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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.