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I believe that one of the biggest problems facing the Community of Christ is the sense of powerlessness amongst the membership. Members are constantly looking to the leadership and paid staff rather than to the power of God within themselves to transform the world. There are many reasons for this, and I will address some of them in later postings.
However, with the coming World Conference, I thought it might be helpful to have a look at ways conference is contributing to the condition of the church and how we might be able to change things for the future.

When the different churches went their different ways after the death of Joseph Smith Jr. those who would go on to form the Community of Christ tended to be the non-conformists. They had been wary of the power-hungry behaviours of several claimants to the prophetic mantle, and formed an organization where the people’s ability to discern the right direction of the church would stand as paramount in the heirarchy of church power.
This power was contained within the tradition of conferences. The Community of Christ formed as a group of people who came together in conferences, not initiated by a Prophet-President, but by church members. Where Mormon conferences quickly became little more than meetings of the faithful to affirm their support for the leadership and listening to them for guidance, Community of Christ conference attendees often challenged leadership, and have long carried a strong tradition of fiery debate and discussion – taking seriously their role in determining the future of the church. The power of the church is in it’s people and their relationship with God, and that has been represented in our approach to World Conference.

The Community of Christ World Conference has, in recent years, been headed in more of the direction of LDS conferences. Here are a few indicators of this trend:

Increasing deferral of conference business to the First Presidency.
There are some areas where deferring business to the First Presidency is appropriate (such as intepretation of scripture, etc.), however simply deferring all unfinished business to the Presidency because we just didn’t have enough time is taking power out of the people’s hands.

– Less regular conferences.
A few conferences ago the church moved to approve having every second conference be of a less legislative and more educational focus (which sounds like an LDS conference to me). Since then, the church has instead moved to conferences every three years. The conference couldn’t get through the business it had before it when we were having conferences every 2 years. This could mean more deferred legislation.

Stifled Debate
The ability for members to “move the previous question” has been abused. Debate helps inform the church about the various reasons for and against an issue. A good example was the legislation to hold conferences 3 years apart. The cases for the negative that got to speak amounted to little more than Independence people who would miss having conference. At that point the conference moved to end debate.
There were people at the conference who believed that holding conference less frequently would take away from the people’s voice in the church, and would mean even more deferral of decision making authority to the First Presidency. Had I known this, I certainly would have voted differently than I did.

So, how are we to increase the democratic role of the World Conference?

For the church in general:
More regular conferences.
One of the best things contained within the Words of Counsel that will be before the Conference is that regional, multi-mission centre conferences would be able to make decisions affecting their areas. I would like to see a clear policy determined outlining how people can submit legislation, and what decisions will be within their purview, but the idea sounds helpful.
However, I would still like to see Conference go back to being every 2 years, with regional conference every other year. This approach would likely reduce the legislative workload of the World Conference without taking any power away from the people.

Conferences outside of Independence.
Giving additional weight to church members from less-represented countries is somewhat limited in its effectiveness in giving every church member equal voice. The immigration limitations of the United States mean that a lot of members do not get the kinds of representation they deserve because their delegates can either not afford to go, or cannot get in because they cannot obtain a visa (tending to limit attendance to richer church members). Sometimes people from other countries even have to come in to represent those from countries who cant send anyone, or at least not enough to fill their delegation.
Perhaps it would be helpful to investigate what locations would be provide the facilities required, whilst having open enough immigration laws to allow better representation. The locations could perhaps alternate or change locations each time. This would allow increased participation from church members outside of North America.

For those attending Conference, I have the following suggestions:
Do not “move the previous question” or vote for such a motion unless you feel that all of the perspectives present have had their say. We may not agree with all perspectives, but part of democracy is letting everyone have their say.
Be hesitant to defer to the First Presidency, Council of Twelve or any other church authority. You are thinking, praying, discerning Christians with the ability to make the big decisions. That’s why you’re there. Not only will this help retain the power of the conference, but also tends to make for stronger decisions. Can you imagine the First Presidency coming out with as strong a statement against use of firearms as the conference did?
Speak up.
Whether it be in the quorum meetings (which properly used can be excellent forums for boiling down the debate on an issue to the best few points) or on the conference floor, speak up, speak your mind. That’s what you’re there for.
Keep it all in context.
You’re there to have your say and represent people in your Mission Centre in the direction of the World Church, however remember that the real success or failure of the church happens back at home. That’s where the real power is – where disciples go into their communities sharing the peace of Jesus Christ. It is there that you will determine the future of the church. So take your delegate duties seriously but approach each question in this way: is this enhancing our ability to be the body of Christ in our communities, or distracting from it?

Enjoy Conference!