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The Rev. Bob Zilhaver of the Western Pennsylvania Conference speaks May 13 at General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon. Zilhaver voiced concern that the use of iPads, as opposed to placards, was putting some delegates at a disadvantage in getting the attention of the presiding bishop. Photo by Sam Hodges, UMNS.

Photo by Sam Hodges, UMNS

The Rev. Bob Zilhaver of the Western Pennsylvania Conference speaks May 13 at General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon. Zilhaver voiced concern that the use of iPads, as opposed to placards, was putting some delegates at a disadvantage in getting the attention of the presiding bishop.

Bumpy start for GC2016

By Sam Hodges
May 13, 2016 | PORTLAND, Oregon (UMNS)

Three days into General Conference 2016, delegates continued to debate whether they should be tapping on iPads or waving old-fashioned placards to get the presiding bishop’s attention.

For the Rev. Matt Gaston, a first-time visitor to General Conference from North Texas, prolonged debate about floor rules and procedures undercut the “wonderful Pentecost experience” of seeing United Methodists gathered from cultures all over the world.

“It just saddens my heart that it could take us 10 to 12 hours to figure out how we’re even going to talk to each other about the issues,” he said.

The Rev. Rebekah Miles is a four-time General Conference delegate who came to her first such legislative gathering of The United Methodist Church as a child in 1976, here in Portland, Oregon.

But the veteran Miles, a Perkins School of Theology professor, agreed with the rookie Gaston in sizing up the early going of this General Conference as choppy, with no smooth sailing in sight. 

“It seems to me that we trust each other even less than we did in (General Conference) 2012, and that’s saying something,” Miles said.

Struggle with iPads

The third day of General Conference saw an effort to revisit a rule that had passed with difficulty the day before. It ditches placards in favor of an iPad for getting the presiding bishop’s attention in plenary sessions.

African delegates had complained going in that many of them were not accustomed to tablet computers and might – under time pressure – struggle to tap in their delegate I.D. numbers and check off the boxes necessary to get in the computer queue of those requesting to speak on the floor.

That worry has come true, said the Rev. Alfred Njau, a delegate from the Tanzania Conference.

“If you take the statistics of the people who are speaking, it’s very few Africans,” he said. “They’re struggling.”

Bishop John Innis of the Liberia Conference agreed.

“They needed more training,” he said of the African delegates. “Technology is good. … But people need to be taught to use it very well.”

The Rev. Bob Zilhaver, a Western Pennsylvania Conference delegate, raised the issue in the May 13 morning plenary session. He asked that the Committee on Presiding Officers do a quick study of delegates’ and bishops’ thoughts about iPads vs. placards, and make a recommendation on which to use for the rest of this General Conference.

“I have watched my brothers and sisters from our central conferences, often with language barriers, be frustrated with the tablets and want to use placards,” Zilhaver said from the floor.

The motion failed, but fairly narrowly. Some delegates continued to complain of a transparency problem because requests to speak as registered by iPad go into a computer queue that the presiding bishop can see – but not delegates.

“We would ask people to trust (the iPads) and give them a chance,” said the Rev. L. Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist II, secretary of the General Conference. “I would be happy to explain to people what we’re seeing up front.”

Reist acknowledged glitches with the iPad system the first couple of days, but said those had been worked out. He said the combination of the lighting and size of the Oregon Convention Center main hall made placards a bad choice.

“When you’re sitting on that platform and you look back in a corner, you can’t see a thing,” he said. “You can’t see the placards at all. You can’t see whether [someone is] standing up or sitting down.”

Global church difficulties

Miles and others pointed to the defeat of Rule 44 – an effort by the Commission on General Conference to have the option of a small-group discernment process in deciding contentious issues – as another notable, thorny development occurring early in General Conference 2016.

Though Miles had her doubts about whether such a process could resolve deep divides over human sexuality issues, she sized up its defeat as adding even more tension to this gathering.

“A lot of the people who were supporting it were really upset,” Miles said. “They took it very personally, and some were even angry at the people who opposed it.”

Mountain Sky Area Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky agreed that the Rule 44 debate and struggle over iPads vs. placards indicated a bigger challenge.

“It’s not a surprise to me that it’s difficult to be a global church, and this is more of a global event in terms of representation from around the world,” Stanovsky said.

Stanovsky noted that among her African bishop colleagues, terrorism is a crucial issue, while her Filipino colleagues are preoccupied with global warming and the rights of native peoples. Meanwhile, U.S. bishops are grappling with rebellion in the clergy ranks over church law related to homosexuality.

To her, General Conference reflects those same “disparate passions.”

“You put it all in a room, and we don’t how to work together,” Stanovsky said. “I appreciate the impatience and frustration of everybody.”

She added that General Conference 2016, if it proves as frustrating as the early going suggests, might add impetus to efforts to reorganize the denomination and let regions of the church do more of their own decision-making.

That is something the bishop welcomes.

“There’s a certain amount we can do all together, and there’s some stuff we’re going to have to do separately,” Stanovsky said. “Until then, it’s going to be pretty chaotic.”

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or