At 20, Ricky Harrison looks as if he ought to be parking cars at General Conference, not attending committee meetings and casting votes.
But he’s the lead lay delegate from the North Texas Conference, and will be in the thick of things when General Conference convenes in Tampa, Fla., on April 24.
Already, the McMurry University sophomore has been driving one Tuesday a month from the campus in Abilene, Texas, three-and-a-half hours back to the Dallas area for delegation meetings. And he comes prepared, having done all the assigned reading.
“He’s an inspiration,” said the Rev. Don Underwood, who is leading the entire North Texas delegation, and will be a delegate for the fifth time. “He’s never missed a meeting. He’s always well-prepared. I think this has been an eye-opening experience for him.”
General Conference gets talked of as an event, but it’s really a legislative body, composed of about 1,000 delegates (this time the early count is 988), coming from around the world.
Half are clergy, and half laity. Each has a story, and a particular motivation for being willing to put in the preparation time, not to mention the nearly two weeks away from home.
For Mr. Harrison, elected last summer at age 19, serving as a delegate is an extension of his involvement at First UMC in Richardson, Texas, as well as his work in North Texas Conference youth ministries.
”I decided I’d lift my name up for election as a General Conference delegate or (South Central) Jurisdictional delegate,” he said. “I expected to be part of the team. I had no expectation of being the lead delegate as a 20-year-old college student.”
Mr. Harrison, who is exploring candidacy to become a UM deacon, will serve on the Discipleship Committee. He was drawn to it because it deals with youth-ministry related matters.
“Mainly my goal is to be a voice for young people in North Texas and the United Methodist Church,” he said. “So many times we talk about bridging this gap between young people and the rest of the church, but it’s difficult to put into practice sometimes. So it’s my hope that I can help build those bridges.”
Not so secret
The Rev. Becca Clark, pastor of Trinity UMC in Montpelier, Vt., is another first-time delegate. And she’s a veteran blogger with a sense of humor.
She’s recording her pre-General Conference thoughts and experiences in a blog titled “Secret Diary of a Delegate.” She’s the first to admit that “secret” is meant ironically.
“I want to process what I’m experiencing and I hope it may be interesting to others to read about the process, ask questions, or engage in conversation that way,’ said Ms. Clark. “I plan to continue to blog about General Conference up to, during and after the conference.
Ms. Clark will be on the Church and Society 2 Committee, which handles petitions dealing with sexuality issues. She’s made plain on her blog that she’ll work to overturn the UMC’s ban against clergy officiating at same-sex unions, its ban on ordaining gay and lesbian clergy and its official position that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
“That is why I ran for GC delegate, and where I feel our church is currently committing the gravest errors,” she wrote on her blog.
Ms. Clark is not a one-issue delegate. She opposes the Call to Action agency restructuring proposal, supports divestment of UMC funds from companies that assist the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and strongly favors a greater environmental emphasis by the denomination.
Her General Conference preparation has included attending delegation meetings, and lots and lots of reading. And she’s talked to those who have been through a General Conference.
“Veteran delegates have told me that the schedule is packed and tiring, that I will need comfortable shoes and a shawl or jacket for inside air-conditioning, and that I will want to soak in the worship and prayer and keynote speakers so that I don’t become discouraged by the negative politics that will crop up,” she said by email.
Ms. Clark is clearly fired up about attending General Conference—“I love church polity and dynamics”—but acknowledges that it’s not convenient for her or her family. Her husband, a special education teacher, will be scrambling to take care of their 7-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son.
“Our parents can help out a little, but he may also end up taking some time off work to cover for me while I’m away,” she said. “Not to mention that 12 days is a long time to be away from my babies!”
Joe Whittemore will be serving for the sixth time as a lay delegate from the North Georgia Conference, and while he’s retired now, he can recall when attending was a considerable sacrifice of time and income.
“As the managing partner of a CPA firm, when I was not at work I did not have billable time,” he said.
Mr. Whittemore is a well-known expert on many aspects of General Conference and UMC governance, including apportionment of delegates.
He’s quick with advice to first-time delegates: Try to get enough sleep; make time for devotional life, including prayer; and don’t get too upset over incremental defeats in committee or plenary session.
“In something like this you have to have a compelling love for the institution and what you are doing,” he said. “You can never get discouraged over specific happenings. Anyone that does, does not stick with it—because you could always be doing many other things at that particular moment, like having eight or nine hours of billable time per day.”