General Conference 2016 cost projected to exceed $10 million

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 nearly 1,000 delegates to General Conference 2012, in Tampa, Fla., worked through legislation first in committee, then in plenary, such as this session. UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE PHOTO BY MIKE DUBOSE

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.)

Airfares, translators

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.

Legislative committee work, such as at this session, dominated the early going at General Conference 2012 in Tampa, Fla. UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE PHOTO BY PAUL JEFFREY

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.

Economy options

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.”

Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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Join the conversation....

  1. jlomperis says:

    It's no accident that the push for dramatically shrinking the size of GC comes from theologically heterodox activists, since this would shrink the relative representation of larger conferences in Africa and the US South while growing the relative representation of much of the Western Jurisdiction.
    The problem with GC2012 was not that we paid to ensure representation for our global church. The problem was the dysfunction caused directly by the very deliberate actions of the liberal caucus groups and the very biased Commission on the General Conference. Get the facts here: http://www.theird.org/why-was-the-2012-general-co

    • tnrambler says:

      If proportional representation is maintained then what would be the downside to decreasing the number of delegates from 1000 to 600? For example, if 30% of the delegates were from a specific region, Africa for example, there would be 300 delegates to a 1000 member GC and 180 delegates to a 600 member GC. The percentage would be the same.

      And to jlomperis, if I want facts, the last place that I will turn is to the IRD.

      Wayne Cook
      Rising Fawn-Sand Mountain Charge
      Holston Conference

  2. gephelps says:

    I agree that it is an abomination! Rather than looking at the # of delegates attending, why not try to use the wonderful technology we have to communicate with one another remotely? Rather than spending billions in travel costs to bring people physically to one location, sites could be set up in regional locations in each country; it IS possible and would save millions of dollars. This is about faithful stewardship of our resources.

  3. Word that the 2016 General Conference is estimated to cost nigh on $11 million, or approximately $1,000,000.00 per day (and we all know that estimates, especially this far out, are almost always conservative) is incomprehensible to me.

    I’m an Elder serving a charge in rural northeast Texas. Our members are young families, retired individuals on fixed incomes and the working poor. We struggle to pay our apportionments but have a years-long record of 100% payouts. While I agree –philosophically- with Professor Miles that, “If we want a strong and vibrant church, we will need a strong and vibrant General Conference,” I also believe that asking members to fund such extravagances raises profound theological and social justice issues. To me it’s simply an anathema.

    John Lomperis, in an article linked above, stated that at the 2012 GC “one self-styled ‘maverick’ southern bishop memorably quipped that the Conference ‘made history as the most expensive ($1,500 per minute!)’” … and 2016 will cost an estimated (see my caveat, above) $2,000,000.00 MORE. Such historical extravagance is wrong and getting worse.

    Perhaps our Wesleyan roots offer a cost/benefit analysis of such events. In Sermon 50, “The Use of Money,” John Wesley proffered a 4-fold ethical test regarding personal or family spending (our common rhetoric about being a “church family” makes this more than relevant). Wesley wrote, “You will seldom need anything more to remove any doubt which arises on this head; but by this four-fold consideration you will receive clear light as to the way wherein you should go.”

    Here are the four-points, let’s test them against a $1,000,000.00 per day (or more) GC: "(1.) In expending this, am I acting according to my character? Am I acting herein, not as a proprietor, but as a steward of my Lord's goods? (2.) Am I doing this in obedience to his Word? In what Scripture does he require me so to do? (3.) Can I offer up this action, this expense, as a sacrifice to God through Jesus Christ? (4.) Have I reason to believe that for this very work I shall have a reward at the resurrection of the just?" No “doubt” I have a “clear light” answer and it fails to justify “Holy Conferencing” at such a price. How about your own calculus?

    Considering the needs throughtout our Lord’s world, I have to take exception with the very thought of such undeniably frivolous spending. To me it’s neither Methodist or Christian. Professor Miles, whom I admire, may indeed be correct in stating “we need a strong and vibrant General Conference,” however, I think that even more vital than that is a true and vibrant witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our world. A million-dollar-a-day GC isn’t it.

    “In what Scripture,” Br. Wesley, indeed; there must be another/better way.

  4. revdsky revdsky says:

    Just an observation: out of a $603.1 million budget, an $11 million General Conference only represents 1.8% of the budget. So if we're saying that $11 million is a lot of money for a General Conference ("an abomination", gephelps noted above), what does that say about a $603 million budget for a denomination?

  5. Until we cut the purse string we well waste more money the gay issue well never change now that we have the African delegates voting and with many more votes in 4 years ( Thank God) I see no change in 100 years so let's drop the gay issue and maybe we can get something done next time! If so we could just start to grow that would be nice.

  6. I feel as those these “million dollar a day” numbers make it really difficult for those of us working in small churches and balancing working class budgets to understand the relative costs of this event.

    Can we divide those out into per-person, per-day costs? It is a lot less when we realize that delegates share hotel rooms, eat basic fast food or conference offerings each day, and some of the “big ticket” items are vitally important to our values (like paying to stream the entire event because we believe in transparency, or having translators because English isn’t supposed to be a prerequisite for decision making).

    It seems to me that maybe the best thing to say would be this:
    there are about 11 million United Methodists in the world. If each of them contribute an average of 25 US cents each year (or one dollar each quadrennium), then we have FULLY FUNDED General Conference.

    There, now that is a number that’s a lot easier to live with.

    (or the US Methodists could fund this with an offering of just TWO DOLLARS per person per quadrennium). I’m pretty sure we can afford that.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] There is virtually nothing any church committee could do that is worth nearly $100,000 an hour. Yet if the cost projection of $10.8 million for the 2016 General Conference is correct, that is what we will be spending just to gather for our quadrennial assembly in Portland, Ore. [...]

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