General Convention: Beyond legislation

Last week Pacific Church News highlighted major points of General Convention while noting various DioCal members’ participation — on and off the legislative floors. While General Convention’s primary focus for gathering is the legislation of the church, how the people called Episcopalians will live their lives together, much, much more than legislation happens at General Convention. This week Pacific Church News was able to talk with three people about the work they did at convention that wasn’t about legislation.

Caren Miles, youth and family minister at St. John’s, Ross, took some time away from preparing for a youth trip to Memphis to talk about her time at General Convention. Ethan Lowery, Episcopal Service Corps intern, caught up with PCN during a layover between San Francisco and New York. Grace Aheron, former ESC intern, had an afternoon off and got to chat. 

Miles, Lowery, and Aheron were at General Convention for different purposes: Miles coordinated the children’s program for convention, Lowery exhibited for Episcopal Service Corps and Episcopal Relief and Development, and Aheron was on the design team for the Young Adult Festival*. Of the three, only Lowery had never been to General Convention before. 

When asked what the most exciting part was as a first time attendee Lowery said, “All of it. It was like a two-week long extrovert fest.” Lowery has spent most of the last year building connections with dioceses throughout the Midwest and West to build the Episcopal Asset Map. At General Convention he got to meet many of the people with whom he has been emailing or talking on the phone for almost a year. He also said, “It was so exciting to see friends from all over The Episcopal Church — not just communications officers — all together serving in one way or another. I loved getting to see my peers already working to build the future of the church.”

Miles’ first General Convention was in 2012, though she had a much bigger role than she expected. “I was just supposed to go observe in 2012, but the coordinator got sick at the last minute, so I was asked to step in. I got to Indianapolis and realized that there were eight pages of forms for parents enrolling children in the program — and none of them had a cell phone number!”

Miles was invited to coordinate the children’s program again and started preparations in mid 2014 — setting up the website with forms for participants. In addition to forms, she coordinated curriculum choices, field trip logistics, and working with teenaged counselors — all the way from selection (an open call to deputies’ families) to training in safe church practices. 

Miles said that her biggest surprise was “watching General Convention happen in three places: the children’s program separate from the legislation, in the houses and committees, and via social media.” For Aheron, who was part of the Official Youth Presence in 2009, the most surprising piece of the 2015 General Convention was, “what a positive, hopeful, and excited general atmosphere were present at the end of convention.” She added, “Maybe I just read too many articles about millennials in the church, but I expected people to be worried, frantic, frenetic, and concerned with numbers…but I felt feeling really hopeful because people seemed calm and missional, looking forward to doing the work they’d committed to.”  

Aheron noted that in 2009 the church was much more embroiled in legislation about LGBTQ people in the church, and as part of Official Youth Presence, hter focus had to be on legislation then. “It’s interesting, but that’s not where my passion and call are right now. I like being able to choose my schedule, testify at hearings I want, but find other ways of making my voice known — through networking and building relationships unrelated to legislation. I’m glad this year didn’t feel like warring parties slashing each other, but that we were one church as we left convention.”

Aheron, Lowery, and Miles were all in Salt Lake City from before the Convention opened until after it closed: June 22 to July 4. They all wish they’d realized just how busy and physical it was. Miles had a leg injury earlier this year that caused her to be wearing a big boot. Lowery and Aheron both wished they had known just how much there was to do. Aheron said, “It’s sun up to sun down! Some people had to be at briefings at 7 a.m., and there were meetings advertised to start at 9 p.m.”

Lowery said that of the list of things he wanted to accomplish he “maybe got half of it done, and that included talking to specific exhibitors, meeting specific people. I wish I’d more intentionally scheduled time to accomplish everything I wanted and looked at the legislation a little more. Because I was in the extrovert social zone, I wasn’t plugged into legislation, and there were big decisions made, from marriage equality to the Presidign Bishop election.”

All three of them hope to be back at General Convention, some in the same role, some in different roles. Lowery hopes to be a deputy, whereas Aheron said she has no interest in being a deputy. Miles is already looking forward to General Convention in 2018 because the last two General Conventions have given her the momentum not to expand, but to make the children’s program more visible. 

“I want younger people, people with kids, to feel welcome to General Convention and capable of having it all. I want to have the conversation, ‘Why do we have a children’s program? Because deputies have kids.’ As the church starts to better understand the need of maternity and paternity leaves, it’s important for the church to realize that having kids at General Convention is important to,” she said. “Kids are in worship in our congregations, and we want them to shout the great amen after the Eucharistic prayer. Why wouldn’t we want that at General Convention?”

Aheron and Lowery thought it important for people to know, as Aheron said, “A lot of the work of general convention is done outside the legislation room — but not backroom deals. Just the presence of organizations, nonprofits, advocacy, raise awareness is so powerful. Anyone can go as a visitor and feel their faith and context of the church deepened.” 

This work outside of legislation and through advocacy — and the general sense of connectedness brought about my presence — inspired Lowery, who said, “So often we only see one purple shirt at a time, and we only see 80 other churches at a time, and we only get a tiny corner of the body of Christ. We get the big toe for three years. Then we come together, and we’re one church.”

*The original version of the story incorrectly listed as Aheron on the design team for the Young Adult Fellowship, not Fetival.