The General Conference Session is the forum for electing world church officers and voting changes to the church's constitution. Delegates also hear reports from each of the 13 administrative regions of the church. Voting delegates for Session represent world regions both by church population and the self-sustainability of administrative regions. The constitution states that at least 50 percent of delegates shall be laypersons, pastors, teachers, and nonadministrative employees, of both genders and representing a range of age groups and nationalities. Session is also an opportunity for church members to reconnect with friends from around the world.
While Sessions are now held in football stadiums, pictures from early sessions show delegates posing outside small churches. Back then, the movement's leaders came to session in the U.S. state of Michigan mostly from the Midwest and Northeastern United States by train or by horse and buggy. Today, about one-third of the movement's membership now resides in Africa, with another third residing in Central America and South America. Brazil now has more Adventists than any other country—1.3 million.
Seventh-day Adventist leaders met in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1863 "for the purpose of organizing a General Conference," the minutes from that meeting say. The meeting began on the evening of May 20, during which delegates chose a chairman and a secretary. During the Session, delegates drafted a constitution and bylaws. They also established top leadership, including a president, secretary and treasurer. Today, the same administrative structure remains at all levels of church administration.
Battle Creek was the site of 26 of the first 31 GC Sessions. The first Session held west of the Mississippi River was in November of 1887 in Oakland, California. Session has been held outside the U.S. three times: in Austria in 1975, the Netherlands in 1995 and in Canada in 2000. San Antonio, planned for 2015, will be the 60th session.
The time between Sessions has lengthened over the years. Session was held every year until 1891. Session was then held every other year until 1905. Session then took a four-year break followed by another hiatus during World War I before meeting again in 1918. Afterward, Session was held every four years until the Great Depression. Session was held in 1930, but then not again until 1936 and then in 1941. Since 1970, Session has been held every five years, as is now mandated by the Adventist Church Constitution.
Recent General Conference Sessions have been held in baseball and football stadiums in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Few other venues in the world offer the necessary amenities for such an event: seating for 70,000-plus attendees, venue support staff who speak English (the official business language of the church), reliable and cost-effective transportation, and food safety for a large group.