For some delegates, General Conference is a family trip

The Rev. Timothy Riss is planning a visit to Pittsburgh with his 18-year-old son, Jonathan, but not exactly for a fun family getaway. He expects they hardly will see each other during the visit.

The Risses, of Smithtown, N.Y., are among about a dozen United Methodist families sending two or more delegates to General Conference, the denomination's lawmaking session held every four years.

The April 27-May 7 conference will draw 998 delegates from across the globe, both clergy and laypeople, for an intense two weeks of legislative debate. But these families say they will rely on each other to inspire teamwork even on the toughest issues.

"Many families disagree about issues but stay together as a family," says the Rev. Clayton Oliphint, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Richardson, Texas, who will serve as an alternate delegate. His sister is a delegate.

No policy prevents family members serving together at the conference. And because each region's delegates are spread out among legislative committees, the concern that these family members could stifle diversity among the delegates' views has never been an issue, says Carolyn Marshall, the conference's secretary.

Riss, pastor of Smithtown United Methodist Church, is looking forward to sharing an important experience with his son - at least after the conference is over. This will be Riss' third time at General Conference, and he is prepared to be busy. But he is eager for some quiet time with his son during their drive home to discuss their work as delegates.

Jonathan Riss has been active in the denomination since he joined a regional youth ministry in eighth grade. He is proud to represent the denomination's youngest members, and he believes sharing the experience with his dad will make it more interesting.

"I hope he doesn't snore," he jokes. Then he adds: "I've noticed during some of our delegation meetings he might say something I've been thinking. Sometimes I disagree with him."

Phillip Connolly of Marysville, Ohio, will be at the conference with his 16-year-old daughter, Kathy, and 21-year-old son, Michael. Connolly and his daughter will serve as delegates, and his son will be an alternate. The family, including Connolly's wife, will rent a Pittsburgh apartment during the two-week conference. Long active in the denomination, Connolly says he will continue to encourage his children's involvement.

"At a time when so many people are leaving the church, it's exciting to see young people who have a strong faith who are interested in devoting the time," he says.

Michael Connolly, a student at Asbury College, expects a trip similar to the mission trips his family made as he grew up. He enjoys being active in the church and plans to continue his involvement after graduation. He looks forward to sharing this opportunity with his family.

"Our family's really tight," he says. "We love to minister to different people and be together and work together as a family. This is just another way to be able to work and pray and do things for God's word together."

Bill McAlilly, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Tupelo, Miss., will be a delegate with his brother, Steve. The two were reared in a United Methodist pastor's home and are lifelong members of the denomination. Steve McAlilly now is a member of his brother's congregation.

The pastor says he is inspired by the delegates' global influence and is eager to share this experience with his brother.

"I'm sure we will spend some time each evening to reflect on the events of the day," he says. "I think we'll have a lot of conversation on some of the more highly debated topics.''

Oliphint will attend the conference for the first time as an alternate delegate. His sister, Mary Brooke Casad, an active layperson, has attended several times. He believes family members who attend the conference together will help strengthen the delegation.

"It's exciting to share something like this, as big as General Conference, with a family member," he says. "The passion for the church that people have is shared across generational lines and between siblings, and between fathers and sons and mothers and daughters. I think it's exciting for the church that this is a family affair."

Casad is pleased her brother will join her at General Conference. Their father, retired Bishop Ben Oliphint, will be there too.

"The church is our family business," she says. "My brother and I both share a passion for the church, and it's what we have in common and talk about and live our lives for. It's the topic around the dinner table frequently right now, and it will continue to be."

*Green is a freelance journalist based in Nashville, Tenn. News media can contact Tim Tanton at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

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