I’ve just returned from four days conferring together with the pastors and laity of Missouri United Methodist churches. Over sixteen hundred of us gathered to worship, teach, preach, serve, learn, remember, deliberate, decide, ordain, vote, commission, pray, renew, laugh, sing, cry, play, encourage, eat, listen, celebrate, and recommit ourselves to the mission of the church and the ministry of Christ. It was quite an experience! As soon as we finished, I headed for Nebraska to repeat the exercise with United Methodists from that area, and a few weeks ago I did the same with the good folks from Kansas West.
As I reflect upon the three experiences, I find both the similarities and the differences striking. Conferences are huge undertakings that require extraordinary planning and preparation. They work best when their purpose derives from our founder.
John Wesley describes the first such gathering this way: “In June, 1744, I desired my brother and a few other clergymen to meet in London, to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those that heard us. After some time, I invited the lay Preachers that were in the house to meet with us. We conferred together for several days, and were much comforted and strengthened thereby. The next year I invited not only most of the Travelling Preachers, but several others, to confer with me at Bristol. And from that time for some years, though I invited only a part of the Travelling Preachers, yet I permitted any that desired it, to be present…..This I did for many years, and all that time the term Conference meant not so much the conversations we had together, as the persons that conferred; namely, those I invited to confer with me from time to time.”
From Wesley’s description we discover that “conference” refers not only to the conversations and deliberations of the early Methodists as they “conferred” together, but also to the people themselves. A “conference” of Methodists sounds almost like the collective plural, like a flock of birds, a herd of cattle, a gaggle of geese, or a hassle of bishops!
What strikes me from Wesley’s early description is the purpose and result of the early conferences. The purpose was to confer together on how best to do the work God entrusts to us, or in Wesley’s language, on “how to save our own souls and those who heard us.” Conferences was a learning experience, a time for mentoring, sharing, equipping, and encouraging one another to more fruitful ministry. A sense of purpose pervaded the conversations. And the result was that all those who participated felt “comforted and strengthened” in their work of ministry. They felt confirmed, supported, and encouraged to continue the ministry with renewed vision and vigor. The time together fed their eagerness to reach out, to transform lives, to offer Christ, to relieve suffering in Christ’s name.
Since those original conferences so long ago, the notion of an annual conferring has evolved. Conferences now risk becoming business meetings, focused on budgets, personnel, reports, policies, rules. They’ve become deliberative rather than discerning, policy-oriented rather than purpose-driven, governing rather than equipping, procedural rather than inspirational. Some of this is essential to our common life, but business and political models for conference can also dull creativity, deaden the spirit, misdirect purpose, reduce innovation, and replace mutual encouragement with mutual distrust. Conferences can become conventions, gatherings of opposing parties or of conflicting points of view, each desiring to overtake and outvote those with different claims and priorities. “Have we won or lost?” takes precedent over “What have we learned?” or “How have we encouraged one another to greater ministry?”
What I hope our conferring achieves is rather simple: clarity and confidence. I hope pastors and laypersons leave conference with a greater clarity about our mission and a greater confidence about our future. I hope conference inspires the people called United Methodists to take greater responsibility for creating more ministry that serves the purposes of Christ. I hope we talk each other into courageous new initiatives in the name of Christ. I hope we feel connected in a way that stimulates us to risk new challenges. I hope we feel better equipped and that we learn something, and feel strengthened by our connection to our colleagues and by our rootedness to our forbearers and to our traditions. I hope we find ourselves renewed in Christ. I hope we have learned (or experienced) something that helps us “save our own souls and those who hear us,” and I hope we feel “comforted and strengthened” for ministry.
The music, worship, prayers, fellowship, fun, service, laughter, tears, and even the deliberation and decision and voting, should unify and embolden us for our mission, provoking us to risk new and greater initiatives to reach out to people with the gift and demand of God’s grace. That’s the conferring that I love.
I give God thanks for our time together, and for the tasks God entrusts to us. As one of our preachers this year said, “Lord, put us in over our heads!”
What do you think is the primary purpose of annual conference? What gives you strength and comfort for your ministry? What gives clarity and confidence?
I have discovered that for me all the high-point moments at conference are about people. This year’s high points included the presence, teaching, and leadership of two extraordinary leaders, Bishops Joaquina Nhanala and Hope Morgan Ward. The memorable and meaningful times included the teaching and preaching of our own Revs. Emanuel Cleaver, Robyn Miller, and Jim Bryan; the panel of newer clergy with Geovanna, Eric, Rena, Terry, and Jenn; the workshop leaders; those who provided the “somewhere out there” interludes; the musicians and singers; the ordinands, the commissioned and the retirees; and all the little conversations here and there with youth, chaplains, college students, mission personnel, and guests. All the best moments are people moments, and I learn from them all, and I feel strengthened and connected for Christ’s work by our connections at conference.
Yours in Christ,