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