A Primer on Annual Conference
Every year in June, United Methodists from across the Virginia Conference gather for our Annual Conference meeting. This year the meeting is being held June 20 – 22 at the Berglund Center in Roanoke. Every United Methodist conference around the globe holds a similar meeting each year. In these meetings, clergy and laity gather together to worship and fellowship, to celebrate the ordination, commissioning, and licensing of new clergy and the faithful service of those who are retiring, and to vote on conference business. Every four years, the conference business includes the election of delegates who will represent the Virginia Conference at the global General Conference and the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. Since the next General Conference is in May 2020, we need to elect our delegates at this Annual Conference.
Who goes to Annual Conference?
Anyone can attend the Annual Conference, but only official delegates may vote. Each church sends their clergy and also one lay person for every clergy who serves that church (elder, deacon, licensed local pastor, or associate member). For example, if you attend a large church with 3 clergy on staff, your church would also select 3 lay people to serve as your delegates. Your church would therefore have 6 delegates attending the conference who can vote on all conference business. If your church is part of a charge, you would have just one lay person to represent all of the churches that are part of that charge. For example, if your clergy person serves two churches, you would have one clergy person and one lay person representing both churches. Most churches that are part of a charge alternate which church selects the lay delegate each year.
The conference strives to have an equal number of clergy and lay delegates at Annual Conference. Clergy who serve in extension appointments beyond the local church and retired clergy who are no longer serving a church are also voting members of the Annual Conference. To balance this out, we elect additional lay delegates from each district. The Virginia Conference is broken into 16 districts, and each district is allotted a certain amount of district lay delegates. While the goal is to have an equal number of clergy and lay delegates, in practice there are often more lay delegates than clergy delegates in attendance because many retired clergy are not able to attend.
Electing General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference Delegates
Every four years, the global United Methodist Church holds a General Conference to revise our Book of Discipline (the church law for all United Methodist churches) and elect our Judicial Council members (the United Methodist equivalent of the Supreme Court). Our next General Conference will take place in May 2020 in Minneapolis.
In the same year as General Conference, the regional Jurisdictional Conferences meet to elect bishops. Our next Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference will take place in July 2020 at Lake Junaluska, NC. The Virginia Conference is part of the Southeastern Jurisdiction, which also includes the following conferences: North Carolina, Western North Carolina, South Carolina, North Georgia, South Georgia, Alabama / West Florida, Florida, North Alabama, Holston, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Redbird Missionary Conferences.
Each Annual Conference is allotted a specific number of delegates to attend General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference based upon their membership. Virginia is allotted 22 (11 lay and 11 clergy) delegates to General Conference. Virginia has 44 (22 lay and 22 clergy) delegates to Jurisdictional Conference, which includes the 22 General Conference delegates and an additional 22 who are elected just for Jurisdictional Conference. To ensure that we have a full delegation to all conferences, we also elect 20 alternates (10 lay and 10 clergy) to fill in for any delegates who can’t attend either General or Jurisdictional Conference.
How are General and Jurisdictional Conference Delegates Nominated?
After prayerful consideration, eligible clergy may either nominate themselves or may nominate another eligible clergy. A nomination form is completed by March 1 and reviewed for eligibility. Only clergy who are full members of the Annual Conference are eligible to be elected as clergy delegates.
After prayerful consideration, laity may submit their nominations at their District Conference, or be nominated by a Board or Agency of the Annual Conference on which they serve. A nomination form is completed by March 1 and reviewed for eligibility. Each District may nominate up to one lay person for every 2,000 members of its churches. Laity must have been professing members of a UMC congregation for 2 years preceding nomination, must be members of a Virginia Annual Conference church, and must have been active in a UMC somewhere for four years preceding nomination.
Nominations from the floor can be received once the Annual Conference Session convenes. Clergy can nominate clergy, and laity can nominate laity.
Elections are held during the Annual Conference Session. This year, they will take place on Thursday June 20. Balloting is electronic. Laity vote for laity delegates and clergy vote for clergy delegates. For clergy, all active and retired full members (elders and deacons), provisional members, associate members and part and full time licensed local pastors who have completed the educational requirement and been under uninterrupted appointment for two years are eligible to vote. For laity, all lay delegates of the Annual Conference are eligible to vote.
We begin voting for 11 people to serve as our General Conference delegates on the first ballot. In order to be elected, a candidate needs to receive a majority of the votes cast. For clergy this has been about 340 votes, and for laity about 500 votes (this number varies from ballot to ballot). We continue rounds of voting until all 11 delegates have been selected.
This process begins again to elect the additional 11 Jurisdictional Conference delegates. The 10 alternates are then elected on a single ballot, with the top 10 vote-receivers being elected.
Why Is This Important?
General Conference is the only body that can speak for the United Methodist Church. In the event of disaffiliation or dissolution, it also defines how that process will take place. No General Conference is bound by the actions of past General Conferences. The 2020 General Conference could therefore elect to undo the work of the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, or they could take an entirely different direction which could include an amicable separation or many other possibilities. Critical decisions are made at General Conference; who we elect as our delegates matters.