For the second year, denominational annual meetings are being derailed and reworked due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This will have an urgent effect on the United Methodist Church, which already had delayed from last year a critical vote on the future of the church. And for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, COVID-19 brought an unusual twist: The hotel and convention center scheduled for its July meeting closed due to the pandemic and never has reopened — and now is embroiled in a headline-making dispute between owners and management.
As of the end of February, it appeared that the only major Protestant denominations in America still planning in-personal national meetings this summer are the Southern Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God — and maybe the Presbyterian Church in America.
The SBC annual meeting scheduled for June 15-16 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville. In one sense, this also is a critical meeting because the three announced candidates for the SBC’s presidency represent starkly different visions for the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination — symbolizing an internal battle between SBC conservatives and factions that are even more conservative.
On its annual meeting website, the SBC Executive Committee notes it is “actively monitoring the incidence of … COVID-19 in our region and says it is “following guidance from local health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding large gatherings.”
Meanwhile, CBF — which was formed 30 years ago as a breakaway group from the SBC in a previous schism — had its in-person meeting decision forced in an unusual way. A statement from CBF simply noted that “changes in the status of the venue in Washington, D.C.” now allowed a rethinking of the 2021 general assembly.
“Ownership of the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., the previously announced venue, decided to close the hotel to make the site available for other uses,” the announcement explained.
The reality, according to reporting by local news outlets, is that the historic hotel — which opened in 1918 — is embroiled in a bitter dispute between Marriott Hotels, which had been managing the property under contract, and Pacific Life Insurance Company, which owns the property.
The hotel had closed “temporarily” due to the pandemic but never has reopened, according to news reports.
Faced with this additional challenge, CBF leaders announced a shift to a hybrid model at a date later in the summer. The new dates are Aug. 25-28, seven weeks later than the planned dates for D.C.
“We are pleased to invite you to join us in late August for an event that will include an even more comprehensive virtual experience than we offered last year while also finding ways to provide in-person gatherings in congregations in partnership with CBF’s states and regions,” said Paul Baxley, CBF executive coordinator. “Because it is hard to predict now exactly what the conditions will be like in late August, we recognize that the levels of in-person opportunities will vary in different parts of our Fellowship.”
“Because it is hard to predict now exactly what the conditions will be like in late August, we recognize that the levels of in-person opportunities will vary in different parts of our Fellowship.”
Baxley said the hope is for some local congregations to host in-person gatherings “that fit their needs, capacity and safety protocols” in coordination with a livestreamed national program.
Like other church-related groups, CBF in summer 2020 had to improvise quickly to adapt its scheduled in-person meeting to a virtual format. Given what was then the emerging scope of the pandemic, the virtual event had to be planned and supported with technology in less than two months.
The Presbyterian Church in America currently faces its own dilemma on its 2021 general assembly because of a different kind of hotel contract issue.
According to Bryan Chapell, stated clerk pro tempore, church officials had hoped to postpone their scheduled June meeting until fall, thinking it would be safer to travel and gather by fall.
With some virus measures now declining with the initial rollout of vaccines, convention planners believe they are contractually obligated to the planned meeting in St. Louis the last week of June. However, Chapell told church leaders, “Your PCA leaders do not think trends have reversed so convincingly that we are ready to move away from a fall date, which more experts believe to be safer for participants and their families.”
As a result, PCA officials have opened registration for the June date while still hoping to move the meeting to late September.
“If pandemic control is not attained in advance of the June dates, you will automatically be registered for (general assembly) at the September dates. If you are able to attend in June, but not in September, your registration will be refunded to you upon your request,” the appeal states.
The United Methodist Church normally meets for an in-person global gathering every four years, and that was supposed to be May 5-15, 2020. With the pandemic gaining steam in the spring, that meeting was pushed off to new dates of Aug. 29-Sept. 7, 2021. Now the revised dates have been scrapped as well, due to the uncertainty of international travel.
As a workaround, the UMC’s Council of Bishops has called a special session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church to be convened online on May 8, 2021, to conduct essential business only.
This meeting will be limited to gaining a quorum “in order to suspend the rules for the sole purpose of allowing the use of paper ballots to act upon 12 pieces of legislation that would enable the church to effectively continue its work until the postponed 2020 General Conference is held in 2022,” the bishops said.
Most of those 12 agenda items include amendments to governing documents to address unusual situations just like the one brought about by the pandemic — adding phrases such as “due to … war, political upheaval, natural disaster, disease outbreak, travel restrictions or other development that makes it probable a quorum of delegates cannot be present.”
The 2020 General Conference has now been postponed to August 2022. This affects budgets and clergy employment terms, among other business items.
“Our current Book of Discipline was never written with a worldwide pandemic in mind.”
“Our current Book of Discipline was never written with a worldwide pandemic in mind,” said Cynthia Fierro Harvey, president of the Council of Bishops. “When we became aware of the need for a further postponement, we knew that some action needed to be taken in order to free the church to operate and continue to fulfill its current mission until we could gather in person.”
This will put off another year key decisions on church governance and specifically LGBTQ inclusion that were to be decided in 2020. The UMC has several proposals in play that could unite or divide the church.
The Alliance of Baptists previously announced it will hold 100% of its annual gathering online this year. The April 23-24 event will be inspirational and educational in nature, with an annual business meeting scheduled for a separate date, April 10.
That business meeting will include discussion of a proposed set of new bylaws and covenant. The annual gathering will feature inspirational speakers. The group’s website notes: “We are busy brainstorming ways to take creative advantage of the flexibility of an online conference, while staying true to the spirit of Alliance gatherings past.”
The American Baptist Churches in the USA will hold this year’s biennial mission summit as an online experience June 24-26. The group hopes to return to an in-person gathering in Puerto Rico in 2023.
The decision to go virtual this year was made after an internal poll found 61% of respondents would not be willing to attend the mission summit in person “until there is a dramatic change in the current conditions” related to the pandemic.
The Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc. also has adopted for a virtual gathering this year.
President Timothy Stewart said: “The scientists are clear that this virus will remain with us through much of 2021, which is why we have elected as a board to (have) a second virtual annual session in August, building on the great success that we experienced in 2020.”
The Presbyterian Church (USA) holds its national general assembly every other year. The June 2020 event had to be shifted to an online format as the pandemic spread. It was the denomination’s first to be held fully online, with commissioners and delegates participating via Zoom and key denominational officials gathered at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Ky.
Based on that experience, the PCUSA determined last December to change the location and format of its 225th general assembly — scheduled for summer 2022 — from Columbus, Ohio, to a hybrid model based in Louisville.
A study group researched this and determined that “a ‘big box’ seven-day general assembly based in and around a convention center was not consistent with the realities of the church’s work and life in the current context.”
“If we are to truly live into the vulnerability of innovation, then we must fully commit ourselves to trying to do our work in a completely different spirit.”
That group concluded: “If we are to truly live into the vulnerability of innovation, then we must fully commit ourselves to trying to do our work in a completely different spirit. We were encouraged to see an option based in Louisville that would allow for staff to stay at their homes and would allow for all staff to resource the work of the general assembly, not just those who travel to a general assembly location.”
The Episcopal Church general convention was to be held in Baltimore the first week of July 2021. It now has been rescheduled for Baltimore in July 2022.
Church officials explained they have spent “the last several months riding waves of pandemic news. Although vaccine trials are reporting new and encouraging results, the United States is now gripped by its highest infection rates since the pandemic began, and more than a quarter of a million Americans have died. We hope that both vaccines and a newly energized response from the federal government will begin to ease the pandemic’s grip in 2021, but it is unlikely that even highly effective vaccines and robust federal intervention would permit us to gather as many as 10,000 people safely by next summer, as we had originally planned.”
This summer, the Episcopal Church will hold an online convocation of worship and prayer “to help us hear what the Spirit is saying to the church as we prepare to gather” the next year. “And to make best use of the adaptive moment now facing us, we will appoint both deputy and bishop legislative committees in 2021, charging them to begin their work virtually using the new online and Zoom skills that we have all gained this year.”
The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod works in trienniums, with regional meetings held one year and a national meeting the year following. The next scheduled national convention was to be 2022, but that would have been dependent on the district meetings being held this year, which became unlikely due to coronavirus.
As a result, districts will be allowed to delay their meetings until 2022, and the national gathering will happen in 2023.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America held its last churchwide assembly in 2019 and is not scheduled to meet again until 2022.
The Assemblies of God website indicates it still has plans to hold an in-person general council event in August this year in Orlando.
Several other denominational groups have not yet updated their websites or made announcements about their national meeting plans this year.