It Takes a Village to Throw a Conference

April 20th, 2012
Look out, Tampa! The United Methodists are coming!

Were just a few days out from the opening worship service of the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church and you can bet that our elected delegates to the proceedings are hard at work trying to digest the contents of the phone directory sized books of proposed changes known as the Daily Christian Advocate. These days are filled with endless e-mails, phone calls, and conversations from a variety of persons and groups trying to make their positions known to the saints and gluttons for punishment that make up the General Conference. What is less known to most of us is that the preparations for the gathering in Tampa have been years in the making, and putting on the conference involves a team of hundreds of persons who are likewise enmeshed in the thousands of details required for a successful conference.

24 years ago, I attended my first conference as a denominational employee charged with making sure that the proceedings were projected on large screens so that the delegates could follow the proceedings. At the General Conference of 1988 in St. Louis, we utilized the very first electronic voting system, using an Apple 2 for its brain, and covering the floor of the conference with thousands of unwieldy ribbon cables. Yes, there were computers in the newsroom, but petitions were pretty much tracked by hand, and there was certainly no thought of creating a real-time legislative tracking system that could allow folks from throughout the world to keep up with the latest votes (after all, the World Wide Web as we know it was still five years away from being operational). But even then, in the days of mechanical adding machines and IBM Selectrics, putting on the conference involved a team of professional staff and dedicated volunteers from throughout the world, and the attention of a faithful host committee from the local annual conference.

I was reminded of all of this when I gathered with 75 other folks in the studio of United Methodist Communications to talk about UMCom’s part of GC2012. For many months the folks at UMCom have been deeply engaged in preparing for the time in Tampa. This included working with various boards, agencies, and the Council of Bishops in preparing presentations; making arrangements for sound, lighting, and video coverage for a meeting on par with many rock concerts; developing a plan for releasing information and meeting the needs of media outlets from throughout the world who want to cover what is coming out of the conference; and making sure that they were addressing needs and concerns related to their own paragraphs in the Book of Discipline. As I sat in the meeting (for the record, they have invited me to come and assist with their social media and community engagement strategy), I was struck by the dedication and determination expressed by everyone in the room who is working hard to ensure that the delegates have what they need for a great experience in talking about the future of the church.

UMCom is just one agency of many who play a part in putting on the conference, starting with Alan Morrison (the Business Manager of General Conference headquartered at GCFA) to the lowliest volunteer brought in by the Florida Conference to ensure that delegates find their way about the city. Some of this folks are being paid for their work, while others are doing it out of their love for the United Methodist Church and their dedication to ensuring that effective Christian Conferencing can take place. In both cases, the staff will give countless hours, often arriving at the convention center before the delegates awake, and staying far into the night to ensure that when the delegates walk into the building they will have the latest and most up to date information in front of them as they carry out their work.

Of all the staff, some of the most dedicated are the volunteer page and marshal team that guards the facilities, runs errands for the delegates, and generally handles all sorts of tasks that they could never anticipate or imagine. The marshals and pages come at their own expense to volunteer for two weeks of standing and walking on concrete floors for endless hours, meals caught on the run, and often having to tolerate verbal abuse from both delegates and observers alike who somehow think that the rules of the conference don’t apply to them. While there has traditionally been an offering collected to help cover the expenses of these dedicated volunteers, it rarely covers more than the most basic of expenses.

My favorite example of a dedicated page/marshal was the one who was assigned to assist a bishop from another country who was in failing health. At one point during the conference, he was asked to help take this bishop to the bathroom. He walked the bishop to the nearest facility not thinking much of it – until he realized that he would not only have to help the bishop pull down his pants but also help with cleanliness afterwards. This page/marshal did so without batting an eye, believing that Christ’s call to loving our neighbor included meeting the most basic of needs.

This servant represents just one of the hundreds who will be contributing to the success or failure of the 2012 General Conference in Tampa. Without the support of these dedicated professionals and volunteers, the ability of the conference to function effectively and cost efficiently would be seriously hindered. It’s only because of this team that we are able to do the impossible and recreate the infrastructure of the U.S. Congress in a different city for a two week period every four years. These folks need your prayers as much and even more than the delegates of the conference, for some of them are working to support a meeting that may call for an end to their jobs.

My call to those attending the conference – as delegates, as observers, and in other capacities – is that you take some time to personally thank this village that has come together in their dedication to our church. This team exemplifies people who are engaged in the work of the church, and will give of their time and resources to make this meeting a great success. Without this village, there would be no General Conference of 2012.

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