Scheduled to be held from June 6 to 11, the 61st Session of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists will bring together thousands of church members from across the globe—both in-person in St. Louis, Missouri, as well as virtually—for the most important business meeting of the world Church.
This year, the event is occurring after a two-year postponement due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. This has resulted in multiple changes to its structure, including a shortened time frame, the cancellation of an in-person exhibition hall, and the ability for delegates and visitors to join the event virtually. While many of these changes seem unprecedented, there have been multiple world events that have disrupted how Session has been held in the past.
ANN recently sat down with Dr David Trim, director of Archives, Statistics, and Research at the General Conference (GC), for an insight into how Session has changed and developed over the years, and how the changes to the 61st Session bear significance for the history of the church.
DISRUPTIONS OVER THE PAST 150 YEARS
According to Trim, many Adventists have tended to view the postponement of Session as “exceptional” and thought that there is “no precedent” for how events have played out in the last two years. In an article published to Adventist Review in 2020, he writes, “There is not just precedent; there are several precedents. This will be the fifth time a GC Session has been postponed, necessarily extending the terms of officials of the General Conference and its divisions, and unavoidably deferring world Church action on important matters of common concern; it will be the second time that more than five years elapses between sessions.”
Given that Session has been held for more than 150 years, it’s unsurprising that it has not always been a quinquennial event, and that global occurrences have prevented delegates from meeting together in the past.
The first GC Session was held on May 20, 1863, in Battle Creek, Michigan, and then annually until 1889. Session was then held every second year until 1905, when they moved to become every four years, though there was a hiatus during World War 1, before meeting again in 1918.
“The irony is that the 1917 Session was postponed because of the war, but in 1918 the war was still happening, although it was probably safer to cross the Atlantic as the allies had won that struggle,” Trim explains. “Or perhaps because there was nothing in the Constitution to guide postponement, they thought two years in a row would be too much.”
“While this is the first time the Church has had to postpone due to a pandemic,” he continues, “I suppose if they had postponed the 1918 GC Session to 1919, they may have had to postpone due to Spanish Influenza.”
Following World War I, Session was held every four years until the Great Depression in 1930, before taking a break and being held again in 1936. The 1940 Session was postponed to 1941; then Session was postponed from 1945 to 1946, both postponements due to World War II.
While Session has been held every five years since 1970, as stipulated by the Church’s Constitution, it’s clear that this quinquennial regularity hasn’t always been a defining characteristic of the event.
“It also hasn’t always been ten days long,” says Trim. “If you go back to the 1860s and 1870s, Session was usually just one day long. But then there were Sessions where they held meetings over a period of two to three weeks with days in between. That didn’t catch on for obvious reasons. It started getting to around two weeks from about 1930 onwards.”
SHORTENING AND SIMPLIFYING SESSION
This year, Session has been shortened from its usual length of 10 days to just six. This is due to multiple factors, including COVID stringencies and having to navigate and adapt to last-minute venue availabilities. In addition, this year there will be no exhibition hall, which has been a key attraction at Session for many years.
“In an ideal world, we would keep hosting the exhibition hall, but in my view, Church leaders rightly said, ‘Let’s take this opportunity to look at how we’re doing Session and see if we can make it more manageable. Let’s see if we can use less of the Church’s financial resources.’ While it may be less appealing for ordinary people to attend, it was getting very expensive. People may be disappointed, but in 5-10 years, it may just be the way we do things.”
Given the growing number of church members around the world, and the fact that the number of delegates required at Session has been steadily increasing since 1863, Sessions have required more resources, larger venues and longer planning times.
“Until 1905, Session was small enough to be hosted at a local church,” Trim continues. “Then, they were held at the GC Headquarters, making use of the fact that there was Washington Missionary College, the Review and Herald, and Washington Sanitarium in a small area, so there was lots of space to accommodate guests, and they’d pitch tents as well.”
Since 1905, the number of delegates at Session has been too large to fit into any local church venue. Following World War I, this number had grown to a size requiring a convention center and hotel accommodation. Since 1980, Session has been held in stadiums big enough to hold more than 50,000 people.
“Session grew to such a size that it became very difficult to manage,” says Trim. “But it’s really just a business meeting. Originally, it was a crucial event—Session was probably the only time leaders saw each other once a year, because it took days or weeks to travel and communicate. Today, it’s different, people can communicate remotely. But the opportunity for leaders to meet with each other is still priceless.”
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF TRANSITIONING ONLINE
While previous Sessions in 2010 and 2015 had some online presence through social media or live streaming, this year will be the first digitally-native Session. More than 600 delegates will join remotely and vote or participate in the nominating committee via Zoom, which adds layers of complexity to the whole event.
“For the first time, people don’t have to be present on the same site, in the same room. That’s been the case since 1863. That’s a very significant change and does have all sorts of implications,” says Trim.
While provisions in the Church’s Constitution existed for “telephonic communications” for executive committee meetings, there was no such provision allowing virtual attendance at Sessions. To allow for this, a special GC Session was held in January on-site in Silver Spring to change the Constitution and allow for this.
“It shows the church is willing to adapt and do what is necessary to conduct its business in the most optimal way possible, but it will be difficult to manage,” says Trim. “It is the best solution given the current situation where the pandemic is still raging in certain parts of the world, and some US embassies aren’t yet open or able to grant Visas.”
One obvious challenge virtual attendance creates is maintaining confidentiality within the nominating committee. For the past 3 to 4 Sessions, members have been asked to give up their cell phones when entering the nominating committee room, to prevent information leaks.
“But how can you do that when members are joining from home?” says Trim. “You can’t. You can only trust that people will respect confidentiality.”
Looking forward, it’s unclear whether digital communications will be as prevalent or necessary at Session in 2025 and 2030, however having the option is crucial for conducting business in such a large, global organization as the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“We don’t know how COVID will go, or what wars might break out. We don’t know what the future holds. It may well be that we don’t need to have digital attendance for a while, but it would be a rash person to say that we would never need it,” says Trim.
While digital communications have changed how, when and where people can communicate around the world, it is hoped that they don’t become the primary form of communication for Session, but rather an aide where in-person attendance is not possible.
“If it’s just a matter of connecting digitally to save money, I would be opposed to that,” says Trim. “The money is well worth it to be able to meet and talk together in person. It’s the best way to resolve debate, and to get to know each other better. That being said, given the wars, plagues, epidemics, economics, and maybe even legal restrictions on the Church in some countries, to have the opportunity to ‘attend’ digitally is a very valuable thing.”
To attend Session virtually from your part of the world, visit GC Session.org for more information.