Can we get a 20-percent-off coupon for General Conference?

The Rev. C. Chappell Temple

The Rev. C. Chappell Temple

Let’s start with the obvious: There is virtually nothing any church committee could do that is worth nearly $100,000 an hour. Yet if the cost projection of $10.8 million for the 2016 General Conference is correct, that is what we will be spending just to gather for our quadrennial assembly in Portland, Ore. That number is not only $2 million more than the pricetag of the 2012 meeting in Tampa — which produced virtually no real changes in the corporate ordering of our church — but it is clearly not an acceptable ROI or “return on our investment” of church funds as well.

Some of it is unavoidable — the result of the increasing globalization of United Methodism, which has been a good thing, to be sure. But given the dysfunction that was clearly on display at the last General Conference, some changes need to be made before we meet in Portland.

So what should the good folks on the commission planning our next such assembly do? Three short-term solutions come to mind, along with a few more substantive changes that will take at least another quadrennium to accomplish.

First, as per the allowance already given in the Book of Discipline, the overall number of delegates should be cut from the nearly 1,000 who have attended previous conferences to 800.

That still will allow for a significant variety of voices to be heard, but a 20 percent reduction in delegate costs should translate into some significant savings. Similarly, we may wish to limit the number of board and agency staff members who attend General Conference on the denominational dime to no more than half a dozen from each agency, excluding those who are elected by their own respective annual conferences. While that is not a direct expense of the General Conference itself, it is nonetheless factored into the budgets of each agency and funded through apportionments paid to conferences and local churches.  Such a move also could help to reduce the tension sometimes present between the elected delegates and the agency staffers who may be lobbying for particular legislative proposals.

Second, reduce the duration of the meeting from 11 days to nine, again resulting in about a 20 percent overall saving of  daily costs. 

But how can we possibly get it all done in such a shortened period, some may ask? It’s fairly simple: Eliminate much of what happens at General Conference, which may seem necessary to the planners, but is not so to most of the delegates.

Looking through the 2012 schedule, for instance, more than 12 hours of plenary time was allotted for such items as sensitivity training, theological grounding, continental gatherings, holy conversations (which proved to be more divisive than helpful), and production-quality celebrations or services. What’s more, that figure doesn’t even include pre-conference orientations for international delegates, first-time delegates, seminarians, committee recorders, marshals and pages, and heads of delegations, most of which required those participants to come at least a day early at general church expense.

But don’t we need such special events and opportunities? Without denying that some of these times could be helpful, we also can make an assumption that most of the delegates, no matter where they are from, are highly educated professionals with a longstanding commitment to the church who can probably figure it out on their own, or at least with far less laborious training.

Similarly, use the existing days more efficiently. Giving the Sunday morning off for worship in 2012 was a vast improvement over not having done so in 2008. But a plenary session could easily have started at 3 p.m. and worked through the evening hours, thus picking up almost another full day of useful deliberations, just as the opening day program could have begun far earlier than 4 p.m. In that regard, planners also should consider reducing the daily evening worship service from an hour to one that is half that length, offering a simple vespers to conclude the day’s business rather than a full-blown worship time when folks are already cooked from the day anyway.

Third, re-order the work of the conference to allow for a more efficient handling of resolutions.

A simple change in the rules, for instance, could place items that have the support of at least two-thirds of the legislative committee that discussed them on the consent calendar unless a motion is made to remove them from such consideration. The rules now state that a resolution may have no more than 10 votes cast against it to be placed on the calendar. Likewise, rethink the current legislative committee subject divisions so that each group may handle an equal number of petitions rather than overloading some committees and giving others a relatively light load of resolutions to process. Then shift control of the daily agenda back to the legislative committees themselves by asking each group to determine the priority of their resolutions and rotating among them so that all are heard. That will allow each group to present its most pressing business first, without subjecting the agenda to any undue political or ideological pressures.

There is even more than we can do in the long term. A change in the Discipline would allow us to apportion delegates on the basis of episcopal areas and not annual conferences, allowing for a far greater equity between all areas of the church. This proposal was actually made at the 2012 session but was defeated because of the careful turf protection of those who benefit from the current arrangement. It should be brought again and this time allowed a fuller discussion of just exactly how some areas have actually created more conferences, despite smaller numbers, to increase their minimum representation.

Constitutionally, we might also consider changing our order to allow bishops to vote at General Conference, a move that could increase the number of those participating without increasing the costs as our episcopal leaders are already present.

More substantially, until American jurisdictions are abolished — an ultimate goal given the racist tainting of their origins and the increased global number of the church — a significant savings could come by combining those meetings with that of General Conference, perhaps using the two days eliminated above as the time for that rather than re-gathering folks in regional gatherings for three or four additional days later in the summer. Jurisdictions could meet separately at churches in the same city for those two days, with either the jurisdictional delegates who serve as alternates to General Conference in attendance or by simply limiting the voting on bishops to the general delegations from each annual conference. This would be a dramatic shift, yes, but it would also represent a move back toward our earlier practice when bishops were elected church-wide rather than in a way reflecting regional biases and priorities.

Ultimately, all of this requires that we make a sea change as well in our understanding of representation, moving away from the rather parochial notion that unless someone who looks and speaks exactly like me is in the room, my voice cannot be heard.  That is not just bad stewardship; it is also bad theology.

There is no doubt that implementing even just these three short-term suggestions would be complicated, given prior commitments to hotels and the convention center.  But if the group planning our next assembly starts now, some concessions may indeed still be possible.  And for $10 million, we simply can’t afford to not at least try.

The Rev. C. Chappell Temple, pastor of Lakewood United Methodist Church in Houston, has been a delegate to the last two General Conferences and previous six South Central Jurisdictional meetings.


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  1. Dr. Charles Klink

    I would wholeheartedly agree with the comments made above. Further, I believe it is important for those persons (Bishops mostly) overseeing the parliamentary procedures to be committed to the process and hold the attendees to the schedule. I am aware there is a desire to want to be fair-and-balanced to all persons/issues, but there comes a point where the questions becomes one of “Who’s in charge?” I remember when a similar situation as often happens at General Conference happened in our annual conference several decades ago when Native Americans took control of the annual conference right after lunch-break. The bishop at that time (James Thomas) took control of the situation and admonished the Native American persons for not following the procedures that had been agreed to in smaller venues for them to present their concerns. The matter was: a) recognized; b) controlled; c) Bishop Thomas made it clear the procedure; and d) all parties agreed and much potential time-wastage and attention-getting for headlines was avoided and the conference proceeded and STILL recognized the concerns and dealt with them. That is just one example of the person in charge setting aside personal positions (one way or the other) and proceeding with the proper outlined procedures and still allowing for the recognition of the concerns of all. The same can happen at General Conference if those in charge are TRUTHFUL to their statements of being fair to all parties/sides. We need to be the people of faith with political differences gathering, with the faith FOREMOST always before us as we are striving to bring together our differences under the umbrella of Jesus’ call to love all as people of God who are imperfect (sinners) but committed spiritually to God’s purpose in a world needing God’s Spirit!

  2. leegshack

    1,000 delegates is a minimum to gain inclusion. Six staffers per agency is adequate. 12 hours of theological training and celebrations are unnecessary. Resolutions work load can be better distributed among legislative sessions, and a two-thirds vs ten vote rule for consent calendar is reasonable. Bishops should have voting rights.

  3. Rev. Mike Childs

    I totally disagree with nearly every point made. The problem is that Western and Northeastern Juriddictions are far far over represented now. They have a tiny per cent of UM membership, and since everyone will get some representation, this is a rather transparent attempt to increase their per cent of the delegates. A few out of 800 is a bigger voice than a few out of 1,000. It is also a racist plan that would certainly decrease the number and per cent of African delegates. No way!
    The only way I would consider a change is if every Annual Conference gets exactly the percent of delegates that matches their percent of total membership. And no more!
    I was a delegate to the last two General Conferences

    1. C. Chappell Temple

      While I appreciate the dialogue, reducing the number of delegates from the current 988 down to 800 should not substantially increase the percentage of Western Jurisdiction delegates at all. As per Paragraph 511, delegates are apportioned on the basis of both clergy and lay membership of each conference, with the provision that every conference is entitled to at least one clergy and one lay delegate irrespective of their size. In 2012, the Western Jurisdiction was allotted a total of 32 delegates (down from 40 in 2008), which represented just over 3% of the total number in Tampa, or roughly the same percentage of members within the global church who reside in the Western Jurisdiction. Four of the eight conferences in the West were allotted the minimum of two delegates which (barring a surge of unexpected evangelistic fever that swells their church rolls in the next two years) will probably not change in 2016. If the other conferences in the jurisdiction all maintain their current levels, however– an assumption which seems unlikely, based upon the trends of the past decade or so–an overall reduction in the total number will probably see a drop in their delegate count. But even if it does not, the total increase in Western Conference representation will still be rather minimal, going from 3.2% to no more than 4%, or not enough to effectively increase anyone’s voice, no matter how loud or shrill it might be.

      Similarly, 282 delegates came from Africa in 2012 (up from 196 four years earlier), representing their share of global membership which in 2012 was 28.5%. Eleven of the 26 conferences on that continent had the minimum number of delegates (one clergy, one lay), and so even if they were not allocated more due to growth, they would still retain those delegates which would actually increase their percentage if the total number dropped from 988 to 800. If you do the math, thus, the fears expressed by Pastor Childs are not merited, and the suggestion of racism is certainly way off base and even a bit careless. (I personally celebrate the presence of our African delegates at General Conference and believe they are a God-sent balance to many of the rest of our brethren.)

      On the other hand, should someone be looking for evidence of a hidden agenda or conspiracy, they might want to cast a glance towards the composition of the Commission on the General Conference and the Committee on Agenda and Calendar. The commission, largely appointed by the bishops, consists of 25 folks, including one from each jurisdiction, and one from each of the seven central conference areas, with ten additional apportioned out on the basis of membership. But there are also at-large memberships that appear to go more often to Western and Northeastern Jurisdiction folks than to those in other regions. Similarly, for some time now the Western third of the United States has been granted more bishops than its membership warrants or than those in the jurisdiction are even willing or able to pay for, thus requiring a subsidy primarily from the Southeastern Jurisdiction to the Western conferences. An effort that was made to change that in Tampa failed, but it should certainly be looked at again in 2016.

      Bottom line: reducing the number of delegates from 988 to 800 will not affect the percentages in any appreciable way. Likewise, if the federal government can run the affairs of 314 million Americans with just 535 legislators, do we really need 450 more delegates than that at our General Conference just to insure that representation is actually taking place there? Chappell Temple

      1. Keith A. Jenkins, Ph.D.

        Chap, I trust you know what thin ice you skate upon when you offer the US Congress as a model for equitable representation or legislative effectiveness. :^)

  4. John

    The thought about reducing delegate size has been floating for several years. My concern is that this will inevitably result in more 1/1 delegations – 1 clergy and 1 lay. Given the number that already exist, particularly in the Philippines, this is problematic. I value diversity within delegations (age, gender, ethnicity, thought) far more than the author of the article does.

    The remedy of electing by episcopal area is interesting, but I have yet to see a meaningful explanation of how this could be done. As well, no one has produced an explanation of the cost savings that would result. The “20 percent off” reference has appeal, but I doubt it is accurate.

    What is driving costs? A lot of it is related to the cost of being a worldwide church. Transportation is directly driven by the number of international delegates. Translators, translation equipment, printing costs for multiple language editions – much of this cost will be incurred regardless of the number of delegates.

    Some of it is related to venue and I would support efforts to find less expensive venues. But again, they have to be able to support international travel and translation infrastructure needs.

    I would support cutting the number of days as well. But I’d raise some caution about what we cut out. Making General Conference into even more of a business/political event does not strike me as a step forward.

    I like the idea of changing the criteria for the consent calendar so that more items are placed there. I would argue that this cuts against reducing the number of delegates. The work of the committees becomes far more important. Strong committees and a broadened consent calendar could be instrumental in reducing the number of days needed. Let me add to this the thought that we increase the number of committees to 14. 800 delegates into the current 11 committees comes to about 72 per committee. 14 committees and 1000 delegates would result in membership of 71 and the committees could work faster with a lighter load and place more on the broadened consent calendar. Maybe we could cut days even further.

    The early election of delegates now permitted could also help speed committee work. Most significant proposals to General Conference have either been killed or significantly reworked by legislative committees. Might as well let this process start early as well. Presuming we can find ways to include Central Conference delegates. And that the technology and translations costs of doing so are bearable.
    I’m not wild about the idea of making Bishops voting delegates. So for a 1/1 delegation, your Bishop is your clergy member. And that leads us to the whole issue of retired Bishops.

    I could see holding Jurisdictional Conferences concurrently or before or after General Conference. But I wonder if this would really save money. Venue costs would likely be higher as would travel and lodging costs. I am deeply skeptical of a US regional/central conference that elects Bishops for the entire US. A cursory glance at delegate math tells you who would dominate this process. I readily see reducing and realigning the Jurisdictions (although there are complications like SEJs ownership of Junaluska or SCJ’s ownership of SMU). And if the name “Jurisdiction” still bears stigma, let’s come up with another one. And a replacement for “Central” while we are at it.

    An idea that has been floated in the past is to raise the bar for submitting a petition. The ADCA is cluttered with poorly written, impractical and unconstitutional petitions that waste delegate and committee time. I have some reluctance around this as the ability of any United Methodist to submit a petition has appeal. But if individuals could still submit petitions to annual conferences which could then be passed on, this would address that concern.

    I think the bottom line here (pun fully intended) is the perception of value. The 2012 Conference is easy to stick with the “do nothing” label. That is a bit unfair as it did do something. Something not well thought out and unconstitutional, but it was something. The biggest failure, in my opinion, was the failure to grapple with the implications of becoming a worldwide Church. This was the unfinished business of 2008. The structure questions we wrestled with in 2012 and the questions raised in this blog cannot be meaningfully resolved until we sort this out. Or course, if we wait long enough, the Central Conference delegates will have the numbers to do it for us.

    1. Chappell Temple

      Thanks for this and you make some excellent points. Just to clarify, if we gave bishops a vote I would not see them as taking one of the clergy places from any conference, but that would be in addition to the elected delegates. Electing by episcopal areas would take some careful thinking through, but I believe it is doable and would be preferable to the current situation of 1/1 minimal representation.

  5. Fred

    After being a clergyperson in the UMC for well over 3 decades and watching the culture wars as the American UMC drifted farther and father to the left and shrank and continues to do a disappearing act …
    The question that is really becoming clearer and clearer, the question that is really before us is this one: Does any of this debating matter? It seems certain all efforts are waaaay too late even though all the signs were out there for decades that radical change had to happen for us to have any hope. Bishop Wilke’s book, “And Are We Yet Alive” stating we were in deep do-do was written almost 30 years ago now! The signs of our demise were out over a decade before that book was released. The changes never came. Now these arguments sound hollow and almost meaningless…almost. The ship is full of holes and too far below the water line to keep from going down. The debates are starting to be humorous. I can hear the last two GC delegates debating some PC trivia in the closet in which they will have to meet as the last UMC altar candle is blown out and the last door locked. Only a repentant UMC seeking a Holy Spirit, core-deep renewal could save us. But it seems we continue to rush in the exact opposite direction.
    Thank God for the seeds planted in other continents that stuck to our core, biblical principles and have grown. They will bear witness to the fact that once upon a time in America, “The UMC was here.”

  6. Elsie Gauley Vega

    Decades ago, when I grew up in the Methodist Episcopal Church, We had not made bigoted, judgmental statements about God’s love for diversity when God created men and women:
    most people heterosexual, a minority lesbian or gay, and a smaller minority Trans people.
    The Christians in Africa and The Phillipines and India had their minds poisoned when they were colonized by Great Briton. and now their minds are being re-poisoned by American “Evangelists” who are teaching that homosexuality is a sin…and people should be put in prison or killed if they are not heterosexual—or even for knowing gay men and lesbians and failing to report them to the police.
    It would save a lot of money if we stopped having ‘trials’ for clergy who want to serve ALL of God’s sons and daughters.
    It would save a lot of ‘travel’ expenses if we broke up the “Global Church” and held General Conferences in separate continents.

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