An interview with Judi Kenaston: Chair of the Commission on the General Conference 2016

By WV UMC Admin

Note: We caught up with Judi Kenaston to ask about her role as chair on the commission on the General Conference. Her role was crucial in the planning and execution of the quadrennial meeting of The United Methodist Church.

1. Tell us a little more about your role during the past four years. 

I was elected to the Commission on the General Conference in 2008. For the first four years I served as the chair of the Rules Committee (one of three administrative committees on the Commission.) In 2012, I was elected to chair the Commission. The Commission is responsible for all preparations for General Conference – the upcoming one (or in this case the one just ended) and future ones. Among many other things, we set the location, number of legislative committees, propose rules, select worship leaders, plan the schedule, deal with translation and interpretation, select sponsors for General Conference, and prepare for security needs. The Rules Committee also serves as the Ethics Committee while at General Conference to hear any complaints that are raised and I was part of that Committee.

2. Describe a typical day at General Conference.

For me as chair of the Commission and a delegate, my days began each day with a 6:30 am meeting with the Agenda and Calendaring committee. This is one of a number of administrative committees. This committee is responsible for changes in the agenda and for assigning petitions to the calendar – which decides when and what will be dealt with at General Conference. We tried to finish in time for worship which began at 8 am, but I was usually a few minutes late arriving in my seat. Occasionally I would have another meeting that overlapped with that one and ran into worship. During the first week of General Conference all delegates are assigned to a legislative committee that decides petitions assigned to it (usually according to Disciplinary paragraphs). There is worship and some plenary, but mostly you stay with your committee until adjournment at 6:30. The 6:30 adjournment time (prior to dinner) was by design of the Commission on the General Conference and one thing that I heard no complaints about.  During that early week, I had dinner meetings every day – in fact I did not eat outside of the Convention Center for any meal from Monday morning until Friday evening when our delegation gathered for dinner! We just had an hour for lunch during the first week because our lunch was provided on site.

Judi Kenaston, chair of the United Methodist Commission on General Conference, gives thanks for the many decades of services by the Rev. Gere Reist as he concludes his term as Secretary of the General Conference at the 2016 gathering in Portland, Ore. Photo by Maile Bradifled, UMNS.

The second week, which meets with the whole plenary, we continued with the 6:30 Agenda and Calendaring meeting. I generally had meetings over lunch (sometimes getting to eat and sometimes eating crackers after we returned to plenary at 2:00.) And we worked until 6:30 pm each day. Following the adjournment, I usually had an additional meeting. I generally got back to the room at 9 or 9:30 and had to get up at 5:00 the next morning.

A few of the responsibilities that I had as chair of the Commission was giving an opening address to the General Conference on the first day; cutting the ribbon to open the exhibit hall, welcoming the ecumenical guests to a luncheon with the Council of Bishops, and being a guest lecturer at a seminary class that met each morning during General Conference. As chair of the General Conference Response Team, I also was called upon to consult on situations that arose. During the second week, I also met daily with the group planning the wrap up message, which should be available to be viewed at Annual Conference.

3. What is a favorite story or memory in your role as chair of the commission on The General Conference?

There were so many. As chair, I had the opportunity to participate in many groups including the Connectional Table, where I was an invited guest for the quadrennium (At General Conference 2016, they made the chair a member of CT). I also was a member of the General Conference Messaging Team, the World-wide Nature Task Force, and I attended meetings of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters and the Council of Bishops.

One great experience was traveling  to Africa – I went to Mozambique to meet with the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters and the Connectional Table. Then following that I traveled with the Secretary of the General Conference to Zimbabwe where we taught a class at Africa University, helping the students understand what General Conference was and how they could write petitions. That was a fascinating trip.

4. What was your greatest challenge?
For me the greatest challenge was interpreting the work of the Commission. After a decision was made a press announcement would go out and then the bloggers would start. Sometimes they would ascribe a motivation to the action that wasn’t there. Some bloggers and constituent groups would put out misinformation to galvanize support for their position. Frequently it would be based only on a fragment of truth and much of it was inaccurate. So, that was frustrating and a challenge. Also, along those lines, as chair, once a decision is made, it belongs to the Commission. My role was to represent the opinions expressed around the table, even if they weren’t mine originally.

At General Conference, the defeat of Rule 44 was tough for me.  We had worked so hard on this proposal for conversation about difficult topics within the church, it was so sad that people did not want to talk. The rule was designed for many topics – not just the legislation on human sexuality. But it got connected with that, and so people chose sides without recognizing that they could approve the rule and not use it on the selected legislation. Rule 44 would have been helpful in upcoming conversations about the General Book of Discipline, the new Social Principles and the nature of the Global Church, but now we will have to start again. I was very sorry for the political maneuvering that prevented us from having conversations.

5. What do love most about General Conference?  

I’m kind of a “Metho-Nerd” – I love all things Connectional. I love hearing about the things happening around the world in United Methodism. General Conference is where you see that our little corner of the world is just one little part of The United Methodist Church. I love the relationships that you develop with people. I loved having people who knew me as “Connor’s mom” or “Diane’s mom” who had met them in other settings around the church. I  really enjoy crafting the petitions in legislative committees (where small groups work on the petitions). I don’t enjoy the maneuverings in the plenary as much. It is frustrating to watch people abuse the spirit of the rules with technicalities. But others see that as a game and enjoy it. And, I think we sometimes make serious errors when a big group gets to changing things that a small group worked hard on. There were several examples of that at this General Conference.

6.What is your reflection on the bishops plan for “a way forward?”

My initial reaction to the vote to accept the Bishop’s plan was one of cautious hope. The church is divided and people are very dug in to their positions.

Will the talk be effective? I don’t know. I didn’t hear a lot of give from either of the extremes at this conference. But here lies my hope and my fear. What the bishops are trying to do is the same that the Commission envisioned: let the middle ground have a voice. There are a lot of us that love the church and see it as much more than the things that divide us (not to in anyway imply that those on the extremes don’t love the church.) But, my fear is that we are losing the middle because of the extremes. We are being forced to choose sides by the way we vote. Nuance and conversation are feared because they challenge our firmly held positions.

So, I hope that the conversations the bishops will lead will allow us to reach a place where we don’t use the Bible and the Discipline as a weapon; where we can rise above the culture and challenge those who try to find a common enemy to motivate people; and where we truly look for the image of God in each person in our path. However, the church’s past record of doing this hasn’t been highly effective. And we will still have to come back to General Conference and take votes which will create winners and losers. I’m pretty sure that’s not the way Christ intended for the Kingdom to look. I do hope the process will bear fruit and I will continue to pray for the bishops and the Commission they set up. There are things that we can not do, but I believe God is Able.

7. How many hours of sleep do you need to catch up on your GC2016 sleep deficit? 

Between the time change and the emotional exhaustion, I’m planning to catch up AFTER Annual Conference!

8. Do you have any other thoughts?

I have truly loved my time on the Commission on the General Conference.  The membership of the Commission includes people from all over the world – Three from Europe, one from the Philippines, and five from various parts of Africa as well as those from the jurisdictions within the United States. At our meetings we have interpreters for four languages. It is just a really exciting place. It has been my privilege to represent the West VIrginia Conference in the Global Church.