Whatever else may be said about General Conference, it doesn’t come cheap.
A recent UMC report projects that the next General Conference, set for May 10-20, 2016, in Portland, Ore., will cost nearly $10.8 million.
That’s up more than $2 million from General Conference 2012 in Tampa, Fla., which, despite unfailing hospitality by local UM volunteers, got its share of bad reviews.
The Portland gathering is nearly three years off, but Lonnie Chafin is steamed already about the price tag.
“It’s an abomination,” said Mr. Chafin, treasurer of the Northern Illinois Conference and a delegate in Tampa. “I don’t think we have $10 million of value from General Conference.”
General Conference is the quadrennial UMC gathering in which about 1,000 delegates from around the world settle questions of church law, finances and social policy.
Many in the UMC, such as Mr. Chafin, remain blue about General Conference 2012.
Considerable time and money went into crafting the Call to Action agenda aimed at reversing the decades-long UMC membership slide in the United States.
Some of that legislation went down in committee. Other key measures—such as agency reorganization and ending guaranteed appointment for ordained elders—passed, only to be overturned by Judicial Council.
Meanwhile, General Conference again saw failed efforts to change the church’s position on homosexuality, leading to gay rights demonstrations that briefly shut down plenary action.
The Rev. Rebekah Miles, a Perkins School of Theology professor and Arkansas Conference delegate, calls it the “do-nothing General Conference.” (Click here to read her commentary.)
The Rev. Andy Langford, a Western North Carolina Conference delegate, agrees, but emphasizes the price tag.
“We spent $8 million to do nothing,” he said. “You want me to keep giving money to do that?”
Up and up
The General Council on Finance and Administration recently delivered a report on General Conference costs to the Commission on the General Conference.
The report puts General Conference 2012 expenses at $8,449,757. That’s about $300,000 under projections.
“I have to give a great deal of credit to Alan Morrison (business manager for General Conference 2012) who managed things superbly,” said the Rev. L. Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist II, secretary of General Conference.
But the Tampa gathering still cost nearly $1.4 million more than General Conference 2008 in Fort Worth, Texas, which cost $1.7 million more than General Conference 2004 in Pittsburgh.
And, those close to the process agree, the final reported costs don’t really cover everything.
The big number includes direct expenses—such as travel, housing and per diem for delegates. But it doesn’t cover, say, what a church agency might spend on sending staff to monitor legislation.
“You’ll never get to the dollar cost of all that,” said Mr. Langford, a longtime advocate for streamlining agencies. “It’s not just money. How much does it cost for the bishops to sit there for two weeks and do nothing?” (Bishops take turns presiding at General Conference plenary sessions, but don’t vote or join in plenary debate.)
One clear reason for the mounting cost of General Conference is the increasing worldwide nature of the church.
As the UMC has shrunk in the United States, it has grown in Africa. That has meant, with each recent quadrennium, fewer U.S. delegates and more from the Central Conferences.
In Tampa, for example, more than a third of the delegates were from Central Conferences. About one in four were from Africa.
The cost of flying in more delegates from abroad has helped swell General Conference costs. Even more dramatic is the rise in cost for translators.
That line item for General Conference 2004 was $847,947. For General Conference 2012, translation costs had grown to $1,312,676.
And at General Conference 2012, delegates added Kiswahili to the languages which the Daily Christian Advocate, the comprehensive report on General Conference, is translated into.
That will help bump translation costs for General Conference 2016 to about $2.3 million, according to GCFA.
Indeed, GCFA projects that all expense categories will climb for Portland, including one titled “General Conference Commissions & Committees.” Its anticipated rise of nearly $300,000 owes, in part, to General Conference 2012 deciding to go from three to 10 Central Conference representatives on the Commission on the General Conference.
Already, the Commission’s twice-yearly meetings are involving farther flights, said Judi Kenaston, Commission chair. She added that the Commission now has its meetings translated into two languages—Portuguese and French—rather than one. That too is an additional expense.
In considering ways to trim General Conference costs, the obvious first place to look is number of delegates. The Book of Discipline says there must be at least 600, and no more than 1,000.
“We ought to be looking at the size of General Conference, within the parameters the Discipline gives, with a mind to what is a manageable and inclusive body to do that kind of work,” said Bishop Gregory Palmer of the West Ohio Conference.
Ms. Kenaston noted considerable pushback to past efforts to reduce the delegate count. The Commission gets to make the call (that’s a change from the past, when the secretary of General Conference decided) and debated the question at its recent meeting.
“We had a very thorough discussion,” Ms. Kenaston said. “I would say we don’t have a consensus at this point.”
Some General Conference 2012 delegates lamented the use of fancy downtown hotels and the Tampa Convention Center, and suggested a shift in the future to a large, Methodist-related college, to save.
But that would likely require meeting in summer, when a campus could spare dorm and meeting room space. Currently, the church constitution requires that General Conference meet in April or May.
In Tampa, delegates passed a constitutional amendment to change that, but to take effect the measure must be approved in the conferences. The Commission will decide on a General Conference 2020 location (in the North Central Conference, according to rotation) at its fall meeting, before the amendment process is likely to be completed.
So even if the will were there to try a college campus, the earliest chance would likely be 2024.
Ms. Kenaston understands the desire but questions the practicality.
“I have never seen a college campus that could accommodate this type of meeting,” she said.
Mr. Chafin believes cutting costs is important, and supports serious consideration of bringing the delegate count down.
But he doesn’t want the cost issue to divert from what he sees as the existential issues facing the UMC.
“I could support getting smaller for cheaper,” he said. “But if you’re going in the wrong direction, it doesn’t matter how big or small the boat is.”