By Joseph F. DiPaolo –
President Abraham Lincoln was once taken to task by a congressional ally for changing a policy position. “Mr. President, you have changed your mind entirely within a short time.” Convinced that recent events and new information required a change of heart, Lincoln replied, “Yes, I have, and I don’t think much of a man who isn’t wiser today than he was yesterday.”
Perhaps I’ve been wizened, or maybe I just woke up, but I have changed my mind about The United Methodist Church’s Commission on General Conference (COGC). Last September, Outlook published my reassurances that the members and staff of the COGC were doing all they could to ensure the postponed General Conference would be held as scheduled this summer.
I no longer believe that to have been true.
I am grieved and heartbroken over what I have experienced in the last two months as a member of the Commission, and on Monday (March 7), I resigned from that body in protest over the decision to postpone again. I cited as a primary reason for resigning that I had lost trust in the integrity of the process. The Commission deliberated in closed sessions which, we were told, were necessary to protect sensitive contract negotiations (with vendors and venues) which could be jeopardized if the internal debate were made public. Now that the news is out, the church at large deserves to know what happened.
At our January meeting, a surprise motion was made to postpone General Conference due to the ongoing pandemic, and the challenges faced by many non-U.S. delegates to obtain vaccinations. This was unexpected since we thought we were to receive status reports and facts, and then make a final decision at one of two subsequent meetings scheduled for February and March. It was also odd, since many organizations were then moving full-steam ahead with plans for international conferences in 2022. Some members frankly seemed a little too eager to cancel. Fortunately, a majority decided such a move was premature and we voted to delay a final decision to February or March.
At that same meeting, Commission members asked how many non-U.S. delegates were vaccinated – a requirement to obtain entry visas to the U.S. Apparently, no effort had been made to track that information, since the initial reaction from staff was that we could not ask such private medical information. I pointed out that we were not interested in delegates’ medical histories, only if they had been vaccinated, which would have to be disclosed to get visas. We asked for a report on visas and vaccination rates to be prepared prior to our February 24 meeting.
Two days before that meeting, I sent a letter to all commission members, which, among other things, reminded them that we were to receive that report. My email was sent out at 11:28 AM (EST) on Tuesday, February 22. Just a few hours later, beginning around 2:15 PM (as indicated from emails forwarded to me from delegates), General Conference General Secretary Gary Graves began sending emails to all General Conference delegates asking for their vaccination status, with a response deadline of the next day at 5 PM (EST).
It is hard not to conclude that the staff never took the request seriously and were scrambling at the last minute to cover themselves. Despite the short notice, however, Graves reported that he had received about 500 responses, with more than 90 percent indicating they had received at least one vaccination (the others either refused to answer on privacy grounds or were unvaccinated).
With that data, as well as general knowledge of falling infection rates and the relaxation of many restrictions on travel and large gatherings, COVID could no longer be an excuse to cancel. The discussion then turned to how hard it would be for non-U.S. delegates to schedule interviews for entry visas. To obtain visa interviews at U.S. embassies, the COGC staff must send an official letter of invitation to delegates. But none had been sent – which seems doubly suspicious in light of another document sent to Commission members less than two days before our meeting. This document listed all the wait times for US embassies for delegates to obtain visa interviews. In some countries, the wait time was well beyond the August 29, 2022, opening day of General Conference. In some cases, it was over a year! The date and place of the 2022 GC had been known since March 2021 – yet the staff had never sent out any letters of invitation to get on the schedules as soon as possible. Had they not been tracking the wait times during that period? If not, why not? If so, why were letters not sent to get ahead of the deadlines?
Interestingly, the staff said delegates in some countries might have 10-year visas; and it was learned that others had found ways to obtain visas from embassies in neighboring countries where wait times were shorter. But there was no detailed analysis of all these variables. When asked what percentage of delegates typically have not been seated in past General Conferences for whatever reasons, we were told it has approached as high as 10 percent. This time we were warned, it could 20 to 30 percent – yet again, with no supporting analysis or documentation.
And it was also clear that no serious attempt was made to revisit the possibility of a having an off-site gathering of delegates in Africa or elsewhere for virtual participation. I later learned that Dr. Kent Millard, President of United Theological Seminary had offered information about a hybrid process used for the General Conferences of the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches, but this information was never seriously studied or even reported to the Commission.
All this raises the legitimate question whether some members, leaders and staff of the COGC ever intended to hold the General Conference in 2022 and were simply leading other Commission members on to achieve a pre-arranged outcome. Nonetheless, a lengthy and robust debate went on during the 3.5-hour meeting on February 24, 2022, and the final vote to postpone was deeply divided, at 14 in favor and 9 opposed (with 1 abstention). Another suspicious feature was that the African members of the Commission argued that we should hold the 2022 conference as scheduled, while white U.S. members argued it would be a kind of “colonialism” to do so if it meant risking a higher number of Africans being absent!
It could have been done. By the way, we were told that the UM Church may lose as much as $3 million in forfeiture fees and penalties for cancelling the General Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That money could have been used to purchase tech support, equipment, or even additional staff to make a hybrid international conference happen – which many organizations have already done.
Because of this unwise and unnecessary decision to postpone, the highest governing body of the UM Church will not be able to meet to address the crisis that is fracturing our denomination or deliberate on the various plans which were proposed to address it. I fear we will shortly see renewed and intensified internal conflict across our connection. The experience of other mainline denominations that have divided without an amicable plan of separation suggests that many millions of dollars will now be wasted in legal battles over property.
None of this was necessary. The people of The United Methodist Church deserved better from the Commission. And you deserved better from me. Please accept my apology for deceiving myself – and misleading you – into believing that this process had integrity and honesty. I no longer believe that it did.
Hopefully, all of us are wiser today than we were yesterday.
The Rev. Joseph F. DiPaolo is Lead Pastor at Lancaster First United Methodist Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Global Council. This article originally appeared via the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Outlook and is reprinted by permission.