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Road to Hotlanta: Is the GC Session a Junket?

This new year does bring something big (and renewing) for Seventh-day Adventists, the quinquennial ritual of the General Conference World Session.

The Spectrum blog will be attending the General Conference Session in Atlanta, Georgia, this coming summer. We will have a booth there and we will be reporting on the proceedings, daily, hourly, and as always via Twitter. . .minutely.

Building up to the June 24-July 3 Session we will be sharing hot news, sanctified gossip and boring facts here on this site under the tag: Road to Hotlanta.

Starting off, the crack team at Adventist News Network did an interview with GC Treasurer Robert Lemon on the release of the $151.3 million 2010 budget. They also discuss the cost of the World Session.

Adventist News Network: Every five years the church holds a World Session. How much will the church spend on this summer’s World Session in Atlanta?

Robert Lemon: The world headquarters’ cost directly for the Session is a little over $6 million. The total church cost is approximately twice that when you count all the travel and hotel expenses and expenses for delegates coming from all around the world, which I would estimate is about $12 million total.

ANN: Is it still worth having Session during a recession?

Lemon: If we were able to decide yes or no on something on short notice it might be possible to look at a different scenario. But Session location, hotels and arrangements are reserved 10 years in advance and confirmed five years ahead. You can’t just pull the plug on something like that so close without huge financial penalties. If you count the cost of a Session and divide it by the number of church members and by the five years in-between, it comes to about 20 cents a year per member. That’s less than half of a soft drink a year per member. Session is really a combination of a worldwide campmeeting and a business session and has a tremendous effect on the unity of the church. Church members around the world, no matter where they’re coming from — wealthy places, poor places, places with high membership or places with small membership — they all have a part in the decision-making of the church. I don’t think you could buy that unity any other way cheaper.

Having wandered the floor during plenty of poorly attended sessions in the past, watching delegates struggle to follow the proceeding, find their place in their folders or work through language difficulties, I am curious: what decisions do the delegates actually make?

Framing the expense of the Session as “the cost of unity” is an interesting approach and it raises some questions.

  • What does “unity” mean for top church leadership?
  • What does “unity” mean for you?
  • To whom is it worth the cost
  • What is actually being bought?

I enjoy the GC Session and agree that church unity can be a good thing, e.g., all caring for each other. That said, it can also limit freedom and harm members, e.g., the 1995 decision denying the majority of members equal participation in the church. But I am not here to retread the women’s ordination fight.

Instead, it is interesting that in making his cost/benefit argument in favor of unity, Elder Lemon compares the Session to a campmeeting as well as a business session.

In some ways, that sounds like a junket.

By that I mean a trip or visit for which governments, corporations, tourism bureaus, and other interest groups pay to get their message out and quell dissent. While there are many sides to the Session, is it fair to see it as an expenses-paid junket by which minor leaders and local influences bring back a controlled message that things are A-OK?

It some ways the World Session ties thousands of local leaders into the global power structure of the church. It gives thousands of folks from fiefdoms around the world a grand sense that their opinion matters to higher ups. And sometimes they have an impact, but most of the time, when they aren’t skipping meetings, the world church in session really wields very little power. They just rubber stamp. It is mostly a tightly controlled, one way dumb show – just like a junket.

Perhaps that’s a good thing, as reactionary blocs could move the church in all sorts of nutty directions. On the other hand, could a commitment to a 1960s PR “junket model” in a flattening, globalized world be keeping the Holy Spirit from leading the church to constructive change? Or even just papering over problems?

If it was really about just making business decisions, most of these delegates could read the material at home and vote online. And paying $12 million for members to attend campmeeting seems odd too.

But Elder Lemon said, “I don’t think you could buy that unity any other way cheaper.” The money man at the top actual says that they are buying unity. So, what do they get from their junket show of unity?

After all, at 20 cents a year per member, the cost for increasing denominational political heterogeneity actually makes a lot of sense. If you like the status quo.

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