Every year the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church meets for holy conferencing. This is an event whereby lay and clergy representatives from the entire conference meet to discuss pertinent matters facing the denomination in our particular geographic locality. Additionally, the Conference has a memorial service for clergy and lay representatives who have died in the previous year, we learn about campaigns and initiatives like “Imagine No Malaria”, we celebrate the licensing, commissioning, and ordination of clergy, and we worship together.
Every Annual Conference is filled with moments of holiness in addition to sinfulness. We are a church of broken people; therefore we fall prey to our own desires and forget to pray for God’s will to be done. At times, our “holy conferencing” brings out the best in us and the worst in us. Below are three categories of experiences I had from last weekend. And let’s go backwards…
After joining together in one voice to proclaim the powerful and dynamic hymn “And Are We Yet Alive” (The traditional first hymn to be used since nearly the beginning of the Methodist movement), we jumped right into the business of Annual Conference: The presentation of the Rules Committee. This makes complete sense of course, we need to re-establish the rules of conference every year before we get to the important stuff, but this year we spent the first 45 minutes of our time as a denomination arguing about the color of our name badges.
Depending on one’s conference relationship, there are areas that are forbidden from being voted upon. For instance: last year I was a provisional elder which meant that I could not vote during the clergy session, or on constitutional amendments. But now that I am “an elder in full connection” I am granted to the right to vote in the clergy session and on constitutional amendments. In order to streamline who can vote on what, different name badge colors were distributed. And this resulted in chaotic responses in the forms of Robert’s Rules of Order. Specific representatives (both lay and clergy) were livid not about their name badge color, but that the conference did not trust them to know what they could and could not vote on. (even though it took ten minutes for the clergy to figure out where they had to sit in order to vote during the clergy session [something we do EVERY year]).
During the name badge debate I was sitting next to a couple that were attending Annual Conference for the very first time. I witnessed them shaking their heads in astonishment and disbelief for most of the 45 minutes and when all was said in done I heard them say, “No wonder people complain about coming to this every year.” What does it say about our church to new people when we can go from a beautiful hymn to an argument about name badge colors in the blink of an eye? What does it say about the future of our denomination when our first priority becomes the color of our name-tags?
Later during the conference a motion was made from the floor to propose a resolution regarding the recent tragedy in Orlando, Florida. The resolution called for all churches in the conference to be in prayer for the victims and their families from the shooting, to pray for the greater LGBTQI community, and to pray for our Muslim brothers and sisters so that they might not be lumped into the violent identity of the shooter. While the majority of the conference voted in favor of the resolution, there were a decisive number of people who vehemently opposed it. We might not think alike about the LGBTQI community or the Muslim community, but the least we can do is pray for them in the midst of such a horrific tragedy. So what does it say about our commitment to loving others the way Jesus commanded while some of us would rather remain silent?
Finally, our conference had the good fortune of hearing the proclaimed Word from Rev. Eun Pa Hong who is the senior pastor of Bupyeong Methodist Church in Incheon, Korea. Rev. Hong is one of the most dynamic leaders in Korean Methodism and under his leadership for the past 35 years his church has grown to include 5,500 people most Sundays. Rev. Hong spoke in his native tongue and was translated into English while he preached. And while I walked around later in the day, I overheard delegates complaining about having to listen to someone speak in Korean. What does it say about our church, when some cannot stand to witness the diversity that makes us who we are? What does it say about our future when we’ve forgotten the most beautiful part of the Pentecost story?
The church continues to decline: Lack of new professions of faith, lowering numbers of baptisms, and more churches closing. Or to put it the way I heard someone else reflect on it: “Annual Conference is all about death.” The report of the Conference Statistician offers bleak prospects for the future and causes anxiety for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. At the same time we were reminded over and over again about the power of fear, and how is has limited us as a denomination without offering hope for new vitality. The frightening statistic that the average United Methodist invites someone to church once every 38 years was mentioned on more than one occasion without any examples of how this statistic is being combatted.
Moreover, fears about the recent General Conference were made apparent through muffled conversations, uncomfortable responses to the General Conference report, and the apathy toward institutional change. More than ever, Annual Conference focused one what we have to fear, than what we have to be hopeful about; it felt more like crucifixion, and less like resurrection.
There is nothing quite like singing together in one voice with thousands of other United Methodists. As Garrison Keillor has noted, singing is part of our DNA. And so, when at the beginning of Annual Conference, thousands of us joined together with those faithful words: “And are we yet alive, and see each others face? Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace!” you can’t help but feel the Spirit’s presence. When we mourned the loss of life over the last year, when we sat in profound silence in memory of the victims in Orlando, when we watched as new pastors were licensed, commissioned, and ordained, we felt the Spirit’s presence. Worship is always part of the “good” of Annual Conference. In worship we remember that God is God and we are not. In sermons and prayers and hymns we hear God saying, “Yes!” even though our hearts say “No.” In worship we let our baggage and preconceived notions start to fall away and we truly become Christ’s body redeemed by his blood.
Additionally, we celebrated the fruits that came from our commitment to “Imagine No Malaria,” we rejoiced in new faith communities that are planting seeds of faith across Virginia, and we recognized the 20th anniversary of the Order of the Deacon. All of these events witnessed to our commitment to serve the needs of others and the ways that we are making God’s kingdom manifest here on earth.
On Thursday night, before Annual Conference officially began, a group of United Methodists gathered for Pub Theology led by the minds behind the podcast “Crackers & Grape Juice.” We met for an informal conversation about theology, toxic Christianity, and the future of the denomination. During that gathering a number of young people made it clear that they believe in the future of the United Methodist Church even while some of us remain anxious. In their willingness to articulate how their local churches helped nurture them in the faith, their witness blessed us all. Later we heard from voices largely missed at Annual Conference and all of us were reminded about the strange and beautiful diversity of this thing we call “the church.” As I was leaving, a young man told me (with a smile on his face), “This is what Wesley must have felt like when he gathered with his friends.” It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.
On Saturday evening I was privileged to join an Ordination class of some of the most gifted pastors and deacons I have ever met. We submitted ourselves to the yoke of a stole over our shoulders and covenanted to serve the church with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. I witnessed countless people rise when names were read before the conference and I was reminded about the great communal effort required in identifying effective clergy. In the ordination service I saw the bright future for our church; not in our bureaucratic commitments to Roberts Rules of Order, not in our debates about nametag colors, not in our frightening statistics, but in the local church where the heart of God is revealed each and every day.
I have hope for the future of the United Methodist Church because the new clergy leaders believe in the power of the gospel to radically transform the world. They recognize that the local church is where disciples are formed (not Annual Conference). They see the bread and the cup of communion as our spiritual food necessary for the journey of faith. They have given their lives over to this strange and wondrous calling and will bear fruit for years to come.
But most of all, I have hope for the church because it does not belong to us. It belongs to God. The more we remember that we serve the risen Lord, the more we learn to pray for God’s will and not our own, the more our church will become what God is calling us to be: the body of Christ.
I think the key to enjoying annual conference is to socialize in the hallways the whole time the business session is going on.