A planning team visited Olivet UMC in Coatesville July 21 to decide on safety measures for attendees at the 2020 Annual Conference Ordination and Commissioning Service to be held there, along with the Memorial Service, October 14. In the foreground (from left) are Jo Fielding, Bishop Peggy Johnson, David Koch and the Rev. Johnson Dodla. In the background is Olivet UMC's pastor the Rev. Hun Ju Lee.

Historic 2020 Annual, District conferences to meet mostly online

Careful, step by step planning involved

By John W. Coleman

Because of ongoing restrictions on large gatherings, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Eastern PA Annual Conference and its four District Conferences will all meet not in person but online in September and October. Forced into interactive, virtual meetings, as many churches have been, they will use Zoom video webinars, Facebook Live for livestreaming and the eBallot secure online balloting system for electronic voting.

For the Annual Conference everything will be accomplished in carefully orchestrated steps, after numerous meetings of conference staff and the Commission on Conference Sessions. But a key first step will be a hoped-for vote by conference members on August 26 to approve temporary rules changes that would allow for the virtual conference session, electronic voting and a reduced session agenda.

That proposed agenda would care for only necessary conference administrative business—that is, major mandated reports and votes. Submitted legislative resolutions would not be addressed but may be resubmitted for consideration at the 2021 Annual Conference next May.

The October 13-14 Annual Conference (Tuesday and Wednesday) will include the annual, closed Clergy Session October 13, from 9 to 11 AM, and no Laity Session. The full conference legislative session will follow from 1 to 5 PM. Bishop Peggy Johnson will preside over the conference session from the Conference Office in Valley Forge, assisted by new Conference Secretary the Rev. Jacqueline Hines, Conference Lay Leader David Koch and the Rev. Bruce Rogers, Parliamentarian, who will be off-camera.

The annual Memorial Service for deceased clergy and clergy spouses will follow October 14, at 10 AM, at Olivet UMC in Coatesville. Onsite attendance—mostly by families of the deceased—will be by invitation only and limited to five persons, while others can watch it on livestream video.

Olivet UMC

After the sanctuary is sanitized, the annual Service of Ordination and Commissioning will follow at 2 PM that day (following a rehearsal the evening before). Again, attendance at the church—mostly by families of those being ordained and commissioned—will be by invitation only and limited to five persons, while others can view it on livestream video. In addition, ordinands may have up to two sponsors each to accompany them at the altar.

Bishop Peggy Johnson will preach briefly at the session’s opening worship service and at the Memorial Service. Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi of the Pittsburgh Episcopal Area (Western PA Conference) will preach onsite at the closing Service of Ordination and Commissioning.

Annual Conference-related Dates and Activities

The Commission on Sessions, which meets again September 2, will continue to monitor cautionary guidelines provided by PA Governor Tom Wolf and adjust planning for the two onsite services accordingly. Here is a busy working schedule of important dates and activities to prepare for and execute this year’s virtual annual conference:

  1. An invitation to all clergy and lay conference members, with their email addresses confirmed, will be emailed by August 10 inviting them to participate in the online voting on proposed rule changes through eBallot. It will include a copy of the rule changes and registration instructions for the August 26 voting session by Zoom webinar. Members must pre-register for the webinar by August 24. Usernames and passwords for eBallot participation will be emailed to registered members on August 25.
  2. By August 10 the conference will also mail, via USPS, the rule changes and Zoom webinar registration instructions to members for whom we do not have email addresses.
  3. Members will also receive instructions on how to register to view and vote at Annual Conference at identified in-person locations, available only for those without adequate access to computers or Wi-Fi service elsewhere. Participants at those locations will vote by raised hands.
  4.  During the Zoom webinar on August 26, at 6:30 PM, members will learn about the proposed conference rule changes and ask questions. Then they can vote either electronically or by raised hands at in-person locations, where votes will be counted and promptly reported. The voting outcome will be announced at the webinar’s conclusion. This session will be livestreamed on Facebook Live.
  5. If the rule changes are upheld, the Rev. Jacqueline Hines, Conference Secretary, will ask those who submitted resolutions to the 2020 session if they wish to resubmit them to the 2021 session or withdraw them.
  6. Registration for Annual Conference will open September 8. An email invitation will be sent to all delegates with instructions on how to register for Annual Conference. Additionally, a letter will be sent by USPS to all those without an email address in our system. There will be a $30 Annual Conference registration fee to pay costs associated with the online session, including electronic voting, and onsite gatherings, including worship services and use of in-person locations.
  7. Bishop Peggy Johnson will host a Zoom webinar practice voting session on Sunday, October 4, at 3 PM. She will demonstrate voting by the eBallot system and by raised hands. The bishop will also discuss the voting process and some matters to be addressed at Annual Conference the following week.
  8. Information to register for the October 4 practice session will be sent to conference members by September 18. Instructions for using the eBallot voting system will be emailed to registrants October 3. This voting practice session will not be livestreamed.
  9. Instructions to access members’ eBallot portal will be emailed October 12 to all members who have registered for Annual Conference and the Clergy Session.  Those who registered to attend Annual Conference at in-person locations will receive instructions for raised-hands voting there.
  10. The Annual Conference session and worship services, October 13-14, (but not the Clergy Session) will all be livestreamed on Facebook Live for guests to view, due to limits in how many people can view these events using the conference’s Zoom account.
  11. If the rule changes are approved, members at the conference session will be able to ask questions for clarification before voting but not offer amendments or engage in debate. Voting results will be announced before the Annual Conference adjourns.
District Conferences to meet on Zoom with Bishop as guest

For the first time, the four District Conferences will meet not simultaneously onsite but on different dates in September and online in using Zoom webinars. That will allow Bishop Johnson to visit each virtual gathering to explain necessary adjustments planned for Annual Conference and also discuss the denomination’s new Dismantling Racism initiative and the importance of Discipleship. The District Conference schedule is:  

  • South District: Tuesday, Sept. 15, 6:30 PM
  • East District: Wednesday, Sept. 16, 6:30 PM
  • North District: Thursday Sept. 17, 6:30 PM
  • West District: Monday, Sept. 21, 6:30 PM

Each District Conference must vote for any needed replacement equalizing members for the 2020 Annual Conference. (Equalizing members for the next quadrennium will be voted on at next spring’s Annual Conference.) Information on equalizing members and nomination slates for District Conferences will be emailed to all members September 4.

Districts will also vote on nominees for annual conference leadership, provide any feedback to the Committee on Leadership’s preliminary conference report, signify district clergy and leadership transitions, and thank churches that have paid 100% apportionments. Members may attend any district conference, but they should only vote in their own district’s conference. Members will vote by using the Zoom webinar raised-hand feature with automatic vote tabulation.

In addition to Zoom, the District Conferences may be viewed on Facebook Live (via livestreaming). And districts will provide, if requested, church locations for in-person viewing by voting members without computers or Wi-Fi capabilities at home.  District assignees will tally and report vote counts in those locations.