Re-examining Session Format

10 February 2011 Silver Spring, Maryland, United States [Elizabeth Lechleitner, ANN] Just six months after the Seventh-day Adventist world church’s largest business meeting, General Conference Session planners are already mapping out the global denomination’s 2020 convention.

Planning for the event typically begins 10 years beforehand, meaning the location for Session 2015 was announced in 2006 after a host city selection process that included a search for venues, proposal reviews, bidding cities and site visits.

The Adventist Church’s administration will not vote on a location for the GC Session 2020 until October, but some at the world church headquarters are discussing whether a downsized GC Session is on the church’s horizon.


As Adventist Church membership has grown, so have Session venues. “Today, a potential host city must boast a covered stadium able to seat the estimated 70,000 who attend peak weekend meetings,” said Sheri Clemmer, associate meeting planner for the world church. The site must also offer adjacent convention centres and nearby accommodations for at least 6,000 delegates and Session support staff.

Session traffic typically wanes on weekdays. Daily business meetings — where key decisions are actually made — are often sparsely attended, except by Session delegates and a few faithful spectators. Instead, guests often crowd the exhibitor’s hall or participate in the many activities held alongside the Session.

Pastor Pardon Mwansa, the world church general vice president who chairs the church’s Session Planning Committee, said some church officials are questioning the continued need for “camp meeting-style” Sessions — as much spiritual retreats as business meetings.

“We don’t need a crowd to elect leaders. We don’t need a crowd to change policy,” Mwansa said. Others have asked whether a downsized Session might open cities outside of the United States to hosting duties. Of the 59 Sessions since the Adventist Church was established in 1863, only three were held elsewhere, stated Mwansa. 

The format of the church’s largest business meeting can only be re-examined during a vote taken at Session itself. While no such proposal exists, church administrators have “talked informally” about what shape future Sessions might take, said Lowell Cooper, also a world church general vice president. “As the church grows, the potential for [Session] to become an even more complex and costly event increases, forcing us to consider what it is we need to achieve at Session, and what is optional,” Cooper replied.

Whether that discussion will lead to more Sessions held outside North America is debatable, church leaders said. But church administrators who attended the 1995 Session in Utrecht, Netherlands remember the long train rides and less than ideal facilities. “Some delegates — and that includes me, I was a union president that year — were traveling for at least two-and-a-half hours every day one-way to get from our hotel to the convention centre,” said Mwansa. “We had to start off as early as 5:30 a.m.” 

An early morning might not seem insurmountable, but factor in jetlag and delegates assigned with making some of the church’s arguably toughest and most pivotal decisions can become exhausting. “The key factor is how to best facilitate the business of the church,” he said, suggesting that a rested body and clear mind help.

Also central in determining where the GC Session is held is its budget. Getting audio-visual equipment, support staff and delegates to the location is expensive, claimed Verland Erntson, controller for the world church’s Accounting Department. In 1995, the world church spent $5.8 million footing the bill for the Session in Utrecht, not including airfare for support staff. Five years later, the Session in Toronto, Canada cost more than $1 million less. Even last year’s Session venue in Atlanta, Georgia — which totalled $5.5 million — cost less than Utrecht. “It is a surprising statistic to see,” Erntson said.

However, downsizing Session just to accommodate overseas host cities is an idea with “little traction” so far, Cooper said.

In 2005, then world church President Jan Paulsen asked regional church presidents to choose a venue other than world church headquarters to host Annual Council, one of the church’s biannual business meetings. “Even for that smaller meeting, most of them preferred to come here — they were used to it, and it was convenient,” Mwansa said.

While holding the Session outside North America might serve as a symbolic recognition of church growth elsewhere, recent spikes in membership are already acknowledged in practice, Mwansa said. The church’s representative system “shifts in a powerful way the decisions and the future of the church by virtue of the fact that those delegates exercise their regional mindsets,” Mwansa concluded.

Regardless of where the Session is held, the global scope of the event is not lost, nor are the voices of membership worldwide drowned out, church leaders agree. Delegate selection criteria for the Session gives no advantage to the region hosting the event, Cooper confirmed.

The local pride that comes with hosting the Session is, at least for now, reserved for residents of San Antonio, Texas. Their city will host the church’s next Session in 2015; and as for 2025?

If church administrators are “courageous enough” to conclude that the Session is fundamentally a business meeting, they must ask how to most efficiently conduct it, Mwansa said. “Then the outcome will be different,” he speculates. [tedNEWS] 

tedNEWS Staff: Miroslav Pujic, director; Deana Stojkovic, editor
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