Then & Now
By Rich Peck
General Conference of the United Methodist Church, a quadrennial gathering of some 1,000 elected lay and clergy delegates, is the governing body of the organization. No other body can speak for the 13 million-member denomination with churches in the United States, Africa, Europe and the Philippines. During the event, hundreds of petitions are addressed by the church’s delegates and voted on during extensive sessions. Decisions are made about the organization’s budget and its position on social issues such as women’s rights, marriage, international civil rights, homosexuality, the death penalty and more. The annual conference also includes speakers, worship and plenary sessions.
During the last half century, technology, instant access to information and ease of travel has affected the conference. Changes can be seen in how it is planned, what takes place at the event, and how information is disseminated to conference delegates and the rest of the world. Small changes took place at each conference, but there is a stark difference between when I began attending in 1960 and the most recent conference in 2012.
In 1960, 788 delegates attended the event in Denver. In 2012, 988 delegates made the trip to Tampa, Fla., to attend.
The number of conference attendees doesn’t quite reflect the change in overall church membership in the past 50 years. In 1960, the Methodist Church had 11,000 members, and a tiny percentage belonged to churches outside the United States. Today, the United Methodist Church has 12 million members, and 4.1 million of the members are from Africa and Asia.
All 1960 sessions were conducted in English. The 2012 session of General Conference was conducted in nine languages.
Although delegates attended the 1960 conference from China, Malaysia, the Congo and Germany, there were no translators for them. By 2012, translators interpreted all English speeches in plenary and committee meetings into English, French, German, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swahili and American Sign Language, and they translated the international committee and plenary speeches for English-speaking delegates. Translators sat to the side of the assembly hall in booths with microphones and delegates needing translations wore earphones.
In 1960, court recorders transcribed every word spoken during plenary sessions. In 2012, all sessions were recorded, but still transcribed in the Advocate.
In 1960, the same recorders typed up sessions verbatim and sent them to a local printer to be typeset for the Daily Christian Advocate. At the last conference, input operators listened to audio tapes and typed all speeches into Microsoft Word documents. The tapes had A and B channels. Speeches were recorded on channel A. Channel B included the spelling of the delegate’s name, home conference and explanation of words or acronyms that might not be familiar to the input operator. Typists could switch between channels as they wished. All transcriptions were printed in the DCA.
In 1960, desks of delegates were full of pamphlets, brochures and booklets published by the general agencies of the church to be discussed at the conference. In 2012, no additional brochures were allowed on the desks of delegates.
Starting in 1972, delegates received an Advance Daily Christian Advocate that contained proposals from general agencies, but they had no information about proposals from local churches and individuals. In 1972, no brochures from agencies were allowed on the desks of delegates, but materials were handed out at doorways by agencies, caucuses and other organizations, a practice that continued through the 2012 conference. Starting in 1980, the ADCA was mailed 90 days before the conference and it included petitions from all sources, so advance preparation by delegates was improved.
In 1960, most votes were taken by a showing of hands, but in 2012, electronic balloting was used.
When votes were close in the ’60s, tellers were assigned particular regions of the conference floor and they would go to a back room to tally the votes. It was sometimes an hour before results of a particular ballot would be known. This year, the result of any ballot was shown on a screen seconds after the vote was taken. The only thing slowing the process was an occasional dead battery in a keypad.
In 1960, there were no screens in the room. In 2012, three I-MAG screens enabled delegates to see speakers, view videos, and read words of hymns and liturgies.
Delegates in 1960 used hymnals for singing and printed sheets of paper supplemented reports in the Daily Christian Advocate, but in 2012, the words of hymns were on the screen and when legislation was debated the page numbers of petitions and committee action was posted to help delegates follow the debate. Delegates still had to go through the ADCA to find the original petition and the DCA to find committee recommendations related to the original petition.
In 1960, Denver newspapers and radio stations carried limited amounts of news to Denver area residents. In 2012, tweets rolled in at a rate of 400 to 1,000 an hour, and news releases were posted on umc.org as events took place.
The 1960 staff of the Methodist Information mailed news releases to religion editors and regional Methodist publications, but it was often months before the average Methodist learned what happened in Denver. In 1976, the General Conference was in Portland, Ore., and my job was to produce Newscope Reports, a series of audio-tape reports before, during and after the assembly. Floyd Kalber, the late news anchor for NBC’s “Today,” narrated the tapes. We also produced a slide-tape series with highlights of the gathering. And, people purchased these (now primitive) audiovisuals. We also sold audio cassettes of various sermons on the scene in Portland. In 2012, annual conference communicators from various regions in the United States and overseas also posted some of these releases along with their own reports. I was responsible for writing the round-up each day, which was posted on the website, various social media sites and carried in the Daily Christian Advocate. It was also posted online. Videos of the conference were posted on the umc.org website, and radio interviews with delegates provided background information for people around the world.
Technology has certainly increased the speed at which members of the denomination can receive information about the conference. Tweets, emails and cellphone calls also increase the ability of delegates to seek the opinions of people at home. Keypads and computers have sped up the legislative process, but final decisions are more dependent on articulate floor speeches and hallway conversations than ever before.
View a snapshot of the conference over the years from Peck’s perspective in “UMC Conference Timeline.”
Jennifer Garrett contributed to this story.