June 23, 2010

General Conference Sessions, A Historical Overview

What Is a Session?

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WHEN WE WERE SMALL: A total of 91 delegates met for the twenty-seventh General Conference session in 1888, in Minneapolis, Minnesota

A General Conference session is the forum for electing world church officers and voting changes to the church’s Constitution. Delegates also hear reports from each of the 13 administrative regions of the church. Voting delegates represent world regions on the basis of both the size of the church membership in the area and whether the church in that region is self-sustaining or still dependent on other church entities to fund the major part of its operations.

The Constitution states that at least 50 percent of delegates shall be laypersons, pastors, teachers, and nonadministrative employees, of both genders, and representing a range of age groups and nationalities.
At a session, attendants also have the opportunity to reconnect with friends from around the world.

Transformation Over Time
While sessions are now held in football stadiums, pictures from early meetings show a very small attendance, with delegates able to line up for a photo along the entrance to a small church (see above). Back then, the church’s leaders came to sessions—mostly from the midwestern and northeastern United States—by train or by horse and buggy. Today, about one third of the church’s membership lives in Africa, with another third living in Central and South America. Brazil now has more Adventists than any other country—1.3 million.

Session Beginnings
Seventh-day Adventist leaders met in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1863 “for the purpose of organizing a General Conference,” the minutes from that meeting say. The meeting began on the evening of May 20, during which delegates chose a chairman and a secretary. During the session, delegates drafted a constitution and bylaws. They also established leadership of the General Conference, comprised of a president, a secretary, and a treasurer. Today, the same basic officer structure remains at all levels of church administration.

Battle Creek was the site of 26 of the first 31 GC sessions. The first session held west of the Mississippi River was in November of 1887—in Oakland, California. Sessions have been held outside the U.S. three times: in Austria (1975), the Netherlands (1995), and Canada (2000). Atlanta will be the fifty-ninth session.

The time between sessions has lengthened over the years. Sessions were held every year until 1891, then every other year until 1905. After that, sessions took a four-year break, followed by another hiatus during World War I, resuming again in 1918. Following that date, sessions came to be held every four years until the Great Depression. A session was held in 1930, but not again until 1936, followed by one in 1941. Since 1970, sessions have been held every five years, as is now mandated by the church’s Constitution.

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STILL GROWING: Session later made the move from arenas to stadiums - as here at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri, in 2005

Meeting Venues
Recent General Conference sessions have been held in baseball and football stadiums in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Few other venues in the world offer the necessary amenities for such an event: seating for 70,000-plus attendees, venue support staff who speak English (the official business language of the church), reliable and cost-effective transportation, and food safety for a large group.

Next Session
While Adventists hope the second coming of Christ will take place before the next GC session in 2015, the denomination has reserved the Alamo Dome in San Antonio, Texas . . . just in case.

*Taken from the General Conference Web site and modified slightly for our purpose.