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First Hand Experience: John Lawson

March 8, 2012

I had the honor of serving as a Delegate to General Conference from South Indiana in 2000, 2004, and 2008.  (And thank you Wisconsin for including a new kid on block in your Jurisdictional Delegation for 2012!)  Here are some of my impressions from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Fort Worth.

General conference is big.

It is difficult for any individual Delegate to make a big change in anything at General Conference. With nearly a thousand Delegates from around the world, all of them leaders, general conference is big.  In any debate in a plenary session there are a limited number of speakers possible.  If someone from the general area in which you are seated has been recognized recently, chances are small that you will be recognized, no matter how much you wave your card. Or how many of your neighbors wave theirs as well to make you more visible.

General conference is small.

The work of the Conference is divided into 11 committees.  Typically the committees then divide up into 3 to 4 subcommittees consisting of 12 to 24 persons.  In this setting one delegate can have a big influence.  Often the less controversial petitions are adopted or rejected with no significant discussion beyond that in the subcommittee.

Petition tracker is your friend

In 2000 the management of petitions was computerized.  This was significant as major initiatives often are made up of multiple petitions related to multiple sections of the Discipline with parts of the initiative considered by multiple legislative committees.  Confusing? Yes, it can be.  Now delegates (and people at home) can keep track of all this online.


A blizzard of mail comes your way prior to General Conference.  Not only letters, but even books and DVDs. At General Conference you can have breakfast with the conservative caucus, lunch with the progressive caucus, and meet with a wide variety of other groups.  You will be greeted at the entrance to the hall by persons handing out flyers and pamphlets advocating a variety of positions.


While caucus groups can be influential, General Conference (and the United Methodist Church) is more than the sum of its caucus groups.  At our best, we are open to discernment – seeking God’s will, nothing more, nothing less.

General conference is worship

With choirs from around the world, recognized worship leaders in a variety of worship styles, and powerful preaching, General Conference is inspiring.  We have been invited to sing hymns in Spanish, Korean, Swahili, and other languages.

General conference is busy

Prior to General Conference Delegates receive the Advance Daily Christian Advocate.  The ADCA contains around 2000 pages of material in three volumes.  At General Conference you receive several hundred more pages.  There are over 1,100 individual petitions seeking changes in the Discipline or the Book of Resolutions.  There are lengthy documents dealing with budget, benefits and administration.  The days are long, sometimes as long as 14 hours.

General conference is process

Knowing parliamentary procedure helps.  Understanding the flow of legislation takes time.  Your first time there you just about have it figured out by the time the Conference is done.

General conference is relationship

Knowing how the system works is only one part of it.  The relationships and trust built over multiple times as a Delegate are invaluable.

I have had to opportunity to meet United Methodists from all over the world.  I have learned from the experiences of a wide variety of individuals and Annual Conferences.  I have made good friends.  I have grown both as a Christian and as a leader.  I have been exhausted.  I have been inspired.  And I have learned that God finds ways to work through us, sometimes in spite of ourselves.



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