Reflections on General Conference by Jim Todd

EPA Clergy Delegate Jim Todd Offers Thoughts on the First Full Day of Legislative Committee

The members of the General Administration legislative committee were feeling a bit smug.  Whereas in some of the other twelve committees there was controversy in getting chairs, vice chairs, secretaries, and sub-committee chairs elected, we in General Administration quietly elected all five of our officials on first ballots, and even had some fun doing it.  The officials were elected on Wednesday afternoon, then trained immediately, so that we could begin the legislative process bright and early Thursday morning.  The General Administration committee has a huge amount of work in front of it.

Every committee has many petitions to consider, but General Administration is considering three plans to reconfigure the agency structure of our denomination.  There are currently thirteen general agencies; we are considering reducing that number to as few as five by combining our program agencies into one.  For the first part of the morning, we heard representatives from each of the three major proposals (Connectional Table/Interim Operations Team Plan, MFSA Plan, and the Plan “B” Plan) present their plan and answer questions.  Even more impressive was the latter part of the morning when the general secretaries from all thirteen agencies (or their representatives) offered their take on each of the plans.  It was insightful and respectful, and a genuine sharing of ideas and admission by each of the plan representatives that their own plans were not perfect and in need of amending and compromise to arrive at the best plan.

I went to lunch with high hopes about our process.  I believed with the “open hearts and open minds” exhibited in the morning by all parties, we might have been able to make significant progress in the afternoon.  We returned from lunch with the idea that instead of going right into debate on the main motion (CT/IOT proposal) using Roberts Rules of Order, we would stay in “holy conferencing,” by not debating but simply stating concerns, asking questions, and trying to find consensus on core values.  As the afternoon wore on, it became abundantly clear that though the 86 member body shared many core values, we were not going to find overall consensus on a plan.  Five minutes before dismissal at 5 pm, there was finally a parliamentary motion for a “straw vote” on whether we should be aiming more for the CT/IOT proposal (fewer agencies) or the MFSA proposal (many more agencies).  We took the vote, and the room was deeply divided.  Before we closed in prayer, the chairperson warned us we only have sixteen more hours to all of our business.  Going into our Friday legislative process, my first time delegate naiveté has worn off, and I’m fully expecting that if there is a majority vote on one of these plans, there will also be a minority report which makes its way to the floor of the General Conference next week.  Stay tuned on our denominational restructuring, and please pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our committee and all the others!

Jim Todd, General Administration legislative committee

Reflections of a First Time General Conference Delegate

by Rev. James B. Todd, first elected clergy delegate

The warm hospitality began at baggage claim in the Tampa Bay Airport.  As I descended the escalator to the baggage claim area, I was met by two laypersons in “cross and flame” vests who identified themselves as members of the Florida Annual Conference and members of Hyde Park UMC, the closest UM church to our General Conference venue.  When they discovered I was staying at the Hyatt, she immediately called for a shuttle for me, while he helped me manage my bags and chatted with me as I waited for the shuttle.  When I got the hotel, there were more United Methodist hosts to greet me, and present in great numbers at the convention center to help orient the delegates to the different meeting rooms and food venues.

The Florida Annual Conference has been planning for our arrival, according to Florida Bishop Timothy Whitaker, for the past five years, and Pastor James Harnish, coordinator of the Florida Conference’s hospitality efforts, is to be commended for the great welcome of all the delegates.

At the Head of Delegation meeting on Tuesday morning, it was abundantly clear how international our denomination is.  The translators had not arrived, and we needed to have everything translated into, at the very least, French and Portuguese.  The ideal would include Spanish and Swahili as well.  Several volunteers leapt to the microphones and provided impromptu translation.  Later, the international delegates received earpieces, connected to special wireless receivers.  Official translators then stood off to the side, quietly speaking into microphones which then broadcast to the wireless receivers.  In the plenary sessions, they sit in soundproof booths to do their important yet unheralded work.

Later in the day, there was a meeting for first time delegates which I attended.  The international delegates were especially active in this meeting, asking many questions which would otherwise make a US delegate smile.  If the shoe were on the other foot, of course, meaning that we were in an African country or the Philippines, they would no doubt smile at our ignorance of their culture.  In fact, there is a proposal being considered which would have General Conference go overseas for the first time ever, sometime in the next 12 years.  With the overseas delegations dramatically increasing in number each quadrennium, this is not as far-fetched as it sounds.  As numbers drop in North American UM churches, they have increased rapidly in many African countries and the Philippines, and since we apportion delegation seats based on membership, the African influence especially has grown.  As an example of the adjustment of first-time African delegates, there were many questions about the drinking water.  One African delegate complained that he saw the price of the $4 bottled water in the hotel room after he drank it.  When questioned why he didn’t drink the tap water, he remarked that he had no idea whether or not it was safe to drink out of the tap.  We certainly take many things for granted in the US, safe drinking water being chief among them!

Tuesday afternoon, we enjoyed a beautiful worship service to start our plenary time together (see photo above).  As inspiring as that was, at the first plenary business meeting Tuesday evening, we closed the evening debating the rules by which we will do our business over the next ten days.  By the end of the rules presentation, there were 18 amendments which needed to be processed overnight by the rules committee, then voted on during the first plenary on Wednesday.  Several of us were thinking, “If it’s this difficult just trying to figure out how we’re going to debate and vote, just imagine how tough it will be to actually vote on controversial topics!”  Still, we’re excited to be here, and with many of us being first-time delegates, we are simply in awe of the size and scope of General Conference, the tremendous organization needed to put it all together, and the wonderful multicultural worship experiences we know we will experience these next ten days.

Please pray for our strength and energy!  I write this at nearly 1 am, and our first plenary begins at 8:00 am sharp on Wednesday.  If only they’d get us out by 9:30 pm as they promised…

Blessings, Jim