Last week's Zoom Spring Meeting of the General Conference Executive Committee was fascinating to watch. After the first day, the participants seemed to warm to the technology and open up more in commenting. Chairing a virtual meeting also had a learning curve. General Conference President Ted Wilson, who chaired the entire meeting, said, “We’re learning as we go.” Voice votes that keep an in-person meeting humming along, didn’t work online. But other Zoom voting features did. Tallies were quickly made. Afterwards, it made me wonder how Zoom will change the Committee. Will the Committee be able to meet more frequently? Make its own decisions rather than leaving them to the in-house Administrative Committee known as ADCOM? How does the conversation change? The rules of order?
Two men who know the General Conference operating procedures and policies extraordinarily well from their years at the General Conference shared their perspective with us on how Zoom will play in the future of the Executive Committee:
Virtual seems to be the buzz word of the day — a virtual image, a virtual conversation, a virtual meeting. But who ever heard of a virtual sandwich? You could get very hungry if that was all you had to eat. The fact is that virtual, by definition, is not real. Yet in this time of extremity we are grateful for virtual technology which helps us through the present situation, to bridge to the time of reality again.
In an insightful article by Alana Semuels, published in the April 6, 2020 edition of Time Magazine, the question is asked, “Does remote really work?” And the answer stems from her observation that “there’s something unique that humans get from interacting with one another that doesn’t come across well through technology.” The author observed that “as we talked over a Zoom video call; I wanted to look him in the eyes and show him that I was listening, but instead I had to stare at the small green dot on my computer.”
There is a risk with using today’s electronic exchanges of data and information that we will be inclined to think we are communicating. But communication is much more than merely exchanging information. This, however, is not a new issue to the church. It was in 1901 that the same problem was addressed in the formation of union conferences in order to put the decision-making process in the local fields where it can best be addressed. We need to do that again.
—During his 60-year career with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Gary Patterson has pastored small and large churches, served in a variety of administrative positions including as the administrative assistant to the North American Division President, and as a General Field Secretary at the General Conference where he was known for his detailed knowledge of Working Policy.
Virtual meetings work well for people who already know each other well. Within that context, meetings like those available through Zoom offer several advantages over periodic meetings requiring physical presence:
1. Convenience — the ability to consult without travel time and expense being incurred by members of a group.
2. Timeliness — the opportunity to address an issue when it arises rather than deferring decisions until everyone can be in one place.
3. Decompression of meeting schedules — General Conference Executive Committee meetings (Spring Meeting and Annual Council) are preceded by an intense and exhausting schedule of various boards, commissions, and committees on which division officers hold membership. Scheduling these meetings to other points in the calendar would reduce the time needed for Spring Meeting and Annual Council even if these two meetings continued on a physical presence basis.
An important disadvantage of virtual meetings compared to physical presence meetings is the reduced ability to develop person-to-person connections across cultural and national identities. In the global church there will always be a need to grow in our understanding and appreciation of the amazing diversity reflected in the world family. It is more difficult, perhaps almost impossible, to develop such an appreciation for the “other” if there is no opportunity to sit next to an individual from another part of the world, to converse about life and family, to see “in the flesh” how someone else lives out their spiritual orientation. Understanding and valuing the world family of the church requires meaningful contact apart from business decision-making.
Virtual meetings bring an added value not only to General Conference Executive Committee meetings but to the entire range of meetings throughout denominational structure. The reduction in travel time and expense could be enormous. Physical health costs to the traveler would diminish and productivity (ideally) be improved. However, virtual meetings should not entirely replace physical presence meetings. The value to a world family of social connections is indispensable.
—Lowell C. Cooper retired in 2015, after 17 years as a Vice-President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.
Image Credit: Video still from the Adventist News Network’s live-stream of Day 2 of GC Spring Meeting, April 15, 2020.
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