Commentary: A visit to the ‘Petition Factory’

Growing up in the “Petition Factory” was an experience very few United Methodist preachers’ kids have ever lived through.

From 1964 to 1984, three of us kids, along with my mom and dad, touched every petition sent to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. My father, the Rev. Newell P. Knudson, had the honor (?) and privilege (?) of serving the Methodist and then United Methodist Church as “memorials” and then “petitions” secretary for the General Conference. Every four years — and for a while, every two — our living room and dining room were turned into the Petition Factory.

My mother, Katharine “Kay” Reeves Knudson, was the office manager. My brother, David, and sister, Poppy, helped with opening mail, sorting, typing and deciphering signatures on the thousands of pieces of mail that came from United Methodists around the world to be considered at General Conference.

As the youngest member of the family, my first paid job was to sort the petitions after a cover sheet or “jacket” was typed (in triplicate, using carbon paper) for the various legislative committees. I was old enough in 1968 to match the committee name on the jacket to the committee name on the cubbyholes set up for sorting. Most of the petitions were for the “Missions” and “Christian Social Concerns” legislative sections. I “cleaned up” during that General Conference, earning 25 cents an hour! Big wages for a 6-year-old!

When people ask, “Does someone really read every petition?” I know that the answer is a resounding “yes”! My dad carefully read each petition, made sure the sender followed protocols for submission, titled the petition, indicated the Disciplinary paragraphs and assigned it to a legislative committee. From there, the petitions were sent to one of many typists, who created a jacket for each one. Then we assigned tracking numbers to the petitions and finally sorted them into the right boxes for shipping to the site of the General Conference.

Not every petition was easy to categorize. I remember one petition that arrived suggesting that if the United States were ever to be visited by aliens from outer space, the United Methodist Church would consider them “friendly.” I remember the dilemma that caused! Which committee should handle the petition? Global Ministries? Church and Society? It was all part of the process dealt with ever so graciously by my father. That, and a proposed requirement that United Methodists should sit in church “in the order of (their) creation” were two of his all-time favorites. (The petitions, I believe, were sent to the Christian Social Concerns and Worship committees, respectively.)

For the most part, my General Conference experiences came before UPS, Fed Ex or Airborne were popular. In fact, the petitions to the 1970 General Conference in St. Louis were sent via Greyhound Package Express just prior to a transit strike breaking out. I remember vividly the family trip to the Greyhound Station the night before General Conference opened. I was sent behind the counter to climb the piles of parcels and identify the missing boxes of petitions that were scheduled to be discussed in the following days.

Things have changed in the way petitions have been processed over the years. We have gone from using carbon paper and manual typewriters to NCR forms and the snappy electric typewriters, to the computer-assisted PETS system and now CALMS, the new and improved petition-tracking software. Petitions no longer have to be sent by mail in triplicate; they can be faxed, e-mailed and file-transferred.

Yet, for all the changes, many things have remained the same. Committed and caring United Methodists are still sending their recommendations and resolutions to be considered by faithful delegates. Each one is carefully reviewed and taken before God, discussed, debated and finally voted on.

Thank God, some things never change.

*Harris is director of communication services and resources for the United Methodist Church’s Iowa Annual Conference.

News media can contact Tim Tanton at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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