I am elated at the overwhelming response of bishops, and persons at every level, to the notion of a virtual General Conference. I argued for the same months ago. I am concerned, though, that the move toward a virtual meeting will become the occasion for the abrogation of rights through the creation of rules by unauthorized and unethical individuals. We cannot brazenly disregard the laws of the church…even in a pandemic.
Critics of a virtual General Conference raised some months ago, two primary concerns:
- A virtual general conference is illegal because the Discipline requires that it meet in a specific kind of facility (therefore only “in person”). A convention hall type building is always to be used, and the General Conference is not to be held in large athletic arenas. (Discipline, page 260, Kindle Locations 5917-5919).
- Overseas delegates should not be dealt with differently than anyone else.
With that in mind, we should should demand of the process that
- A physical majority of delegates gather in a convention hall to establish a quorum and to adopt rules for the convention.
- The Rules must include authorization for virtual participation of ANY delegate regardless to the annual conference they represent.
- All sessions must be projected through a digital format for both delegates “in the room” and those who participate remotely. ALL delegates should be watching through a device, so there is no less advantage to remote participants.
- All voting must be done through the same application, whether the person is on location or remote.
- All Committees must have digital/remote access for members.
In upcoming posts, I will suggest a few rules we should bend to make a “hybrid” general conference a greater success. Nonetheless, I am afraid when we “overreach” choosing laws we keep and those we circumvent. One of the great critiques we face is the way those who preside (clergy and lay) “rule” with bias rather than reason and without regard to the will of the body.
Let’s charge up those tablets and get ready for the 51st Session!
2 thoughts on “Virtual, Yes! Anarchy, No!”
An Anonymous blogger left this:
With great amusement and ambivalence I watched the discussion on the General Board Zoom Meeting with regards to the need for contingency plans for a General Conference. It was refreshing to hear Bishops admit that
1) the church did not have all the answers and
2) the time to look at incorporating virtual meeting technology had long since passed.
Yet, the same enlightened discussion gave me pause as I looked at the persons with whom the ultimate decision has been entrusted. Given the tablet fiasco at the 2016 General Conference, many have little trust in the denomination to fully execute a complex meeting. Over the pandemic it has become abundantly clear that while some departments and episcopal districts have embraced and utilized technology, the core structure of the AME Church remains bogged down in the technological dark ages.
How would a virtual General Conference look? First,we would have to embrace a platform like hopin.to, teeoh or inxpo. (For example, hopin.to was the back-office for the JusticeCon hosted by Allen Cathedral). These specialize in hosting virtual conferences where the technological knowledge is more than what is needed for a Zoom dial-in. Mass trainings would be needed for delegates and presiding officers to learn how to navigate the system.
Second, we would need to secure quality internet access for delegates in Districts 14-20. This might be achieved by having persons gather in satellite sites. Or, we may have to make other arrangements to provide internet access.
Third, we have to shift the culture of our meetings. Technology is an instrument only as good as the persons using it. There is no point in having virtual access if we will function the same way. Watching the 15 minute roll call on the General Board meeting was particularly painful. Another analog moment was when the chair took a voice vote, not acknowledging there was no was no adequate way to “hear” an assembly on a Zoom call. At the last General Conference, we tried microphones with queues. The success was limited by the compliance of the presiding officers to follow the system. We must adapt these types of behaviors if we are to hold a positive, virtual General Conference.
Fourth, we would need to have clear knowledge of the auditing process for voting on legislation and the elections. The Treasurer/CFO indicated there is an auditor on-site to ensure the integrity of the election process (similar to the Oscars and major award shows). More intentionality is needed in ensuring that the process is transparent and understood. Even then, the distrust in our culture (not without reason given some historic irregularities) will have to be overcome.
In closing, a virtual General Conference is possible, and aspects of it will be probable. Yet, this is not a process that can be done overnight—and we are already behind. Come quickly, General Conference Commission.
To avoid technology inequities, a discussion around the purchase of Chromebooks for clergy and lay delegates would be beneficial. They run about $250 each. We can’t assume that every delegate would have access to up to date technology. There should be an inventory of each delegates ability to gain access to the appropriate technology and a strong internet connection.
The assessment of risk need to be conducted and identified to ensure we have a strong contingency plan, and proper controls are in place to address the risk identified.
Having all delegates using the same technology would allow others to assist those who may be technology challenge, and make the transition to a hybrid model easier. There must be a consistent flow of communication and training needed ahead of transitioning to a virtual meeting. People need to understand how to use the technology, and the way that technology will be used before and during the meeting.
I would suggest several modes of communication including orientations leading up to the General Conference, specifically to address virtual decorum i.e. voting, making motions, etc. utilization of certain platforms (if applicable) and training. The more communication you have ahead of a hybrid meeting model, the greater success we will have. Waiting too late to begin these conversations will be detrimental to the success of the GC.
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