Faith Works 7-30-16
A convention or a congregation in question
Now that both major party conventions are over, it's a good time to look back not so much at the speeches or the protests or the balloon drops, but at the events as a whole and ask the question: why a convention?
That's not a political question at all. This is a religion column, and as a religious leader, I can attest to how church bodies like every other institution today are asking the question: why gather together in large numbers over great distances?
As budgets for non-profits of all sorts get tighter, as certain program and personnel costs go up as income in many categories go down, and as technology makes "being there" more and more of a marginal benefit: why have meetings?
No one says that there's never a reason not to bring people together for certain purposes. Worship and fellowship and simple friendship are all perfectly good reasons to travel and stay with friends or even strangers let alone motels and eat away from home. But mass meetings to do business: why?
It's a question that should be asked outright, before we start to answer it indirectly. There are many ways you can put streaming video and live chat and interactive tools on people's laptops and smartphones across a region, a state, a continent, and if we just do it because we can and because it saves money, we're not stopping to think about why we should or shouldn't. Financial pressures have taken away many meetings that perhaps never should have happened back in the days of expense reports on paper and receipts stapled to vouchers, mileage and per diems, but at the same time you could be saving a dime and losing out on dollars if we're not thinking clearly about the function of meetings in the first place.
During the conventions (yes, I still watch conventions, and apparently many of you do, too) I kept going back and forth. I've worked with logistics and planning for events with hundred and yes, thousands in convention centers, including just last summer in Columbus for my denomination last year. You might be surprised to learn what gets paid for and what gets "thrown in for free," and more to the point what gets paid for well before you know who or how many show up . . . which means that at a certain point you no longer care about getting certain people or a specific population there as much as you do meeting your minimums and bumping up the bodies in the room, or that money went to waste.
I've not priced a balloon drop, but from what I read online those ain't cheap, either.
So online I see a fair number of folks asking, not unreasonably, why each/their party should spend so much money, and ask their most committed volunteers to spend out of their own pockets so much, to go to Cleveland and Philadelphia, just to hear someone say "and we rise to represent the state we love so well, the home of processed cheese products since early in the last century, and the residence of some of the finest slow-pitch softball players in all of the United States; so Madame Chairman, we cast…"
You could do that online through Skype just fine. And cheap.
Church matters are much the same. Even for our state-level gathering as a church, as our plans come together for an every-other-year meeting, the debates my peers and friends and colleagues have are between hotel conference center or church basement? Delegate assembly or y'all-come model of event? Catered meals or potlucks or send-them-out-for-90-minutes lunch?
For faith communities, worship – a public gathering to give thanks to God together for how we've been blessed, and to seek wisdom and inspiration as a people – is a face-to-face necessity. There are elements of worship we can enjoy and appreciate online when we just can't be there, but in general, it just doesn't build lasting relationships and love between one another, unless we're present. That's an expense we're just going to have to incur. Fellowship is a close second, the maintenance of lasting bonds.
It's that line between worship, fellowship, and doing business that gives us a place to make some choices. When is an e-mail more effective than ten people in a meeting room? How might a conference call give more voice to unheard persons than happens around a table face-to-face?
And sometimes, that's even true for local congregations, too.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's not exactly a big fan of meetings, especially when you drive two hours to get to a thirty-minute meeting and wonder all the way back home "why?" Tell him how you feel about FaceTime etc. at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.