John Kutsko, the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, sent out the notice yesterday that the in-person meeting for 2020 SBL (and AAR) was canceled. We are, however, moving it to a virtual meeting. I am on the SBL Council and can assure everyone that this decision was a long time in the making. Some societies have already canceled their meetings, but SBL is one of the largest in the world at over 10,000 attendees which requires contracts with many hotels, the convention center, vendors, etc. The Executive Director and the Council have a fiduciary responsibility to the members of SBL and had we simply pulled out unilaterally the costs would have been extensive. As John wrote in the letter:
Because of the number of agreements and the legal issues involved, we proceeded with care, caution, and patience, as well as respect for our Boston partners today who will be our partners in the future. It was imperative that we did not make a premature decision or announcement, as that would have undermined our efforts. SBL staff has had to engage in conversations and leverage relationships across the city and state. It was a long process that exacted a tremendous toll on Council, but especially upon staff. That process was to ensure SBL reduced financial burdens and legal exposure.
At all times there was discussion and concern for the health and wealfare of members, SBL staff, and of those who would be supporting such a conference. Again, as John points out, the lack of a conference this large will have a major economic impact on the city of Boston and it is regretful that we cannot safely meet at this time.
I have been reflecting on how this is but one example of the challenges presented by this crisis. While many solely focused upon the health of those attending, others have been concerned about the loss of livelihood for those who need the work generated by a conference. Some have commented upon the slow and methodical process of our leadership as a lack of care or concern for people, with a valuing of revenue over health and safety. And in the midst of it all, very real and proper concerns about racism and the status of immigrants in the United States has needed to be addressed as well.
Leaders of communities and institutions do not have the luxury of thinking about only one problem or concern at a time. Those in positions of authority have the difficult task of prioritizing and balancing the needs of their community with their responsibility as trustees or guardians of that with which they have been entrusted. The key to maintaining a proper balance and prioritization is to remain focused upon the mission of the institution that they are called to lead.
It is not easy and, in fact, it is exhausting. Because such work requires balancing competing concerns, someone will always be upset with the decision reached, often with the way in which it was achieved, or the speed (or lack thereof) of the process. In today’s environment, these folks often take to social media to express their frustration, concern, and outrage. Usually without any consideration whatsoever of the difficulties and complexities of the issues the leaders were engaged in addressing. It is draining and demoralizing to be on the receiving end of such attacks.
Still, I am proud of what John and the SBL Council have done and I am very eager to see how our virtual conference will work out. It will be challenging and not without its pitfalls. While it should allow many more people from all regions of the world and all economic background to have greater accessibility, there are those who lack internet access and considerations of time-zones will be a complication. It will reduce dramatically the environmental impact of our conference, but not allow for the interpersonal relationship building that is the reason so many attend in the first place. Again, there are always compromises.
Now for the important question, how shall we organize our Biblioblogging dinner‽