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Hold Your Hats, Convention Is Starting

By Kirk Petersen

General Convention is a big deal. How big, you ask?

It’s the primary governing body of the Episcopal Church, and it only meets every three years. So there’s a lot of work to get done in nine days. The convention officially runs July 5-13, but orientation and other meetings have already begun.

There will be just under 1,000 people in Austin who have a vote — specifically, 153 bishops and 843 deputies have registered. Interim Public Affairs Officer Nancy Davidge said about 100 staff are registered from the Church Center, and there are an unknown number of volunteers and visitors. The church has booked 2,100 hotel rooms, which does not include people who booked their hotel rooms separately.

The convention will consider 300 resolutions, and you can follow the progress and disposition of them via the Virtual Binder, which is at vbinder.net. (It’s really helpful to know the resolution number.)

The Austin Convention Center spans six city blocks, with 881,400 square feet of total space. That’s big, but somewhat modest by convention center standards. There are about 30 convention centers in the U.S. with more than a million square feet of space.

It’s not quite big enough to house all of General Convention. Legislative committee meetings will be held at two nearby hotels, the J.W. Marriott and the Hilton.

The convention center punches above its weight in terms of activity. The ACC is the 18th-busiest convention center in the United States, ranked by annual visits, according to Meetings + Events magazine. Its showcase event is the annual South by Southwest conference (SXSW), held in March.

The exhibition hall features more than 150 exhibitors, and there’s a map of the booths available online. (Shameless plug alert: The Living Church will be in booth 220, just a couple to the right as you face the main Church Center booth.)

How much does General Convention cost? God only knows, but it’s a big number.

The budget line for “Site & Facilities GC” in the 2016-18 budget is $2.2 million. The “Total General Convention Costs” line reads $4.18 million, but as Chief Financial Officer Kurt Barnes notes, a big chunk of that is not directly associated with the meeting in Austin. By email, Barnes said it “includes approx. $1.6 mil of costs associated with the meetings of Interim Bodies and Title IV training during the triennium.”

The church’s cost for the convention is partly offset by $1.25 million in income from registrations and exhibitors, but much of that income is from diocesan registrations and church-related organizations.

There is an 11-person Office of the General Convention, which over the 2016-18 triennium had a staffing budget of $4.2 million, but only a portion of that work is directly related to the convention.

And then there are the Austin costs widely distributed to the dioceses. Each of the 109 dioceses of the church is entitled to send eight deputies to convention, along with one or more bishops. (Retired bishops are lifetime members of the House of Bishops.) Many dioceses also send some staff members to General Convention.

Multiply all those people by 10 days of the average hotel price in the seven official hotels of the convention, which is $139 per day. Then factor in travel, meals, and other expenses, along with a long list of variables that would be too tedious to read (or to write). Add it all up, and let’s just say that any specific number will be debatable.

Does it all cost too much? Well, that’s a question on which reasonable people can disagree. But General Convention is important.

In addition to charting the long-term course of the Episcopal Church, the convention is also the premier fellowship event of church leadership. It’s an opportunity for dedicated Episcopalians to express profound differences of opinion — and then worship together with their counterparts. It’s a family reunion for the Episcopal branch of the family of God.

In any event, whether you are in Austin or following the activities remotely, buckle your seat belts. General Convention is starting, and it’s a big deal.


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