the implementation of actions taken by the Special Session.
3. What happens if none of the three plans are approved?
The 2016 Book of Discipline, and its current stance related to homosexuality, will remain in effect.
1. Will resources be provided to assist clergy and congregations on how to move forward after the Special Session of General Conference?
Yes, resources will be available and gatherings will be held in an appropriate timeframe after the Special Session to provide clergy and congregations with clear information on how to move forward based on any decision the Special Session makes.
2. What should my church do if the plan isn’t what we want?
We are a diverse denomination with a range of understandings about many matters. If the plan approved at the 2019 Special Session of General Conference does not align with personal convictions, persons have the opportunity in our system to work for change through legislative processes beginning in 2020.
3. Will jurisdictions still remain?
Jurisdictions will remain if the One Church plan or the Traditional plan is passed. If the Connectional Conference plan is adopted, the current five U.S. jurisdictions will be replaced by three Connectional Conferences based on perspectives about human sexuality, theology, and doctrine.
4. Has the UNY Conference studied the financial implications of these plans?
Yes, currently Conference leadership is engaged in scenario planning regarding potential financial implications created by any decision of the Special Session of General Conference.
5. What is the pension liability created by the plans for Annual Conferences?
The pension plans of the United Methodist Church have required benefits for current service to be funded as earned since 1982. However, a fully funded pension plan can become underfunded due to economic downturns which produce lower than expected earnings or due to increased clergy life expectancy resulting in longer periods of benefit payments which become the responsibility of the Annual Conference and in turn, the local churches of the Annual Conference.
When additional contributions are required to restore a pension plan to fully funded status, active congregations that have left the United Methodist Church are no longer a source of funding for these critical contributions. However, these former United Methodist congregations were previously served by pastors who may be currently receiving pension benefits or due benefits in the future at their retirement. Unless a former congregation accepts responsibility for its share of future pension costs associated with pastors that served the congregation prior to the church leaving the denomination, the pension funding obligations for its former pastors will fall on the remaining churches in the Conference.
Since future economic conditions and the life expectancies of individual pastors are uncertain, the magnitude of future additional contributions is unknown. However, it is possible to estimate the amount of additional funds needed to outsource the obligations to an insurance company or similar party. Wespath Benefits and Investments has developed a model for estimating an individual church’s share of the additional funding needed to transfer the Conference’s pension liabilities to a commercial insurer.
A petition submitted to the 2019 Special Session of General Conference by the Commission on a Way Forward and initiated by Wespath calls for local churches which leave the denomination to contribute a pro rata share, as determined by the Conference, of the Conference’s long-term pension obligations. In general, transferring market and longevity risks of a pension plan to another party requires paying that party to take on those risks. The proposed pension liability payment compensates the Conference for the risks the departing church is leaving behind with the Conference.
This concept was recognized and developed as various Way Forward scenarios were considered. Currently, when a church closes or leaves the United Methodist Church, the trust clause calls for the Conference to receive all the church’s property and assets. However, several petitions being submitted to the 2019 Special Session of General Conference call for relaxing or suspending the trust clause, enabling a church to leave the United Methodist Church and retain its property and assets.
The proposed pension liability payments made by departing churches would help secure the benefit promises made during a history of clergy appointments when those churches were part of the United Methodist Church, and reduce the impact on the Connection of such church departures.
6. If a pastor leaves the denomination, does he or she lose his/her pension?
No. Pension benefits are fully vested when earned. However, persons who terminate their membership in the denomination are not eligible to retire. Currently, the benefits earned by such persons may be annuitized or withdrawn based on the provisions of the current plan documents, usually after reaching a certain age. However, clergy whose Conference relationship is terminated will not receive plan-funded cost-of-living increases, nor will their pensions increase from post-termination increases in Denominational Average Compensation.
The provisions of the current plan documents are subject to change based on legislation that may be considered and adopted at the Special Session of General Conference in 2019. If a petition developed by Wespath Benefits and Investments and submitted by the Commission on a Way Forward is approved at the 2019 Special Session of General Conference, exiting clergy will not lose pension benefits they have earned, but the form of their benefits may change. The petition calls for accrued pension benefits of a clergyperson who terminates to be converted to an actuarially equivalent account balance. Such conversions help limit a Conference’s long-term liabilities.
7. If a congregation decides to leave the denomination, will they be permitted to keep their property and other assets?
If an exit strategy is not provided, the current process in The Book of Discipline (¶ 2501) provides guidelines for a congregation chosing to withdrawl from the denomination. According to the Trust clause of the United Methodist Church, property and assets of a church desiring to close or withdrawl remain property of the Annual Conference.
8. What will be done to hold the church together, whatever happens?
The three plans put forth by the Commission on a Way Forward report are forms of unity. They are different kinds of unity than we currently are experiencing – but unity nevertheless. Each plan is designed as a way to help unify the church while simultaneously providing sufficient space to respect our differences.
Leading up to Feb. 2019 Special Session
1. What has the process been leading up to the 2019 Special Session?
The Council of Bishops’ revised call for a Special Session of the General Conference issued July 9, 2018 states, “the purpose of this Special Session of the General Conference shall be limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Commission on a Way Forward based upon the recommendations of the Council of Bishops.” This means the report of the Commission on a Way Forward, including the accompanying legislation, will be before the Special Session for consideration.
Judicial Council Decision No. 1360, issued earlier this year, states that other petitions may be submitted by organizations, and lay or clergy members as long as they are in harmony with the Commission on a Way Forward report.
Seventy-none petitions were submitted by a variety of individuals and organizations in addition to the 48 offered by the Commission on a Way Forward. Eighteen have been ruled out of order based on format or other errors. If no formatting issues are found with the remaining 61, they will be printed in The Advance Daily Christian Advocate, the official journal of the General Conference. The General Conference Committee on Reference ultimately will decide which of these petitions is deemed ‘in harmony’ with the Special Session of General Conference. Those that are not will be withdrawn from consideration.
Additionally, General Conference delegates have the right to amend any items that are properly before them for consideration.
2. What might change between now and the Feb. 2019 Special Session?
The Council of Bishops formally requested the Judicial Council to review the constitutionality of the three plans submitted by the Commission on a Way Forward in order to better ensure that the Special Session does not act in a way that the Judicial Council later decides is in violation of The Book of Discipline. Click here to read the Judicial Council’s statement released after its Oct. 2018 meeting. This will help facilitate the work of the Special Session because it will allow delegates to make corrective amendments during the Feb. 23-26, 2019 General Conference. It is critically important to note that this means that the three plans, with accompanying legislation, may change substantively prior to the actual Special Session of General Conference in Feb. 2019.
3. How can I get involved in the process?
First, you can pray that the General Conference delegates from Upper New York and throughout the world will carry out God’s will, show the world that Christ’s love is more powerful than human differences, and make sure that The United Methodist Church keeps the main thing the main thing: creating vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities, and the world.
Second, you can become part of the “Praying Our Way Forward” initiative that has been launched by the Council of Bishops at: http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/bishops-the-upper-room-launch- phase-3-of-praying-our-way-forward.
Third, you can keep up-to-date with everything by going to the UNY Conference website at http://www.unyumc.org/events/special-session-of-general-conference.