Saturday, May 12, 2012

How Social Media Exposed the Inner Workings of GC2012

Earlier this week, I mentioned that some backroom deals were taking place at GC2012 during the creation of PlanUMC. Well, this was not the only surprise that first-time live streamers and Twitter followers encountered as they followed the events of the conference. Since the time I first conceived this post, I read a blog post written by one of the people involved with the formation of PlanUMC, which asserts that the claims of “backroom deals” by those who sought to defeat the plan are erroneous. This post will contain a sort of dialogue with the writer, as well as a synthesis of what happened on social media over the 10 days of GG2012.

2012 was the first conference that was truly revolutionized by Internet technology. GC2008 was the first General Conference to offer live streaming of the entire conference on the Internet. But while some people watched that year, there was no way for large numbers of them to discuss it in an open forum in real time. 2008 was when Twitter really took off, but most early adopters were young and privileged enough to have frequent access to the Internet. The iPhone was in its first model and not many people were willing to spend the money on an expensive plan to have mobile Internet. By 2012, smart phones have revolutionized the way we use the Internet: lots more people have them, and they can do a lot more and do it faster. Now, more people have regular access to the Internet. People over 40 have joined Twitter, so much so that Fox News, a company that caters to people 50 and up, is using Twitter to interact with its viewers. Now that so many people use Twitter, United Methodists were able to discuss GC2012 as it was happening. Many people pulled up the live feed of GC and monitored the hashtag #GC2012 at the same time. A hashtag marks a topic on Twitter, so if you search for that hashtag and watch it, you will see every post being made about #GC2012 in real time. Thus Twitter became a kind of forum in which United Methodists discussed what was going on at conference as it was happening. Using the @ feature, they were able to speak directly to one other, or they could speak to anyone who was listening. Even more revolutionary was the fact that Twitter users at General Conference brought their cell phones and laptops into committee meetings, and tweeted what went on in the committee meetings. For the first time ever, large numbers of concerned United Methodists who were not at conference- and who had never been to a GC- were privy to what went on in some committees. Even more detailed explanations of what had happened in these meetings were posted in blogs. One of the most infamous blog posts about the death of Plan A, Plan B, and the MFSA Plan was written by a provisional Elder in the EOC who was in the meeting.

All of this was, as my colleague Becca called it, “the sausage-making factory.” All the political rhetoric, all the parliamentary slight-of-hand, and all the wheeling and dealing of the most powerful members of our church were suddenly 1) out there on the Internet for all to hear, and 2) being discussed in real time by real United Methodists from around the country and around the globe. And a lot of people didn’t like what they heard. I was among many who didn’t understand how GC really worked, and personally, I was shocked and disgusted to hear some of the things being said on and off the conference floor.

Now for the defense of committee meetings and "backroom deals." The first four days of GC are full of committee meetings. The are, as my pastor, a longtime GC veteran, says, "the pregame" to all the action that takes place on the floor. They are necessary because we just can't hash out every single piece of legislation as a full body of 988 people. What happens is that committee members do work together before conference, do more intensive work at conference, and then finally decide whether or not to endorse the legislation. Any legislation that comes before the body is presented as being approved or not approved by the committee that worked on it. With the restructuring plans, no plan was endorsed by committee, which is why it was necessary to try to create PlanUMC. In the blog post I mentioned above, Josh states that those who worked on PlanUMC did so "out in the open," with no closed doors. He therefore claims that PlanUMC was not created as part of a backroom deal. I have two objections to this:

1. Because it was created at GC, in less than 24 hours before it was presented to the body, it was impossible for the entire UMC, including its many and diverse voices, to give input to the plan. It was literally impossible for every single constituency within this church to be consulted during its creation. And, given the implications of a church restructuring plan, I believe that every United Methodist has the right to be heard regarding such a major change.

2. The people who chose to create PlanUMC were some of the same people who created previous plans. Josh writes, "These “not sanctioned by GC” talks happened in public meeting rooms, between groups that had only days ago been opposed to one another in significant and sometimes almost hostile ways when it came to restructuring. With my own eyes, I witnessed the talks grow organically out of relationships between persons involved in the different plans, and the deep underlying sentiment was apologetic, repentant, and dedicated to agreeing on something that would benefit the church." That may be true. However, the whole reason PlanUMC happened in the first place was that the writers already had relationships. Someone or someones in that group was powerful enough to get this legislation on the agenda, and Josh himself was only involved because his father happened to be one of those people, and he happened to be a very powerful person- an episcopal candidate. If you're not already "in with the in crowd," you're not part of this conversation. Again, conversations about restructure have to take place all over the connection, and voices that influence the plan must come from the entire connection- not from a few people who are already powerful.

Josh states that some people declined to participate, and some did so with uncharitable attitudes. Well, if I were there, I would have declined too. For the reasons stated above, I would have believed that to work on such a project would be disrespectful to my entire church. And, in the heat of the moment, I may have been a bit graceless too, and would hope that he would forgive my attitude. When one feels one's church is being disrespected and one's voice is being disregarded, it can be difficult not to be offended.

Now that there are members of the body of GC tweeting and blogging for those members of the Body of Christ who are not at General Conference, committee meetings are suddenly transparent. Now, we both see "what's on the stage" via live stream and hear what happens in committee via firsthand report on the Internet. All of this happens in real time, and real United Methodists across the country are reacting to real events as they happen. Delegates no longer ask, "How would my home church/ district/ conference feel about this." Now they know exactly how we feel, and they know it instantly (if they are listening)! A good example of this was on the second-to-last day of GC, when the Common Witness Coalition coordinated a demonstration on the floor of GC in the middle of business. When a bishop announced that visitors would not be permitted entry to the plenary after recess for lunch (that never actually happened), I was afraid they would shut off the live feed too. I contacted one of my delegates, the amazing and talented Rev. Valerie Stultz. She responded very promptly- and her email ended with "sent from my iPad."

The implications for doing Holy Conferencing this way are far-ranging. Holy Conferencing is now a much more collective event than a representative event. And since Twitter is, in certain ways, "our sandbox" for young people, conferences now have the potential to get more of us directly involved with how our church works. OK, so these are some implications for the practical, concrete side of Holy Conferencing? But how has the UMC changed emotionally and spiritually as a result of this technological revolution in conferencing? Tune in for my next post!


  1. Thanks,
    Imagine what went on in the past

  2. I just started reading this, and the link to the blog post you're responding is missing the "j" at the beginning of the URL...