By Walter B. Fenton
October 18, 2023
“Honestly, planning the Church’s first General Conference is like being the first people to ride a very long rollercoaster with huge highs, big drops, and lots of twists and turns. It’s very exciting and a joy to ride it sometimes, but then there are other moments when you wonder why you volunteered to be the first to climb aboard,” said the Rev. Beth Ann Cook, the Chairwoman of the Global Methodist Church’s Transitional Commission on the Convening General Conference and Lead Pastor at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Poseyville, Indiana.
Cook leads the 21-member Commission with a tall task: plan the GM Church’s first General Conference while the denomination is growing rapidly, still organizing in places all around the world, and do it on a short time schedule.
Formed earlier this year by the GM Church’s Transitional Leadership Council, the Commission includes members from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Slovakia, the United States, and Zimbabwe. Bishop Mark Webb serves on the Commission as the episcopal representative.
Recently, the Commission’s work allowed the TLC, the body governing the GM Church while it is in transition, to announce that San Jose, Costa Rica, will serve as the host city for the denomination’s convening General Conference that will run from September 20 – 26, 2024.
A specially designated sub-committee of the Commission has selected a number of hotels near the convention center in San Jose to house Conference delegates and a host of others who will serve in various ways at the gathering. The TLC has entered into contracts with the hotels and will provide information about booking the blocks of rooms it has secured as the Conference grows closer. The TLC will also share with all Global Methodist members ways they can attend the Conference in person or watch it online.
“Most of us don’t plan multi-day events for hundreds of people from all over the world,” said Ms. Cara Nicklas, the TLC’s Chairwoman and an attorney based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. “It’s a testament to the Commission members’ diligence and hard work that in a matter of months they secured a location in a wonderful city with a national government willing to help us expeditiously secure travel visas for all the Conference’s delegates.”
But securing a location and dates are just two of the many steps the Commission must take as it leads the Church to Costa Rica. Cook shared a long list of details still ahead. Among other things, the Commission must recommend to the TLC an agenda, a budget, a legislative process, a means of allocating delegates, and provision for all Conference materials to be available in several different languages. Professional translators will be onsite so all delegates can fully participate in the proceedings.
“We have eight committees assigned to specific tasks, and they’re all making good progress,” said Cook. “But of course everything has to come together when we get to Costa Rica, so we convene a meeting of all the Commission members every other week. Given that we’re all volunteers and live in at least a dozen different time zones, it’s amazing what has been accomplished so far. Members are honored to serve, but we all know we have much more to do.”
For more than two centuries Methodist denominations of various stripes (and there are many) have held general conferences. For Methodists, a general conference is not just a gathering, it is a critical time of Christian discernment set in the context of prayer, worship, and the frequent celebration of Holy Communion. The conferences are often referred to as holy conferencing, where faithful, but frail and fallible church members gather to discern God’s will for a church.
Typically, annual conferences (subsidiary bodies of a Methodist denomination) elect delegates to represent their regions at a general conference. When the terms “general” and “conference” are connected with a particular Methodist denomination, they are always capitalized, hence the General Conference of the Global Methodist Church. Composed of an equal number of clergy and laity delegates, representing Church members from around the world, the GM Church’s General Conference is the only body empowered to speak authoritatively on its behalf with respect to its core confessions of faith and its governing structure.
“We’re all sinners in need of God’s redeeming, and I’m confident the delegates that will be elected to the GM Church’s convening General Church know that,” said Bishop Mark J. Webb, who, with Bishop Scott J. Jones, will preside at Conference sessions and lead in worship. “General Conferences, at their best, are a wonderful act of the Church’s faith. We believe that despite our sinful natures, God still chooses to work through us, to inspire us, and then equip us to go forth and fulfill the mission of His Church. I believe the GM Church’s convening General Conference will be a holy and hopeful time as sisters and brothers from around the world pray and discern together God’s will for this new Methodist movement.”
The Rev. Walter Fenton is the Global Methodist Church’s Deputy Connectional Officer.