Consider Being a Delegate to General Conference: An Insider’s View

Date Posted: 8/28/2014

Who can serve as a delegate and what is the process? What are the time and financial commitments? What are the rewards? Several TAC leaders share their experience as delegates to the 2012 General Conference as the time draws near for newcomers to join the delegation in representing the conference in this impactful way.
General Conference Delegate Scott Atnip’s hope and prayer is “that a new generation of leaders throughout the connection will emerge and begin to work with those who have come before -- to listen, learn and engage in dialogue about how we can work together to strengthen God’s ministry throughout the United Methodist Church.” Like many of the previous delegates, Scott  (Wesley Memorial UMC, Huntsville) has been approached several times by people interested in serving as a delegate to General Conference asking about his experience and what they should expect.  
Adds Scott, “The two weeks in Tampa were an amazing opportunity to learn about the church and participate in the decision-making process. I was inspired during my experience as an alternate delegate at General Conference, and in the years since, serving with the General Board of Global Ministries, to witness the work of the Holy Spirit through people called United Methodists in every corner of the globe. I have realized that when we come together in mission and ministry, God can move in mighty ways.”
He admits the experience sometimes goes from rosy to reality. “While inspiring, my time at General Conference was also frustrating as delegates spent long days and nights in heated discussions that seemed to lead nowhere as folks of every persuasion tried to score political points rather than seek consensus and common ground.”  
Scott’s best advice to people considering running to serve on the delegation is “to be prepared to invest yourself fully. In addition to the two weeks at General Conference and another almost full week at Jurisdictional Conference, there were typically monthly meetings of the delegation and thousands of pages to read in advance to prepare for the meetings.”
According to Scott, delegates that opt to have a roommate will have most of their costs covered for their trips to General and Jurisdictional Conferences. Alternates elected after the first alternate will have to cover the costs themselves, or solicit help from their churches, friends or family who might be willing to support their trip as a ministry. Delegates will likely be on their own to cover travel costs for monthly delegation meetings.
He adds that, “Despite the fact that it can be an enormous investment of time, resources and energy, we must recognize that the only way that the church can continue to move and grow to become more perfect is when leaders are willing to invest themselves in the process. I hope that people from every cross-section of the conference will be willing to consider putting their name forward as we continue to learn from one another and struggle with what it means to be a United Methodist Christian in a modern, worldwide church.” 
Texarkana resident Sue Sullivan, a member of First UMC, Jefferson can also tell you a thing or two about being a delegate. She served as a TAC Jurisdictional Delegate in 2004, 2008, and went on to be a TAC General/Jurisdictional Delegate in 2012. Here is her advice and insight on the role of a delegate at this level.
1) What does it take to get involved and selected/elected?
I would say it is a good idea to ACTIVELY participate in conference and district committees. This is the best place to learn about the United Methodist Church and how it is organized and operates. Be willing to serve on jurisdictional and general conference committees as well. Stay connected with your District Superintendent and subscribe to newsletters, magazines, etc. that will keep you up to date on issues within the church.
2) What are the responsibilities? 
Whether a Jurisdictional or General Conference Delegate in the TAC, all are a part of the "TAC Delegation." We begin meeting almost immediately after the election. Most meetings are held in the Houston area on a monthly basis. Travel to and from meetings is the sole responsibility of those elected.  Each meeting is structured. Initially we discern who from our conference to endorse as an Episcopal candidate. We interview candidates from other conferences who have been endorsed by their conference.  This is in preparation for Jurisdictional Conference where we elect new bishops. Then we begin in depth preparation for General Conference. Those elected as General Conference delegates are assigned to a legislative committee.  We study resolutions that have been submitted for changes to our Book of Discipline. We divide into work groups to summarize and then present to the entire delegation to help divide and conquer the enormous number of resolutions.
3) Describe the timing of events and activities.
General Conference is held first. It is about two weeks. The first week involves legislative committee meetings to prepare for voting on the floor. Meetings begin as early as 8 am and can last until 9 pm. Evening worship is usually around 7 pm and some committees will end up meeting late trying to complete work assignments.  The second week involves voting on resolutions, presented by each legislative committee. Jurisdictional Conference is a few months later and lasts 3-4 days, where the main focus is on the election of bishops.
3) What are the privileges?
It is an honor to serve as a TAC delegate. It provides you the opportunity to be involved in the church universal and to be amongst United Methodists throughout the nation and world, praying, worshipping together, and sometimes disagreeing -- but lovingly. You are a delegate for the four- year quadrennium. There may be some meetings after Jurisdictional Conference to discuss and prepare any recommendations for the next delegation.
4) What are the challenges?
I think a delegate must be able to disagree with others tactfully and lovingly. The challenges during General Conference are: being able to review and complete legislative work in the time frame given; voting on the issues presented; approving changes that often are sent to the Judicial Council for review; and the Judicial Council reversing what was approved; running out of time before all issues are voted on at General Conference. Delegates need to have ample energy to maintain alertness and calmness during a hectic two weeks.
5) What does it cost?
Delegates are reimbursed for travel to and from General and Jurisdictional Conference or flight arrangements are arranged/provided, whichever is more economical.  Delegates are given a "stipend" to cover room and meals.  If you share a room with another delegate, you might be able to break even. Basically, delegates should be prepared to cover most meals and part of your accommodations bill.  All costs associated with the meetings of the TAC delegation prior to conferences are the delegate’s responsibility.
6) What is the estimated time commitment?  I'd estimate one full Saturday a month for five or six meetings, time at home to review resumes of Episcopal candidates, and time at home to review the volumes of resolutions and mail you receive.
7)  How do you represent your constituents?
I learn by attending district meetings, conference meetings, delegation meetings, reading articles and newsletters, praying over issues, scripture references...then I rely on the Holy Spirit to guide me in voting.

8) How long is this commitment?  Four years. The first year-and-a-half are packed full of meetings, studying, praying, attending General & Jurisdictional Conferences.  The last two-and-a-half years are spent being available to answer questions, serve as called, and make recommendations for the next elected delegation.

Sue adds, “I must say being a TAC delegate has been a most humbling experience for me.  When the laity of the church place their trust in me to represent them, I pray that I represent them with knowledge, sound scriptural understanding and openness to listen to others.”
Interested individuals can watch for a TED Talk featuring Lay Leader Stephanie Griffin that will be posted on the TAC web site in late September, 2014.