by Raj Attiken, June 18, 2015: I remember the conversation vividly. It was in the summer of 2010. The four ladies had just arrived in the United States, and were on their way from the Atlanta airport to their hotel. They had come a long way to experience a General Conference Session of their church. They were not delegates. They had saved up money for years for this trip. They were visibly excited with anticipation. As I listened to them it seemed to me that for them this was a religious pilgrimage of sorts, with deep spiritual significance. Although I was heading to the same event as a delegate, my anticipation of the Church’s “business meeting” was far less exuberant!
The sixtieth General Conference Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church will convene in a couple of weeks. The “look-and-feel” of the gathering will be very similar to recent Sessions, except perhaps for electronic voting capabilities and the Texas heat. The elements that typically make up a General Conference Session will again be present in San Antonio. Some of these will contribute to a sense of familiarity and continuity to the event. Most of those attending the Session will again be non-delegates, with no voice or vote in the formal deliberations and decisions. They will be there to observe and to enjoy the various features of the gathering.
Despite the value that the different elements of a General Conference Session hold for different people, perhaps it is time to assess how many of these features merit preservation and perpetuation for the advancement of the Church’s mission in today’s global context. At a minimum, efforts should be undertaken to nudge this 150-year old quinquennial extravaganza into the information and digital age.
At least four elements of a General Conference Session can be redesigned for greater effectiveness and efficiency:
1. Content. A typical General Conference Session is part shareholders’ meeting, part elections, part camp meeting, part global family reunion, part marketing/sales convention, part “show-and-tell” Division and departmental reports, part food-court, part music festival, part pep-rally, part bazaar for products and materials, and more. The mix of these many elements contributes to a rather distinctive and complex atmosphere. But the luxury of combining all of these into one event also comes with a heavy price tag.
Several elements related to the content of a General Conference Session merit review. For instance, do all the items on the business agenda really belong there? Do items get placed on a Session agenda that can and should be addressed elsewhere? Are all the tangential features that embellish the event, but also add to the time, personnel, and expended resources, really necessary? Which of the elements of a Session are central to its purpose and which are peripheral? Should we dispense with the many “bells and whistles” that are unrelated to the primary purpose of a Session? Can we not get the church’s business done more effectively, efficiently, and resourcefully with a substantially streamlined General Conference Session?
2. Design. Technology has made available to us the ability to hold virtual meetings with participants scattered across the globe. Some of what is done at a General Conference Session can now be done remotely. (It is estimated that over 3 billion people in the world now have access to the Internet, and that there are approximately 6.8 billion subscribers to cell phone accounts!) There are scores of methods now available to us to market and inform our global constituency about our mission, ministry, products and services, without having to gather people into a large arena or convention center. Utilizing available technologies for this purpose will both enhance efficiency and lower the costs of getting the essential tasks done.
3. Representation: It should be obvious to all by now that serious attention needs to be given to constituting the delegate pool to more closely reflect the make-up of our global membership. As reported by the Adventist News Network, 83% of the 2,566 delegates to the 2015 General Conference Session are males. This is way out of proportion to the gender distribution of our global membership. Steps need to be implemented to increase the percentage of women delegates.
In a representative form of governance, the people’s wishes are – theoretically, at least– mediated to decision-making assemblies through their representatives. There is, however, a threshold to the number of representatives beyond which the organization’s ability to make effective decisions is diminished. The number of persons involved in making the decision impacts the quality of the decisions made. A strong case can be made, therefore, for drastically reducing the number of delegates to the business sessions of the General Conference.
4. Nominating Committee process: The nominating committee is tasked with recommending candidates for leadership positions in the General Conference, including its senior officers, departmental leaders and the presidents of the world Divisions. Currently, the nominating committee is constituted on the opening day of the session. Representatives from each Division caucus and determine who, from among them, will serve on the nominating committee. The committee is expected to complete its work within a few days. In fact, the nominations for the office of president and other senior officers are often completed by the first Friday of the ten-day session. Committee members, picked just hours before from across the globe, are expected to make decisions regarding candidates with little or no time to review their qualifications, backgrounds, performance history, skills, etc., especially if consideration is to be given to someone other than the incumbent in those positions.
The Nominating Committee process could be made more effective by having the Divisions caucus and pick their appointees to the nominating committee at the time of each Division’s year-end meetings the year previous to the General Conference Session. The nominating committee can thus be constituted about nine months prior to the session. The committee can then meet, in person and virtually, a number of times to do its work. Although there will be additional costs for committee members to travel to any in-person meetings prior to a General Conference Session, this cost will be minimal in comparison to the overall cost of holding a Session. The benefits of such a process, however, will be immense and will far outweigh the potential costs. It will also add credibility to the entire process.
It may be disconcerting to realize that even if there is a desire to embrace and pursue changes such as those identified above, some of the needed changes cannot happen for another ten years! Although some “upgrades” to General Conference Sessions can be made through administrative action, others require amendments to the constitution and bylaws. Because these amendments can only be made by vote at a General Conference Session, the earliest they can be done would be at the 2020 Session. Thus, it won’t be until the 2025 Session that implementation can occur. And this in a world of speed, flux, and agility, in which large global corporations are making major decisions and implementing them in a matter of days or weeks!
The notion of holding a General Conference Session was conceived at a time when the Church and the world were vastly different from what they are now. The first General Conference Session reportedly had a total of twenty delegates, and they were all from the Midwest of the United States. We’ve come a long way since those days, and today’s General Conference Session looks and feels very different – as it should –from the early years of our existence. Today’s global context, however, begs for even further upgrades in design, content, processes, and objectives. Thriving and robust organizations are constantly reinventing and redesigning themselves and their work processes. The Church must, too. That’s my take!