John Wesley’s Journal describes the first Conference of Methodists this way:
“In June, 1744, I desired my brother and a few other clergymen to meet me in London, to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those that heard us. After some time, I invited lay preachers that were in the house to meet with us. We conferred together for several days, and were much comforted and strengthened thereby…. 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 who conferred.”
The agenda for the first Conference in June of 1744 was as follows:
“1. What to teach
2. How to teach, and,
3. What to do. That is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice?”
Conference began as simply conversing and conferring, and the word conference came to mean the people who themselves conferred. You and I are Conference when we confer together about our common mission. Over the past 266 years since that first gathering, a Methodist Conference has evolved to mean many things. The more spiritual aspects of our gathering include our worship and song, our focus on our mission, our learning and training and encouraging one another. We welcome new people to ministry and mourn the passing of those who now cease from their labors. As the years went along, the organizational and governance purposes of conference grew stronger and we focused more on credentialing, common rules, deploying clergy, pooling resources to provide for joint ministry. In some places, conference has become a meeting driven by the business aspects of our common life, with a focus nearly entirely on budgets, apportionments, pensions, insurance, policies, rules, and structures similar to a corporate board or shareholders meeting.
While many of these later elements are essential for our mission, I’ve often wondered how we might recover more of the original purpose and content of conference. How do we confer in a manner that builds us up and strengthens us for ministry? How do we learn from one another, and encourage one another for the mission of the church? How do we leave renewed, refocused, reminded of our mission, re-equipped for ministry, and re-animated by the Holy Spirit for the work God gives us? When these questions lead us in our preparation for Conference, then Conference reasserts itself as the spiritual center of United Methodism.
As I look at the agenda of this year’s gathering of the Missouri Annual Conference in Springfield, I feel like we may be closer than we’ve been for a long time to the original intentions Mr. Wesley had for Conference. The emphasis is on worship, learning, teaching, practices for ministry, spiritual practices, renewing, praying, and equipping ourselves spiritually for our mission. The theme is “Growing Deeper—Deepening the Spiritual Life for Leadership in the Church.”
Conference this year begins with worship led by one of our newest congregations, LifeSong United Methodist Church, with their pastor, Rob Barringer, bringing the message. After our clergy and lay sessions, the Bishop’s Message will remind us of our mission. Friday evening, Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher leads us through “Tables of Grace,” which involves sharing a common meal with guided prayers, reflections, and faith sharing to remind us of God’s grace in common everyday activities. I believe this will be a spiritually rich experience for everyone.
On Saturday morning, Michael Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC and author of Change the World, will teach on the theme from his new book. After our morning business session, we’ll celebrate the retirement of our pastors who have served faithfully for years while also commissioning those beginning their journey of ministry. In the afternoon, we’ll offer a host of workshops led by Michael Slaughter, Carolyn Slaughter, and a number of our own clergy and laity on topics related to the spiritual life and church leadership. Saturday evening, Bishop Robert Hayes of the Oklahoma Area will preach at our ordination service as we celebrate with one of the largest classes of ordinands in many years.
Sunday morning, I’ll lead a teaching session based on Five Practices of Fruitful Living, the book newly published by Abingdon Press, which focuses on the personal practices of discipleship in Christ. Rev. Robin Roderick will preach at our Sunday morning Worship and Communion Service at the Hammond Auditorium. We will honor pastors and their spouses who have died during the past year. After our Sunday afternoon business, the youth will host us for a special evening of shared stories and of learning with Sandstory Artist, Rev. Joe Castillo.
Monday morning, I’ll lead a teaching session that describes the entire appointment process and how we focus on the mission of the church. Rev. Emanuel Cleaver, Assistant to the Bishop for African-American Leadership Development, will preach at the close of our morning session, and we shall conclude with the service for Fixing the Appointments.
What’s the buzz about Annual Conference this year? Sometimes people ask that as they seek to know what controversial issue or divisive subject we will debate. If your definition of Conference is limited to votes, budgets, reports, amendments, petitions, and debates, then you may be disappointed this year.
Mr. Wesley’s first conference had no votes and approved no budgets. The early Methodist leaders debated how best to fulfill the mission of the church. They prayed for one another. They learned. They found strength in communion and purpose, and they recommitted themselves to the work of ministry in Christ’s name. Michael Slaughter, Sharon Brown Christopher, Robert Hayes, Joe Castillo, Emanuel Cleaver, and all our other preachers, teachers, workshop leaders, pastors, lay leaders, and youth who will share their stories, their best practices, and their encouragement—that’s the buzz of annual conference this year.
“Growing Deeper—Deepening the Spiritual Life for the Leadership of the Church.” The theme captures so much of Mr. Wesley’s purpose for conference. Are we willing to gather with other laity and clergy, open our hearts to the Holy Spirit and our minds to new ideas? Are we willing to place ourselves in a situation that may change us and change how we do ministry? Are we willing to allow God to transform us so that God can transform the world through us?
Grace and Peace,