I came to General Conference for two reasons: first-hand experience and moral support. As a rookie Elder, and with the action happening fairly close by in Tampa, some friends and I were interested to see and hear and feel how our denomination does its thing. With my Dad attending for his fifth time and serving as one of the SEJ’s Episcopal nominees, I wanted to be present and nearby for anything that might help. With my sister attending to help coordinate her and other campus ministers’ efforts as they advocated for their ministries, I hoped to be put to use – and maybe to see the beach, even just for a minute, as I was led to believe (deceptively) that it wasn’t far away.
Holy Community in Ybor
For the most part that plan materialized, and I flew into Tampa after about a week of General Conference had passed. It was tough to acclimate at first. There was already clearly a “Conference bubble” among my housemates who had endured the days so far – they talked in almost a shared language, or mumbled unintelligible things about “restructuring,” or made motions and demanded a second before the group could decide on where to eat supper that night. Some of them were already haggard and wild-eyed from the ongoing business; some already had conspiracy theories that made “Inception” seem easy to follow (if you’re ever trapped in an amendment within an amendment within an amendment, you’ll know).
But they were also already moving adeptly and intelligently through the workings of General Conference, with different persons observing nearly every committee and subcommittee, tracking legislation and taking every opportunity to champion something as vital as campus ministry. They were becoming close-knit and building relationships, and there was no truer holy conferencing than what I experienced passing among these people crammed into a couple of rental houses in Ybor City.
Feet getting wet
Needless to say, early on I felt out of place. My housemates, and the other delegates, reserves, pages, and staff – everyone – had things to do. They had responsibilities, and concrete goals, and schedules. I was there, again, with the two very nebulous goals of experience and support. And even if I knew where my Dad, sister, friends, or other delegates were at any point in the day (which could be rare), I probably wasn’t allowed to be in their designated area, or they wouldn’t have had time to tell me what I could do for them, or I was still so behind in following the business that I didn’t know where to begin.
As a starting point, and with Church Restructuring taking up UMC headlines, I sat through the General Administration committee’s proceedings and observed the Restructuring subcommittee. I’d been following the different plans and proposals since before General Conference, and had been trying to get a working understanding from Dad and others as to the implications for the church. In subcommittee I witnessed the fracturing of groups into their own self-interests, and a good deal of abstaining from the conversation by those who were focused instead on their forthcoming minority report. I was disappointed, truly, in the young adults involved in the process – no more so than the other adults, but I hold my peers a little more accountable since they so often and quickly claim to represent my voice, and since young adults generally try to lay claim to being more understanding or open to dialogue. But, all that aside, we watched as a parliamentary error helped to leave the GA group with no approved plan for restructuring, which meant that all three plans could be brought before the General body via removal on the consent calendar or substitution.
The Fabled “Back Room”
The next day was Sunday, and Sabbath, and a few hours of Clearwater beach. It was also to be the beginning of talk amongst members of restructuring groups toward a plan that might actually be effective and embraced by the General church. Some of you have heard this and the next few days described as “The Dark Days of Dirty Backroom Dealing” in which sinister forces conspired to exclude all but the elite “not-young, white, male” from the conversation. What a joke. These “not sanctioned by GC” talks happened in public meeting rooms, between groups that had only days ago been opposed to one another in significant and sometimes almost hostile ways when it came to restructuring. With my own eyes, I witnessed the talks grow organically out of relationships between persons involved in the different plans, and the deep underlying sentiment was apologetic, repentant, and dedicated to agreeing on something that would benefit the church. That’s all.
It was a scramble against time, not only to hear one another but to seek out other voices. Men and women of many ages, representing many nations, were involved and consulted. And having met the 3pm deadline on Monday to submit the new plan to the General body, everyone knew the work was just beginning, and that others would need to be included in the conversation. How can I be so sure about the way things went down? Because I was there in person, though nearly by accident.
At some point, it became clear to those working on what was to become “Plan UMC,” that a more condensed presentation of the proposal would be absolutely necessary in light of the some 80 pages that the written legislation made up, and that had only been printable in English in the time available. They hoped to have a chance to offer a brief presentation to the body that would include multiple voices and represent the supporters of the different original plans, and also include some visual interpretation of the plan’s layout. So, the call went out for someone to help produce the PowerPoint, and I joined a friend of mine, Richard Reams (provisional elder in SC), and two other young adults in the task. It was nerve-racking to start, to be involved at all. I didn’t want to open my mouth, and I only spoke when spoken to. I didn’t want to sound like an idiot, or muddy the waters. The time crunch was on. Complicated things were whirring about. But very soon, VERY soon, literally within a matter of minutes, I had been set at ease. I realized that this was a setting that honored the people around the table, no matter what brought them there. There was no inner circle or identification card to gain entry. We four who thought we were just picking fonts, colors, and textures, ended up hearing our own voices affect this plan that might shape the entire denomination. It was weird, and cool, and crazy.
Then it got deeper and crazier after an hour or two, when we realized that we had been left alone with our work. At the dinner break, most of those working on the plan had dispersed to crash after the previous days’ toil. They needed it; some of them were getting close to incoherent with exhaustion. But it was like they tagged out, and tagged us in, because for the rest of the night until about 1am, four young adults and another delegate had Plan UMC in their hands alone — no, not to revise or rewrite it at will, but to help shape its language and the way it would be understood by the body.
The next day or two were similar. We came and went with the others working on the Plan, tweaked here and there, and witnessed as others were continuously invited to the table. Some responded instantly and heartily, others with more deliberation, and others with an attitude that I wouldn’t characterize as wholesome in any way. Others avoided dialogue completely though they were invited to the table. But the overall result was a plan that seemed ready for the General Conference body to consider, to discuss and amend, and to potentially pass. So during the General Conference business on Wednesday, Richard and I spent about six hours on our feet inside the audio/visual truck to see to it that the slideshow was ready and rolling. We got a little stir-crazy but the A/V staff was excellent and entertaining.
We were terribly glad when the body finally agreed to see the presentation, and hear the plan, before deciding what to do with it.
Honestly, I felt like it was finally all over and done with at that point. Mission accomplished. The plan was before the body. For a couple days, I had that same nagging and unsettled sense that I used to get at the end of a college semester when exams were finally finished – the residual feeling that I still had something left to do, or I’d forgotten something, or needed to turn something in. After such a concentration of days with little sleep/food, of being “on” all of the time for hours at a time, I had a hard time “coming down” and relaxing again. I wonder if that was a small taste of what Dad and other delegates have endured over many a quadrennium. I flew out on Thursday and watched the progress from afar, including the JC decision to undo it all, but it was still good to know that we had done some part, and had been invited to take some part, and that part was over.
My goals, remember, were experience and support. A little bit of both of those most definitely happened, so I wanted to share here my perspective of General Conference, particularly in contrast to the articles, blogs, and Tweets that have painted the whole thing as shameful or failing. I wanted to share an eyewitness account of some of the events surrounding the now-past Plan UMC. And, ultimately, I wanted to try to share the voice of a 30-year-old elder in South Carolina who is by no means disenchanted with the movement that is United Methodism, who felt active and involved even as a non-delegate with no official “voice” or “vote.”
*SPECIAL NOTE: Richard Reams has written a summary article that can be found here. It’s another great perspective.