A proposed bylaw revision to change the frequency of the United Church of Christ's General Synod gatherings to "every three or four years" has been introduced by the Illinois South Conference and will be debated in Tampa this July.
This isn't the first time a proposal of this nature has been submitted to General Synod delegates to vote on. In 2003, the 23rd General Synod of the UCC held in Minneapolis, received a resolution with similar intent.
"Obviously, there is a financially component," she said. "Between 2001 and 2009 we've seen a 60 percent increase in the cost of General Synod. Most of our Conferences' investment values have plummeted."
"But the significant change, aside from people's awareness around the financial realities, revolves around how we connect and communicate technologically," Culver continued. "Blogs, webcasts, email lists, WebEx – extending the reality that Facebook and Twitter are useful communication tools – these technologies need to be explored as more efficient ways to process our concerns than hauling our delegates to some place every two years."
"That opens us up to really new exciting ways of gathering. There may be room for regional gatherings similar to regional youth events and women's gatherings," Culver said.
When asked about the concern that decreasing the frequency of General Synod would also reduce the effectiveness of the UCC's voice, Culver was undeterred. "I would hope that what we've been doing [as an assembled body at General Synod] happens all the time – putting out topics and discussing them," she said. "It would be great if we could have extended conversations using electronic means. We don't need to wait two years to speak on issues, and we don't need one national staff member to be a point person."
The Illinois South Conference approved the proposed bylaw changes at its September 2010 meeting. Culver, working with other Conference Ministers and her board, submitted the proposed bylaw changes to the Executive Council in the spring.
Noting that budget concerns are a reality, including a 115 percent increase in General Synod costs between 1981 and 2003, the document also cites the added burden to a national staff who's ranks have decreased by 50 percent in the past decade that "significantly affect the staff's ability to implement General Synod actions."
"The cultural realities facing the United Church of Christ in the 21st century are not those that our predecessors and church founders faced in the 1950's, but we remain committed to the empowering original vision of the unity of the Body of Christ," the proposal states.
Although financial considerations were at the fore of the discussion in 2003, many voices lamented the sense of "gathering" and "connecting" that General Synod provided to a disparate denomination that organizes in local, state and regional bodies as well as the national collection of voices represented during the biennial Synod.
The proposal was ultimately defeated in Minneapolis, but not before a floor debate raised issues of the function of General Synod to include leadership development among youth and racial-ethnic minority delegates, education opportunities and local church influence on the governance of the church.
The Rev. Paul Forman pointed out during the debate that, as reported in 2003, just 2.5 percent of the national OCWM giving was allocated for expenses related to General Synod. "We're only painting the toe-nails of the elephant in our living room," he said, encouraging a fundraising effort aimed at offsetting the expenses of General Synod.
During the same debate, the UCC's Associate General Minister Edith Guffey stated she was "neither for nor against the resolution," but explained to delegates that the Office of General Ministries could not continue to fund General Synod from its operating budget. Following the 2003 General Synod discussion changes were made to how the meeting is funded.
Since that time, infrastructure costs began to come off the top of national OCWM receipts, meaning the four Covenanted Ministries shared equally in these expenses rather than the Office of General Ministries bearing the burden. Additionally, the registration fee for all attendees – delegates and guests – was made the same and all attendees were required to register. Finally, a revised and increased fee schedule for space requests and exhibition hall booths was created.
While these changes have helped offset the financial burden allocated to the national offices of the UCC for General Synod, Conferences continue to bear the cost of sending delegates to the meeting. The total cost of General Synod - inclusive of convention center, housing, transportation and meals for national staff and Conference delegates – was estimated at $2.3 million in 2009. In 2011, the total cost is expected to exceed the 2009 number.