General Conference Notebook, April 22, 2008
I had a little free time from the Council of Bishops Tuesday afternoon, and so I walked down the street for my first visit to the Fort Worth Convention Center where General Conference will meet. People are beginning to arrive for various pre-conference meetings, hosts and pages and greeters and worship leaders and musicians and sound engineers are beginning to rehearse, and various organizations are setting up their booths. I wanted to walk through the whole facility to become better acquainted with the layout, the seating, the displays, and so forth.
The excitement and anticipation is beginning to build, and the place is buzzing with volunteers, pastors, bishops, board staff, and the first delegates beginning to find their way around. I’m always surprised and delighted by all the connections that are re-established in unexpected ways at such gatherings, and all the renewed relationships that stimulate even more connections and memories. One of the volunteers I visited with as he was setting up an information booth is a pastor I went to seminary with years ago. A host committee leader is a lay woman with whom I served on the UMR Board of Directors years ago. A small group of pastors/delegates from Europe were also checking out the facility, and many of them are people I worked with a few months ago at the Extended Cabinet gathering in Europe to focus on the Five Practices. A group of three bishops were walking through every part of the facility in prayer for General Conference, a few of the several bishops who have committed to doing this throughout General Conference. The lay leader from a conference in Texas came up to me to talk about a meeting I’d recently attended with her husband, and several people stopped me to comment about the book and how it is being used in their church or district or conference. A group of laypersons from Africa were attending an orientation with a translator, and I stopped to reacquaint myself with several people, including the translator! Even though United Methodism includes millions of members and tens of thousands of pastors from dozens of countries, I’m always amazed at how personal the connections really are, and how our lives are more intertwined in ministry and mission that we can imagine.
The main meeting hall is huge, and I may bring my binoculars so I can see the whole crowd from my seat on stage. (just kidding!) The screens, video, sound, and music are top quality, and I enjoyed watching a few minutes of rehearsal for one of the worship services. Worship at General Conference is always powerful, unifying, and deeply moving, and I pray the Spirit is with us anew as we gather Wednesday night for opening worship.
In other parts of the building, there are dozens of rooms filling up to serve the functions of hosting, logistics, communications, press, and other organizational essentials. There are rooms for the Judicial Council, for the Council of Bishops, for the International Delegates, for the media, for General Council of Finance and Administration, for the Rules Committee, the Calendar and Agenda people, the Courtesies and Presiding Officers and Credentialing Committees, and the Committee on the Journal. There are rows and rows of registration lines for delegates, and interestingly, the longest line is for registering visitors. There will be many more non-voting visitors present throughout the Conference than voting delegates and reserve delegates.
The Exhibition Hall that sets alongside the main Convention Center is huge, and hosts large areas for booths and displays. The word “booth” or “table” doesn’t begin to describe the size and sophistication of these displays for the General Board of Global Ministries, the Global Village, Higher Education and Ministry, the Board of Discipleship, Health and Welfare Ministries and many other UM agencies and ministries. There is an outstanding display titled “The Journey to Inclusiveness” that captures some of the history of the rough road the United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations have traveled toward a more reliable and true witness to the sanctity and giftedness of all people in the body of Christ.
And there is the largest Cokesbury display I have ever seen—larger than any of the Cokesbury stores I’ve ever visited–with rows and rows of books, curriculum materials, robes, accessories, and commemorative General Conference gifts. Two of the most prominent displays highlight Bishop Reuben Job’s Three Simple Rules and my Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, since these are among Cokesbury’s bestsellers right now and since these two serve as the basis for describing The United Methodist Way of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Words cannot describe the sense of excitement and anticipation or the energy and spirit that one feels as delegates reconnect with delegates, as friendships are renewed and strengthened. There is also a discernable unsettling undercurrent of foreboding about certain issues that seem intractable and unresolvable in the life of our church, issues that do not seem amenable to solutions reachable by ballot and vote. I think everyone feels this, regardless of his or her perspective. Nevertheless a genuine and deep mutual affection pervades our community. Even as there are unavoidable conflicts, there are also undeniable signs of grace, community, and authentic caring among the members and leaders of the branch of the Christian family called United Methodists. The facility, space, staging, lighting, media, displays, organization–all are impressive. But not nearly so impressive as the people who are gathering from all over the world for conversation, deliberation, worship, prayer, singing, decision, and for furthering our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. God has knit us into the body of Christ as United Methodists for a distinctive purpose, and I pray for all the delegates and leaders and visitors that these days together may help us find and further that purpose.
Yours in Christ,