The return of the Church of God in Christ Holy Convocation to Memphis, the city of its beginnings, will not happen this year because of COVID-19 safety concerns.
The 2021 event was to be a special celebration, not only honoring newly installed Presiding Bishop J. Drew Sheard, but also to mark the long-awaited return to Memphis after a decade.
For nine years, the annual meeting convened in St. Louis. Last year, the entire event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Earlier this year, when the virus-case numbers were steadily decreasing as more and more Americans received the vaccination, plans for an in-person week of scheduled gatherings were being laid for the convocation’s normally allotted slot during the first week of November.
Sheard and the General Board of Bishops decided just last week that the resurging numbers of the virus’ Delta variant across the nation would make an in-person meeting of that magnitude unsafe.
“The tremendous level of loss we experienced last year was staggering,” said Bishop David Hall, a member of the General Board. “Just on the General Board, we lost four bishops – four out of 12 bishops.
“It was devastating. We decided last week that it would not be safe for our senior leaders and pastors to be under one roof with these rising numbers of new cases. And we all agreed.”
COGIC Bishop Brandon B. Porter added, “It was a long, hard thought-out decision. Many of our leaders are seniors. With the Delta variant and so many still needing to be vaccinated, our presiding bishop, our general board, and other leaders engaged felt that it would be the right decision since safety is a primary concern.”
Porter said, initially, plans reflected a hybrid format, partially in-person for some events, and virtual broadcasts of others. However, a fully virtual format will be implemented.
“While we would love to gather in Memphis,” said Porter, “we don’t want to create a super-spreader for COVID-19. This was the right decision at the right time.”
In a short video posted to the COGIC website, Sheard explained that COGIC leaders have had a change of mind, given the turn of events with steadily increasing new pandemic cases.
“…After much prayer and contemplation, coupled with the recommendation of our Global Health & Wellness Committee – an advisory council charged with monitoring the course of the Covid-19 pandemic and its possible impact on in-person gatherings – this year’s Convocation has been changed from an in-person to a virtual event…,” Sheard said.
In past meetings, the Convocation brought in an estimated 40,000 to the city. The Memphis Cook Convention Center and FedExForum were venues used in more recent gatherings to accommodate the larger crowds.
Mason Temple near Downtown Memphis is the historic, international headquarters of the denomination.
Hall, who is also pastor of Temple COGIC in Memphis, said it was initially determined that only 6,000 delegates would be designated to attend in Memphis.
“We started at 6,000, and then, if the numbers had continued to decrease, we were going to increase the delegates to 10,000,” said Hall. “We tried to hold out, but last week, a decision had to be made.
“This resurgence is topping some of last year’s highest numbers. Bishop Sheard felt strongly that we had to go to a totally virtual format. And we fully agree.”
Bishop Porter, also a member of the General Board, is credited with brokering the agreement that brought the Convocation back to Memphis. He pastors Greater Community Temple COGIC in the Hickory Hill community.
Sheard praised the value of in-person fellowship at the annual meetings of the church.
“There is nothing better than fellowship with the Saints, and I anticipated a great time of sharing in Memphis,” Sheard said, in his video message.
“However, your safety is of paramount importance, and we must continue to operate with care and wisdom amid this pandemic.”
COGIC was established and nurtured in Memphis. Its founder and first presiding bishop, Charles Harrison Mason, was born in Shelby County to former slaves in 1864. Mason began the Church of God in Christ in 1907, and in 1945, he dedicated Mason Temple as the denomination’s world headquarters.