Pre-Annual Conference Reflections

Annual Conference means different things to all of its members. Lay Members and clergy members of United Methodist Annual Conferences are indeed members, not delegates, of this uniquely Wesleyan entity. It’s hard to describe. Annual Conference is part homecoming, revival, political convention, and wrestling match. Wesley’s emphasis on humans being made in God’s social and moral image is the theological foundation for annual conference. If God reveals God’s self as Three-In-One, as a community that we call Trinity, then how much more do we need the interdependence or connection from the holy conferencing that is our opportunity at Annual Conference? Our distinctive theological core of transformation takes place because we’re not Lone Rangers. We’re part of something bigger, and it’s a place of accountability. When we get together we glad hand each other, but it is a distinctive place where we best reflect who God wants us to be. In accountability, mutual respect and community we look most like God.

I know every family has its squabbles and Annual Conference does bring out that side of who we are. However, I pray that we will both speak the truth in love, and be loving enough to truly listen to one another. I pray that we will leave conference more united than divided and that’s not going to happen unless we love one another. This will be especially difficult this year. It’s an election year for delegates to our quadrennial meetings of General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference.

It’s quite the affirmation to be elected to either of these bodies. General and Jurisdictional Conference elections aren’t a popularity contest. More than affirmation, they’re work. At General Conference we work on a new Book of Discipline and declare what we believe on sundry issues and what should be our best practices as a denomination. At Jurisdictional Conference we elect leaders: Bishops who will prayerfully do their best work in an Annual Conference and leaders who will serve on general boards and agencies. It is critical that we elect good bishops. You can have the best beliefs and declare how we think church should be, but bishops through their relationships have a lot to do with how those beliefs and visions are implemented. Bishops without leadership ability can derail all the best practices and ideas in the world.

Scott Peck has written some great insightful books like The Road Less Traveled and People of the Lie. My personal favorite is one that didn’t make his hit parade of bestsellers, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. His dedication page is powerful in its content: “To the people of all nations in the hope that within a century there will no longer be a Veterans Day Parade but that there will be lots of living people left to march to a different drum because all the world loves a parade.”

In his book Peck describes the stages of real community making. I daresay they are clearly illustrative of my experience of Annual Conference, and even General and Jurisdicational Conferences. Although these stages can progress in a linear fashion, there are stages that can be skipped over, revisited, or in which a group can be stuck ad infinitum. With that disclaimer, the first stage he describes is “pseudocommunity.” This stage is the “Hail Fellow, Well Met” fakey hugging reunion where everyone just smiles and refuses to take off their honeymoon grins. I know plenty of “church people” who would rather pretend their church never has problems than dare to take off their masks.

Alas, honeymoons don’t last forever. Conflict-avoidance doesn’t do anyone much good in the long run. When individual differences are allowed to surface the second stage of “Chaos” is bound to follow. We all know too many churches and groups, even couples who thrive on chaos and can’t move past it. Thank God, literally, that there are few groups and churches that want to be in chaos forever. After chaos has run its course of rugged individualism, then comes “Emptiness.” Emptiness is “soft” individualism. One isn’t absorbed by the group in a hostile takeover. Differences are celebrated rather than castigated. Emptiness is that emotional place that Jesus modeled so well. It’s a place where soft quietness descends. By this I don’t mean a passive quietism that values submission more than authenticity. It’s a good submission that holds to one’s core values, but honors the other/the common good as more important.

“Emptiness” is a poor descriptive word, at least in our contemporary context. It sounds too negative, like a giving in more than a giving up. True community isn’t noted for its repressed desires that the word “emptiness” conjures. True community makes me think of the word, “peace.” It’s a place where we can all be at peace, hold onto our own individuations yet work together for our common existence and a shared positive future.

This is my hope for Annual Conference, General Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, and the whole United Methodist Church. I pray we are able to move from fakey pseudocommunity, past chaos’ scary but necessary differentiation; embrace diversity through the self-emptying of perverse rugged individualism, and then experience the peace – real peace of being able to live Wesley’s adage: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, let there be liberty; in all things, let there be charity.”

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