Monday, June 13, 2011

ReThink Annual Conference

Sangamon Auditorium, Springfield IL. (CC-2.0)
What if Annual Conference were a verb-- something we actually did-- rather than a noun describing an event where we're seated in one place for most of the day and evening in theaters or behind tables? What if we ReThink Annual Conference?


I just got back from Annual Conference in Muncie, Indiana this past weekend. Worship at the plenaries was great-- designed and led by the ever-amazing Marcia McFee. But the session itself... could have been better.

This was a delegate election year, of course... and that was part of what meant it "could have been better." We were in a massive auditorium, with moderate lighting (at best) and all in theater seats with long rows hard to move in or out of. We were using Scantron  cards with 400 (or maybe more) tiny little lines to be filled in by pencil. These were all diligently hand-collected, then taken back to a room somewhere where they were run through a Scantron reader and tallied. Then the results were projected-- maybe 30 minutes later-- on a big screen, but unfortunately with print too small for many people in the space to see. Add up the dim-ish lighting, tiny numbers and lines on Scantron cards and projection screens, and a median age in the room well above 60, and we got the predictable: lots of invalid ballots and a voting process that seemed to take a very long time while we all waited in our seats.

Now, I know using the technologies and the people we had at hand, we actually got remarkably good results. Kudos to everyone who made it as smooth as it was!

But I have to ask: Why do we still do conferencing and elections this way? At nearly any other conference I go to these days (General Conference being another exception), the venue (more often a convention center than a theater) functions pretty much as open space. If there's voting or there are surveys to be done, it's all handled either through kiosks (plenty of them all over the space) or onsite online voting via text or smartphone (each person issued a unique voter id on entry to ensure no one outside the venue can vote) --with instant tallying and results of voting so far available at the touch of a large, on-screen button. Screens or text messages or emails announce results and new voting periods.

The voting or surveys are NOT the main event. Nor are "reports." Not even in plenaries for these conferences. The main event is comprised primarily of presentations, workshops and conversations in multiple venues throughout the space. Each of these is offered several times, so you can go when it works best for you. You choose where to go and when. If the venue is a convention center (as it often is), the space is created with movable walls (or pipe and drape) and chairs are moved in or out to accommodate the number that actually show up. When there are plenaries in Christian conventions these days, those might be for worship or large format conversations (holy conferencing), or keynote addresses (and here, think Ted Talks, not 60 minute lectures) but hardly ever for "reports"  from working groups/committees unless that report has something to do with what's happening in the event overall, here and now-- like, instructions or updates-- and almost never exceeding 5 minutes.

So how would this work? You'd create a mix of workshop and plenary periods, with voting periods interspersed. If you provided one kiosk per ten attendees, and distributed them well through the space, people could easily move between workshop/plenary periods and vote during the breaks between them. 20 minute breaks could easily suffice. So workshop/conversation periods might be 40 minutes starting at 10 past and ending at 10 before the hour. You'd create 50 minute blocks for plenaries and worship, perhaps 2 hours for a concluding ordination service, by which time all voting would be completed anyway. You might hear some brief reports in plenaries, but only what was needed for things requiring a plenary vote or conversation and not already provided by other means.

So here's a day laid out this way.

8:00 a.m. Morning Worship/Plenary Presentation
8:50 a.m. Voting period 1
9:10 a.m. Workshop/Conversation 1
9:50 a.m. Voting period 2
10:10 a.m. Workshop/Conversation 2
10:50 a.m. Voting Period 3
11:10 a.m. Workshop/Conversation 3
11:50 a.m. Voting Period 4

2 p.m. Afternoon Worship/Plenary Conversation 1
2:50 p.m. Voting Period 5
3:10 p.m. Workshop/Conversation4
3:50 p.m. Voting Period 6
4:10 p.m. Workshop/Conversation5
4:50 p.m. Voting Period 7


7 p.m. Evening Plenary Conversation 2
8 p.m. Evening Worship

So, what do you think? How might such a ReThinking of Annual Conference help? What might we gain? What might we lose?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards


John Meunier said...

I don't know what we'd lose, but I be for this 100%.

What are the barriers that keep us from doing this?

Diane said...

For our annual conference, Scantron balloting (including pencils, renting the scan program, paying someone to stuff the ballots into the folders, and all associated costs) is under $1,200. The average cost for conferences doing the electronic balloting is $21,000.

Additionally, with Scantron, you can still get the results in 10-15 minutes.

If our conference (West Virginia) would switch to electronic balloting, we would have to cut a conference staff position or pay even less of our general church apportionments or shortchange our conference mission programs. That is not worth it to me.

dpmills said...

I love the "open space" approach.

journeyman37 said...

@Diane-- Not voting machines, and not even necessarily terribly expensive kiosks. The heart of this thing is the software, and that could be online and developed for free (or close to it) if we chose to do so. Otherwise it's just connected laptops or whatever computers or iPads or other internet connected devices we wanted to bring in (and we could bring our own) to run it.

The cost center in this would be in the connectivity-- we'd be paying convention center rates for that, and should, to cover the necessary bandwidth. But I'd imagine this could still be less costly than the voting machines approach.

AND... more than this-- it keeps us up and moving and learning and interacting-- actually conferencing-- rather than tied down to theater seats or tables.

Diane said...


Thanks for sharing your opinion on the costs involved, but we also need to remember that the vast majority of our annual conference members do not have laptops, ipads, or other internet-connected devices.

We did online registration this year at my annual conference and a significant percentage of the conference membership did not even have an e-mail address with which they could register. This problem gets worse as we reach out to people of different classes (no matter their age), a core Wesleyan value.

I also dislike staying in convention centers. My conference meets at our UM college, and worshiping/conferencing in the chapel is a holy experience. But the college is still waiting to become fully wireless...

Abril said...

At our AC this year we used hand held voting machines that used plastic cards with unique codes for each voting person. They scattered the devices on the long tables, and two or three people shared one device. It was faster than paper ballots, but still pretty darn slow. And the rest of the stuff... Same as always. Five minute reports? Are we in heaven?

Stephen said...

Br. Taylor,

Louisiana Annual Conference used handheld keyed voting machines. Quick and efficient, but also extremely difficult to figure out for an average person not of the computer generation. (Which I would guess the majority of our AC delegates are not)

While I like your idea of annual conference being more akin to TED talks. I think it would probably take a lot of movement from laity and clergy.
The average age of the lay delegates we elected to General Conference was 58 (youngest was 28 and the only one below 50). ALL of the Lay delegates besides the youngest had been to general conference before, some multiple times.

Clergy delegates were decided as much through popularity among the ranks as any thing else. All of the clergy delegates sans 2 alternates had been to general conference before, some multiple times.

My concern is something akin to what Brian Mclaren voiced to a group of Methodists last year...
How can institutions be movements? They are two different structures designed for two different purposes.
Institutions preserve.
Movements expand.

From what I can tell we are still semi in the preservation business.

EmilyMichele said...

The idea is great but there are some reports that have to be made to the Annual Conference, like CFA and the Cabinet report. The book of discipline requires most of the boards and agencies to report at Conference, thus in changing the way Conference is done this would still need to be taken into consideration.

Laura said...

we used cokesbury paper ballots in the New Mexico conference. Now that was antiquated...

journeyman37 said...

@Diane-- I would be fairly confident than among all the UM members in WV there are 100 devices that connect to the Internet that could be used as voting stations.

@Stephen-- Institutions are not movements. The UMC is not a movement and shouldn't try to be. It is an institution-- and a fairly complex one at that, as it is really a network of many institutions (congregations, districts, conferences, jurisdictions, general agencies, etc.)

@Emily-- There are reports and there are reports. Not all reports are mandated to be presented in person on the floor of the Annual Conference at plenary. For practical reasons, things like trustees, CFA and maybe (maybe!) the cabinet report should be. But none of these need take up the time they sometimes do. Aren't these reports generally already printed for all members of conference anyway? If so, the most needed is highlights and action steps. Again, with the exception of the trustees report and maybe also a foundation report (since these typically involve calling a different corporation to order), the voting itself needn't happen AS a plenary. And where it does, there would be few instances where a ballot is needed at all.

We actually had one of those few instances this year in Indiana, as we were asked to vote to complete the merger of the former North and South corporations into one new Indiana corporation. This was done on a paper ballot. But it was not Scantron. And the lettering and the places to mark were large enough to read easily. In theory, though, we won't have to do this again anytime soon unless we have something like another merger with another conference.

Dr. Brad said...

Very interesting comments. Holston Conference also used the Scranton system. An electronic solution would be most welcome. We were at Lake Junaluska, which is completely wireless, and used that technology to provide the Book of Reports online for members of conference. We also incorporated a consent agenda to take reports in groups for voting instead of hearing each one individually. That saved a lot of time.

srl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve and Andrea LaMotte said...

Our conference (Peninsula-Delaware) still uses the Scantron. The lighting was horrible to try and fill out the cards. Needless to say, even in our rural conference there were numerous iPads and laptops and almost everyone had an internet capable phone.

I have asked some conference leaders about looking into creating an APP for iphone/blackberry/iPad/laptops where voting could happen. Results would be back quicker-leaving more time for other matters. Heck, even something like Surveymonkey could help speed things up!

Morgan Guyton said...

Totally with you on this. Virginia conference was dreadfully boring except for the preaching.

Gary Keene said...

Oooh, where to begin. Let me come clean with this: I've served as the conference staff person responsible for Sessions/Design for 21 years in three different conferences. Every version of every question, survey feedback, technical issues,location venue, desire for something different etc. has been on the table multiple times, and we've had a chance to try many good ideas.
BUT, over the years, what has emerged as the primary constraint is that the fundamental mindset about Conference Sessions is inductive, that is, everybody brings (and insists upon & imposes) different agendas for those 3-4 days, and we expect something universally coherant and satisfying to be the result. Doesn't happen, and everyone goes home to some degree frustrated.
Even when we design from a deductive perspective, that is, "What does the Conference need," (rooted in the Wesleyan question, How is it with the soul of the Conference connection, and how can we nurture its vitality at this time in this place,) even when we do that, we can't dislodge the implicit framework of our polity = that polity infects the event with a competetive mindset, a win-lose approach to decision-making, which off-sets all the other good stuff that might be done (learning sessions, discernment groups, fellowship times, etc.) As long as even some portion of the time is invested in voting (inevitable, given some of the basic business that yes, we need to do together), then that's what people of our culture recognize as the authority to be reckoned with, gamed, used for whatever purposes individuals or groups bring to the event.
Solution? (My dream?) 2-3 annual events of 48-72 hours each: one for inspiration and fellowship (by district?); one for learning and fellowship (by role & responsibltity); one for business.
FWIW, gary

journeyman37 said...

Thanks for joining the conversation, Gary.

I couldn't agree more that the "default" mindset we bring to Annual Conference (and worse, General Conference!) creates a lot of our problems.

That's why I propose such a radical redesign.

Voting in the model I'm proposing NEVER happens "in" a plenary. And plenaries are always either worship, or holy conversation, or some combination of the two.

And with this sort of workshop model, there's little need to "control" the agenda centrally-- so you end up with fewer fights about who gets what time on the "agenda." The agenda gets made up by the presenters of workshops and facilitators of conversations. Only plenary conversations are "orchestrated" by the conference committee per se. The rest come from things people want to talk about or present on. And, with the exception of the plenaries, people choose where they want to go. Or even to take a break if they'd rather. It's a conference of adults, not a classroom of small children!

This really is the way most conventions and conferences tend to work these days-- and for at least the last 15-20 years probably. Anyone who has been to just about anything other than Annual Conference would already have experienced that.

So why shouldn't we try to design an annual conference session that at least tries to keep up with the 1990s?