Commentary: The hitchhiker’s guide to General Conference


comfortable shoes_550

It’s the day before I leave for what will be my 7th General Conference (of the last 8) which means of course that it’s a day of preparation. The day will be spent packing, running errands, and making sure that everything is taken care of for a two week absence. I know I’m not alone — all over the world delegates, denominational employees, and issue advocates are doing similar things to prepare for their experience of General Conference. Some are old hands at this, having gone to several General Conferences. Others, however, are newbies and don’t really know what to expect. After 7 of these things I’ve figured out a few necessities along the way, and here are a few things to make sure you are ready for a long two weeks:

Comfortable Shoes are a necessity…

I know you want to look stylish and make a statement about who you are, but I’m convinced that making sure you have comfortable shoes may be the most important thing you need during the two weeks. While there will be a lot of sitting, there is also a lot of walking. Convention Centers are large spaces which may be nicely carpeted but are in fact simply concrete boxes. There will also be walking to find a place to eat, walking to and from the train, and before you know it your feet can get pretty worn out. Style is important, but so is your mental well-being so pack the flats and even a pair of tennies to get you through the week.

Pack a sweater or light jacket…

Convention Centers are dealing with lots of bodies so they usually have immense air conditioning systems to cool everyone down. What I’ve found over the years is that most convention centers can be on the chilly side for folks who are cold natured and you may want to make sure you have something to cover up if the arms get cold.

Don’t expect ergonomic seating…

Convention Centers have to provide easily stored seating for a lot of folks. While the days of folding chairs are generally gone and today’s padded stacking chairs are a little better, they still can get uncomfortable when you are sitting for hours on end . . . especially if your body shape is a bit out of the norm. If sitting for long periods is hard on you, you may want to bring a small pillow, either to sit on or to support your back.

Know that you are going to spend a lot on lunch…

Convention Centers don’t make their profit on the renting of the space, but on the ancillary services they provide, especially food service. It’s not unusual for a tuna sandwich, chips and a drink to cost $15 and it’s really not worth getting riled up too much about it because it’s simply the way it is. You might find some places off-site that are a little better but know that they will normally be packed and you will be pushed for time. All of this is to say that having some ability to simply smile and accept the reality will make you a  much happier person during the two weeks.

I remember when my family made our first trip to DisneyWorld. When we went to the “fast dining” (supposedly budget minded) restaurant in our hotel and when our bill hit $60 for a very simple lunch we simply looked at each other and started laughing because we knew it was a lot of money for us, but that if we wanted the Disney experience that was simply the cost of doing business. It was a great trip once we stopped worrying.

Be prepared to be confused…

the_hitchhikers_guide_to_the_galaxyEveryone is confused at General Conference sometime during the meeting . . . the delegates, the presiding bishops, the secretary of the General Conference . . . pretty much every person in the convention center at one time or another. It helps to remember what happens when we hold a General Conference. Every four years we more or less reinvent the United States Congress in a different city in which a third to half of the participants are newbies. Not only are we engaging in a complex legislative process, but we are also doing it in many different languages, with people from a variety of contexts, and over (compared to the legislative schedule of Congress or even a state legislature) a very compressed time period. Remember that the presiding bishop for the day (someone who was elected into the hot seat the night before) usually has two other bishops offering assistance as well as a conference parliamentarian and they still lose their place, get befuddled, and have a hard time keeping up. If you don’t understand what’s happening, ask others or if no one knows what’s happening go to the mic and ask for a point of clarification.

You will be too busy to keep up with most social media or web sites, BUT there are times when the observers have a clearer understanding of what is happening than you will have on the floor, so it doesn’t hurt to check the Twitter feed — @umreporter.

Take time to experience the full richness of the General Conference…

UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

Of course you are traveling to Portland to do important things for the United Methodist Church. But in the midst of this know that General Conference CAN be a spiritually uplifting experience. Sure there will be a lot of political wrangling and difficult moments, but there are also moments where you catch a whiff of what if means to be United Methodist. The opening worship service is always filled with pageantry and provides context for the events to come. While you may be tempted to sleep in (and you have permission if you REALLY need to) the morning worship services offer a great start to the morning and reminds us of who we are and why we are giving up two weeks of our lives to be in Portland (other than the beautiful scenery and good food). There are also noon-time communion services, and a prayer room for some needed quiet in the midst of discernment.

In addition to the “official” happening, the various advocacy groups sponsor their own events that are worth your while. A number of folks take advantage of the free breakfast put on by Good News and their friends which includes a daily briefing and usually some conversation with episcopal candidates. Likewise the Love Your Neighbor coalition will offer hospitality and sponsor several events over the course of the two weeks. Of course these groups have their own agenda of advocacy on particular issues, but if you can come with an open heart you will find people who deeply love the church and there are gems of richness found in all these events.

Not to be missed is the is the teaching session on May 18 remembering the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre. Repentance for the past sins of the church has and continues to be an important part of our communal life together and in this particular instance our Methodist communion has been found guilty and lacking in many ways, so this teaching time is an important way of acknowledging that part of repentance is not simply asking for forgiveness, but also learning about the impact of our wrongdoings so that we can turn in a different direction and never do them again.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg that is General Conference (which may be a dangerous analogy given how some are feeling coming into the meeting) but there is a rich depth to the experience if you will take some time to immerse yourself in it. I often say that I go to General Conference simply to immerse myself in the fullest expression of what it means to be connected to the larger United Methodist Church. Yes, it is indeed a political meeting . . . but in spite of all of that, God DOES show up . . . so be on the lookout for those holy moments.

Finally, grace upon grace upon grace…

For a body in which the concept of grace is so at the forefront of our theology, I’m always amazed at the overwhelming lack of grace that I sometimes experience at General Conference. It’s a hard meeting for sure, that discombobulates the best of us, and it is easy to become tired and surly (it’s almost certain in my case at one point or another!). And yet it is grace that is supposed to permeate our lives, and it is our love for one another that is (according to Jesus) supposed to be the sign of God’s presence in the world. Grace must be present throughout — both because the world is watching, but also because we need it in our own souls as well.

My personal pet peeve is the way that some treat the convention center staff and denominational employees — as servants who are supposed to meet OUR needs at the expense of their own needs and desires. Remember that we are just another convention out of a myriad of conventions that pass through the place. Most of the workers are likely paid at the minimum wage of $9.10 an hour when the “living wage” in Portland (the amount per hour actually needed to support an adult and 1 child) is just over $23 an hour. Many folks are working two jobs and they have their own stresses that they are dealing with. I truly believe that we have a responsibility to represent the love of Jesus Christ through offering kindness to these workers, taking it upon ourselves to serve THEM when the opportunity arises. What would it mean to our witness if a whole slew of convention center and restaurant workers remembered the United Methodists as the most giving and loving people they’ve ever experienced?

But most of all, give yourself grace. If you are a delegate you have a lot of pressure on you. You are representing the concerns of your annual conference as well as your own personal discernment from the Holy Spirit about very important and difficult issues. You WILL be exhausted and ready for the whole thing to be over, but hold fast, and give yourself the grace to rest, to renew, and to simply sit for a minute to let God love on you. Don’t feel ashamed if you decide to sit out a session to take a nap and seat an alternate in your place — they will be happy to have the chance to serve and honestly we ALL need to find nap time every now and then. And, when the decisions are hard and you feel the pressure of many voices very deeply, give yourself the grace to close your eyes, plead with God, and know that you are doing what you believe is best for this United Methodist Church that we all love.

That IS indeed the most central truth of all — that everyone at the General Conference loves the United Methodist Church. No person wants to do harm to the church, and they all (no matter their position on any issue) want the best for it. General Conference is a process of discernment — flawed maybe — but discernment by passionate people who are doing they best they can as broken humans in need of God’s grace to hear God’s voice and set the direction for the future.

Maybe if we can all remember that, we have the potential to do something great in Portland.

Jay Voorhees, Former Executive Editor

The Rev. Jay Voorhees is the Executive Editor of The United Methodist Reporter and the Chief Creative Officer for CircuitWriter Media LLC which operates this site and Jay is an ordained elder in the Tennessee Annual Conference. Jay has written on life and the practice of faith in The United Methodist Church at Only Wonder Understands since 2003.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Catherine CarterChris Momany, UMR ColumnistRichard F Hicks Recent comment authors
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Catherine Carter
Catherine Carter

Wonderful words of wisdom and clarity, along with humble grace. Hope the next two weeks are filled with compassion, patience, prayer, comfy ‘soles’ and lots of tuna sandwiches. 🙂 Keep us posted!

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Thanks, Jay, for the thoughtful and gracious emphasis.

Richard F Hicks
Richard F Hicks

With all of the author’s directions, I need a safe space away from his directive, corrective, law giving!!! Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC

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