For United Methodists, Annual Conference rolls around every year. It is “non-negotiable” if you are clergy you are required to show up. If you are a lay member, it is expected you show up, but not required. Annual Conference in the best of all worlds part revival, part business session and part family reunion. I both love it and dislike it (the loathe and hate words being too strong.)
I’m an extrovert, so having a chance to catch up with folks I only see once a year it wonderful and exciting. Mostly I enjoy the worship if done well, some of the business and the visiting. I do dislike, no I actually loathe the horrible chairs that are uncomfortable and actually are a pain in the “back” and backside!
Four years ago, three annual conferences (Nebraska, Kansas East and Kansas West) became one conference. I won’t go into the myriad of reasons, but suddenly finding venues large enough to hold that many clergy and laity became more difficult. No longer can we have chairs around tables, which makes it easier to do the work of the conference, now we are in long rows with uncomfortable chairs hooked together. We juggle our laptops or tablets or workbooks on our laps and heaven help anyone who needs to get to a microphone quickly or let alone the bathroom!
The sessions planning committee works hard in those large arenas to make the stage worshipfull and beautiful for our various services. There is nothing easy about trying to get that many people together and have all the various functions go smoothly. I miss the smaller conferences partly because of the ease of knowing most everyone and for the ability to make space more intimate. I, also, was one who voted for the one conference, because I had served a three point charge and I am well aware of the toll on the leader trying to do three of everything. That is not good use of resources, not of time, not of finances and certainly not of human beings.
This year’s conference was our new bishop, Ruben Saenz, Jr.’s first with us. I have been a pastor a long time, but had few bishops. Bishop Scott Jones was my bishop for twelve years, Bishop Fritz Mutti was my bishop for twelve years before that, Bishop Ken Hicks was my bishop for eights years before that and I begin my ministry under the leadership of Bishop Ben Oliphint. Each bishop brings their unique and unrepeatable spirit and their gifts to the area in which they serve.
Bishop Saenz led with humor, humility, honesty and a good deal of laughter. He noted again and again that the United Methodist Church is in a time of discernment, and honestly a time of difficulty. There is much about the future that is uncertain, but what is certain, Bishop Saenz stated again and again, is that “Jesus is the foundation and it will be alright.”
When things got tense, or there were strong feelings running deep, Bishop Saenz’s would stop and lead us in prayer. To some that might some manipulative or shallow, but for me it never felt that way. The times of prayers felt genuine and deep. The prayers were not directed to one viewpoint or another, just that we might discern God’s path for us and to love one another.
Anyone can go to the conference website to see the pictures and videos and updates. My take away said are pretty basic, we are in changing times. Pastor’s and lay leaders need ot be discerning where God is leading using Jesus’ prayer, “not will by thine” and “let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The people of God need each other.
Personally, I am delighted to return as senior pastor at First UMC, downtown Wichita and to begin work with my new associate Rebecca Goltry Mohr. As part of the Transition into Ministry program, I am honored that First will be a teaching/mentoring congregation and that I have the honor to be a mentoring senior pastor.
During the opening worship service, we were given small silk flowers to remember those members of the annual conference, both lay and clergy who had died in the prior year. During holy communion we were invited to drop those flowers into a bowl in honor and rememberance. Then someone created this with those flowers:
Stunningly beautiful, during ordination we were reminded we are surround by such a great cloud of witnesses. We were commissioning and ordaining our new leaders and being blessed and reminded to continue to run the race set before us. Pastor Rebecca’s was commissioned as a provisional elder during that service.