General Conference Session is the largest, most complex, and arguably most significant event held by the global Seventh-day Adventist Church every quinquennium. The last scheduled Session was postponed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is now set to happen this year, June 6-11, at America’s Center in St. Louis, Missouri, United States.
The two-year postponement has resulted in complications that required unique solutions as well as new initiatives that will benefit Adventists across the globe, session managers said.
Adventist News Network (ANN) recently sat down with Sheri Clemmer, assistant to the session manager for GC; Silvia Sicalo, associate meeting planner for GC; and George O. Egwakhe, GC associate treasurer and session manager, to discuss the Session’s postponement, planning hurdles, and unique innovations to expect at Session this year.
Location Shifting and Postponement
“You know it takes nine years to plan one session?” Clemmer began. “Nine years before Session is when the host city is selected by the Site Selection Committee. They explore options and obtain proposals from possible cities and then visit each one. The best options are presented to the GC Executive Committee at an Annual Council, who make the decision.”
Speaking on how COVID-19 disrupted initial plans to meet in Indianapolis in 2020, Clemmer explained that shifting to St. Louis was a complicated process.
“In event planning, you pretty much have to roll with the punches because there are so many things that can happen in an event. You must be flexible all the time. We really learned that with COVID. We planned the space assignment five times for Indianapolis, and now multiple times at St. Louis. We’ve had to redesign it with social distancing and without social distancing, and now in a brand-new city.”
“Luckily we knew the center very well,” Egwakhe added. “We held Session there in 2005 so had information from that.”
“There was still so much uncertainty though,” Sicalo said. “So many divisions were asking, ‘Am I coming? Am I going virtual?’ And we had to wait for the January 18 vote to pass, which is when they changed the church’s Constitution and by-laws to allow the event to happen virtually. Essentially, where Session is usually planned in nine years, we’ve had to plan it in three months.”
“Luckily there are three of us and we can all commiserate,” Clemmer said, laughing.
“Without teamwork, this would not work,” Sicalo agreed. “If we were not a team, consulting with each other and helping each other, we wouldn’t make it.”
Regarding why Session was moved from Indianapolis to St. Louis, the managers explained that this decision was made based on venue availability. According to the Adventist Church’s Constitution and by-laws, a postponed Session must happen within two years of its original date.
“We postponed the first time to May 2021, but COVID just wasn’t far enough along yet for us to meet then,” Clemmer said. “Problem was, Indianapolis had a very full schedule for the year 2022. They had a couple of small groups meeting in the building from June 6 to 11, 2022, but it would have been too expensive to move these groups out. The only other weeks they had available were Thanksgiving or Christmas — but that wouldn’t have worked, plus the weather’s not so good there that time of year. So, the Executive Committee voted to move it.”
“It was amazing, though,” Sicalo added. “God prepared both dates and both cities without us knowing. We were even able to cancel our original contracts without penalty.”
“In addition, the St. Louis venue wanted to give us an attractive package to bring us back after our time there in 2005,” Egwakhe said. “The contract we signed was for a one-dollar rental fee, provided we could meet the stated food and beverage requirements and hotel room minimums.”
“We were able to meet the required minimums,” Clemmer said.
Unique Challenges of Hybrid Session
Planning the first-ever hybrid Session has not come without significant and unprecedented challenges. While creating the digital infrastructure to host such a large event is one hurdle, significant schedule and format changes have been required to facilitate delegates joining from opposite corners of the globe.
“This year’s Session will be available in five languages,” Clemmer said. “English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian. Because of this, we need to have multiple Zoom sessions and a team of translators working in each of those rooms, plus Zoom equipment for each delegate and language. So that impacts the budget tremendously.”
On top of this, having delegates join virtually from different countries means that there could be significant challenges around internet connections. All voting will occur via an online platform this year. The 2,177 delegates who are registered to attend on-site in St. Louis will have access to strong Wi-Fi and be given charging pods so that their phones don’t run out of battery during the day. This same assurance cannot be given to the 495 delegates who are joining remotely.
“If someone on Zoom wants to ask a question during a meeting, they need to have strong Wi-Fi to be heard and given feedback. They also need good Wi-Fi to vote, too. If there’s anything wrong with that technology, it could be a potential tragedy,” Sicalo said. “That being said, we’ve met the quota of delegates required to be on-site, so we’re very thankful to the Lord for that. But we’re still praying that all the technology will work!”
Another challenge of hosting a hybrid session is time zone differences. Normally, a General Conference Session will run for 10 days, with business meetings spread out between division reports and worship sessions. This year, Session is only six days long, with only four days of business meetings, which will happen both morning and evening.
“We realized a few months ago, ‘Oh, on Friday in St. Louis it will already be Sabbath for a delegate somewhere in the world. Delegates won’t participate in business on Sabbath.’ So we had to adjust the schedule drastically,” Clemmer said. “All the business is happening Monday to Thursday, and division reports will happen on Friday, and Sabbath will be a day of worship.”
COVID-19 and the Importance of Prayer
With delegates coming from nearly 200 countries to St. Louis, keeping everyone safe and healthy has been a priority for Session organizers. “We’re praying that no one will catch COVID or transmit it while we’re there,” Clemmer said. “But we do have the infrastructure in place in St. Louis to prevent this.”
Delegates and technical staff will each receive KN95 or N95 masks at registration, even though the city of St. Louis does not currently have a mask mandate. The choice to wear the mask is that of the individual, but Session management reserves the right to require masks if the city mandate changes and masks are again required.
Further, hand sanitizing stations will be located throughout the America’s Center Convention Complex, and both PCR and antigen testing will be available on-site for those who require these test results to travel back to their home country.
The Health Protocol Committee will be in close contact with the city’s Health Department and will be alerted to any concerns that would require action to ensure the health of all attendees.
How to Access Session
With an app expected to go live in the next few days, church members and delegates will be able to easily access the daily livestream, plus all the church’s official social media accounts in one place. “You’ll be able to engage via social media, talk to each other, and connect around the world through that,” Sicalo said.
“Obviously there will be some things missing this Session, though,” Clemmer added. “There won’t be any in-person exhibits this year; it will all be virtual. We also don’t have spouse meetings scheduled, but we do have a Children’s Sabbath school on Sabbath morning as usual. And we only have a few live musicians. Most music will be virtual.”
“Music has been such a highlight in past sessions. In general, the Adventist Church has lots of talented musicians,” Sicalo added. “We will still enjoy their music on the screen. I’m sure it will be great.”
“One thing we will enjoy again is reunions,” Clemmer said. “There are always people running down the halls and hugging — people who haven’t seen each other in five years, or in this case seven. Maybe this time we will see air hugs!”
“It’s not just a business meeting,” Egwakhe added. “It’s a spiritual meeting. It’s a time where leaders are elected, and we pray for them. And it’s a time for believers to come together. People are spiritually energized to go back and do the Lord’s business. It’s a time for networking. We mix and we see each other, and that’s an aspect we’re hoping to bring back this year.”
“I love Sessions,” Clemmer, who is retiring after this event, said. “When you work on something for so many years, it really becomes a part of you. The first day when people start gathering in the hallways near the entrance, you just stand there and think, ‘Oh they’re here, yay!’ It’s so much fun singing together and seeing people reunited.”