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First Hand Experience: Sue Burwell

January 18, 2012

Serving at General Conference is both a privilege–that your Annual Conference has put enough confidence in you to elect you, but is also a lot of hard work.  The days and nights are long, and sometimes you have the feeling we aren’t getting very far as a church, for all the work/energy that is expended.  I served on four delegations, 1996-2008.  (In 1992, I was a marshal at the General Conference in Louisville, which was a great way to understand the workings of the body.  I learned lots–especially that I don’t make the best marshal, since making decisions about who enters/leaves the room is not my strong suit!)  I typically felt like the legislative work that went on during the first days of each General Conference, was the really hard stuff.  I usually served on one of the Church and Society groups, where just about every topic held the possibility for long arguments and conversation.  I’m sure other legislative groups had similar dynamics.  When those topics were brought to the floor of General Conference though, they were still difficult—multiplied by the fact that about 1000 people with a wide variety of opinions, now had the possibility of speaking.  Sometimes I wondered what we were doing and how we could ever think we’d find consensus.

For me, the wonderful parts of General Conference included the conversations I had with people from around the world.  If I was having trouble understanding the point of a delegate from another country, I often found that someone else from yet another country, sitting in close proximity to me, could make more sense of it than I.  I still remember a lunchtime conversation with a person from Switzerland, whose comments have given me fodder for thought for the past sixteen years.  The worship services were often inspiring, along with persons brought in as guests of honor.  I remember when Hillary Clinton spoke to everyone gathered, and then met with just the women bishop by themselves—how amazing was that?  And the year that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (President of Liberia and now Nobel Peace Prize recipient) came and spoke to us.  She has connections to the UMC (raised as UM and attended a UM affiliated high school), and is a powerful presence in our world as the first female head of state in Africa.  To see and hear from these two women, whose roots are in our church—that was memorable.

In some respects, I think the General Conference is a magnified, bigger than life version of “the best of times/worst of times” aspects of our denomination.  Given our current polity, it’s the way we are to get things done denominationally, but it’s not always very pretty or efficient.  I always thought that the delegates who attend must have an over-sized commitment to the church, or to the ways of God in our world (which sometimes could be different than how the church operates), because there’s no way a person would spend that many days doing this kind of work.  I am grateful there are still folks out there who are willing to represent us.

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