Annual Conference 2019 – Day 2

Today was all about voting. Who could vote, who was running, how to vote, actual voting, waiting on election results, and voting again. It was all a bit tedious, but as one of our speakers said, “Voting on who goes to General Conference is a big deal and it’s okay if it takes some time.”

Laity vote to fill 17 positions and clergy vote for 17 more. The top 7 election winners will be Great Plains’ delegates at General Conference, where denomination wide decisions are made, and at Jurisdictional Conference, where bishops from our area of the country will be elected. The next 7 election winners will be delegates for Jurisdictional Conference, giving our conference 14 lay votes there. The winners of the top 4 Jurisdictional positions will also be alternates to General Conference and an additional 3 people will be elected to serve as alternates to Jurisdictional Conference. The same process occurs for clergy. Just figuring out what we are voting for is confusing!

We began the day with clergy and laity meeting separately to go over voting procedures and to meet the respective candidates. There are 44 laity running for these positions. Last time there were only 32. The clergy list is even longer. The 2019 special General Conference resulted in many more people deciding to be involved in this process! All of the candidates were asked to introduce themselves. We all submitted profiles for people to read, but this was a way for voting members to see us in person. We were only allowed to say our name, our church, and one word describing our hopes for General Conference. I chose “transformation” as my word.

After introductions, we were asked to gather on one side of the arena so people could come over to meet us and ask questions. This ended up being very interesting. There were a number of people who were narrowing down candidates and had good questions. I know that my strength for this process is writing, so I told everyone I spoke to that I would blog about General Conference, much as a
I do about Annual Conference. I explained that I hoped to describe what happens there and share it with others to make church processes more accessible to the average United Methodist.

Later in the morning Bishop Saenz opened the first General Session of this conference. He acknowledged that we have been through a tough year, because of the decisions made at the special General Conference in February and because of the terrible flooding that has swamped much of our conference this spring. He went on to say “We are at a tender and fragile time in the life of our denomination.” I am grateful that our bishop acknowledges the pain and hurt in our local churches, our conference, and our denomination.

After the bishop’s introduction, it was time for the first vote. We use hand held voting devices that resemble TV remotes to cast our votes. Each person has a device programmed for them. Each device can be set to count either clergy or laity votes and keeps track of how many candidates you have voted for. Voting times are set, so votes can only be cast during a specific window. Each candidate is assigned a number, so you vote by punching in the numbers of the candidates you choose. The youth at Annual Conference serve as the tech people during voting, moving through the arena helping people figure out problems. Their leadership was really appreciated when devices malfunctioned!

These elections are very different from most. It’s not like political elections, where the person with the most votes wins, even if that means one vote more. During these elections, a person needs 51% or more of the vote to win a delegate slot. So at least 51% of the voting members need to have that person on their list. Voters start by voting for their top seven candidates. Once someone has 51% or more and is elected, their name gets crossed off the list and we vote for six more candidates and just continue voting until there is enough consensus to elect our 17 delegates. It’s complicated and crazy, but ensures that everyone elected has the support of the majority of the voting members.

We practiced voting by “electing” our top 3 favorite hymns from a list and our top 3 favorite animals. It was silly, but let us see how it all worked. The actually voting didn’t run quite as smoothly. After a long struggle with rule clarifications, malfunctioning voting devices, and voters’ difficulties with using technology, we finally managed to cast our first vote just before lunch.

Every year at Annual Conference there is a Mission Partnership lunch with a speaker on some social justice topic. I went to the lunch today and heard the amazing Darryl Burton speak. Mr. Burton is a black man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 25 years in prison before a non-profit prison justice group managed to get his conviction overturned and release him. He is now a pastor at Church of the Resurrection and has helped start his own organization for wrongfully convicted prisoners. Darryl Burton spoke of his conviction, his time in prison, of forgiving the system that wronged him, and of his faith. It was terribly moving and full of hope and humor. I was so glad that I went.

After lunch we heard the results of the first round of voting. Adam Hamilton won more than 51% of the clergy vote, so he is our first delegate to General Conference in 2020. The laity vote did not end in an election, as no one had enough votes. For many of the voting members, the goal is to get people elected who share at least some of your views on issues, even if that means switching votes from your favorite candidate to someone whose voting percentages are closer to 51%. My goal is to elect as many progressive candidates as we can, even if that means I am not one of them. After looking over the results of the first election, I switched a few candidates on the second vote.

During the afternoon we heard reports from assorted groups and conference committees. Some were vaguely interesting and others were not. I struggle to follow financial reports at our local church, so am completely out of my league with conference financial and budget reports. We were also introduced to candidates for ordination.

There were multiple Grace connections during a young adult report. Former student pastor Daniel Reffner was honored for his time spent in a religious program in Switzerland this past year. Ryan Stumbough, Madison’s brother, spoke about how church camps have impacted his life. Navya Hopkins was commissioned as a Global Mission Fellow, serving in Germany for the next two years. Grace has had an influence on many of the young adult leaders in our conference and we should be proud of that!

During the second round of voting, the laity elected three progressive delegates. I have met all three this week and am confident that they will represent us well.

I have come to appreciate Bishop Saenz so much. He is thoughtful, compassionate, and not afraid to be silly sometimes. He prayed for us today, encouraged us, and reminded us of the importance of our work here. Then, late in the day when we were mired in voting difficulties, he joined a jump rope challenge and joined several other people in jumping rope in front of the entire assembly. It was goofy and unexpected and certainly lightened the mood!

We voted a third time just before we left for the day, but will not know the results until tomorrow. My voting percentages are somewhere in the middle. It is highly unlikely that I will be elected as a General Conference delegate, but still possible that I am in the running for Jurisdictional Conference. I am just fine with this. My goal was to elect progressive candidates, even of they were not me. I feel good about the people we have elected so far and am hopeful about tomorrow’s votes. I have stretched myself in good ways this week and have learned so much. Veteran attendees have told us that the voting gets easier and faster after the first few delegates have been elected, so tomorrow should run more smoothly. I hope this is true.

Tonight I went to hear more about UMCNext, the gathering Pastor Lora and Julie Wilke attended in Kansas City last week. The event was scheduled to begin after a Conference memorial service late in the evening. As I was walking in from the parking lot, the guy in the next car and I introduced ourselves, because we do that a LOT at Conference. He was a pastor in the Kansas City area and when he heard that I was from Grace he said, “You must have an awesome church because you always get amazing pastors and I’ve heard great things about some of the things you are doing.” I told him that was true!

A big crowd packed the large sanctuary of Topeka 1st UMC at 9:00 PM to hear about what happened at the gathering last week. There was tremendous excitement and energy in the crowd. Pastor Lora was in charge of explaining what the time in Kansas City with 690 clergy and laity from around the country was like. She described the courage, excitement, and hope of that group and how they are now committed to spreading that energy across our conference. She told us “Resisting evil, injustice, and oppression is not a one and done event.”  Pastor Lora was as eloquent and impassioned as I have ever heard her. People in the audience clapped and cheered and called out their support as she spoke. Daniel Reffner stopped me later and said, “Aren’t you so proud of our pastor?” I was. So very proud. You should be also. Change is coming and it is good and Lora is leading the way.

The gathering continued with music and prayers and stories. We heard about the four commitments on the inclusion and affirmation of LGTBQ folks the group in Kansas City created. We heard about ways to resist the cruel and harmful Traditional Plan that was legislated at the 2019 special General Conference. We laughed and cried and celebrated together. It was wonderfully healing and inspiring. I do not know what the future of United Methodism will look like. I do not have any magic solutions to our denominations struggles and rifts. But I do know that I felt real hope tonight. I know that we are making steps in the right direction, that we will not abandon our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, that we will find new ways to be the Church. One of the other leaders reminded us that “Resistance is grounded in our baptismal vows.” Pastor Lora has told us repeatedly this spring to rise up and do not be afraid. It is time.

Print your tickets