Reflections on annual conference:
Driving home from the Indiana Annual Conference session at Muncie in June, I felt disconnected. I knew something wasn’t right, but what was it? Were my expectations too high? Were my expectations different than the expectations of the planners? Was it the business of the church, the many motions and amendments on pensions and health care? Was it the question around why some churches tithe and others don’t, or was it sitting in a huge auditorium wondering if this is what Wesley had in mind when Methodism began? Were we even asking the right questions?
To be sure, since the early days of Methodism, the church has undergone change, sometimes necessary, always messy. The denominations that now comprise The United Methodist Church have had many different forms of connection, from corporate to federalist models, to name a few. Organizational styles have also varied depending on larger patterns of organization in the culture. Not always have Methodists “conferred” well together.
Perhaps this recognition made me realize the obvious: Regardless of organizational structures, we can never escape our history and need for God’s grace. We can never forget we stand in line with Christians who sought the Spirit’s direction and found ways of offering Christ; such persons also faced challenges not unlike our own, yet discovered God’s faithfulness in their midst. They were willing to ask the hard questions and test the Spirit’s movement.
Like all organizations, we in the church can fall into the temptation of focusing solely on the human side of the equation; we can throw up our hands and say, “What’s the point?” Or, we can become so critical we slip into cynicism and say, “Why bother?” And yet, deep within, we also know, “There is more!” Perhaps this is where we can learn from the early Methodists.
In June 1744, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and the societies in London and Bristol that had grown needed a way to confer about the workings of the Holy Spirit and the direction the Methodists needed to go. They needed a means of seeking God’s grace amidst the demands of an expanding movement. In short, they needed ways to comfort and strengthen one another. Or, as Wesley himself asserted, they needed the wisdom of others to learn how to save “not only the souls of those who heard us but our own!”
In early Methodism, a Conference was meant to seek the leading of the Spirit and to gather those whose spiritual insights Wesley knew he needed. In fact, as the early records indicate, a Conference was to be guided by three basic questions:
- What to teach;
- How to teach;
- What to do; that is how to regulate our doctrine, discipline and practice.
Within these questions other questions would also be addressed. The goal was on seeking clarity and coming to grips with the essentials of the mission. Conferring with one another was intended to be a spiritual practice.
Maybe this was the disconnect I was feeling. Was it the yearning for grace amidst the “business” on the floor? Was it the recognition that a Conference in the Wesleyan tradition does not begin with a series of motions or “whereas” clauses, but with a series of questions: What are we teaching and how are we teaching it? How are we practicing our doctrine and holding one another accountable? How are we seeking the Holy Spirit’s direction?
Perhaps Wesley’s own concerns are still relevant: Unless we are connected to the power of the Spirit that began 2000 years ago in Jerusalem and swept to the ends of the earth, we might as well cease to exist (Acts 1:8). The United Methodist Church only matters if it is part of God’s redeeming mission in the world. To understand that mission, however, requires prayer and discernment, and true prayer and discernment requires an attentive community, a community willing to ask the right questions as it also seeks to move with the Spirit.
I don’t know if others felt the way I did driving home from Conference. It is hard to gauge such a large gathering. And yet, I wonder what would it mean to have our Conference, congregations and agencies shaped by the above three questions. After all, it may be, as it was for Wesley and the early Methodists that our attention to how we respond to these questions may not only concern the souls of those we seek to save, but our own as well.
Andy Kinsey is the senior pastor of Grace UMC in Franklin. Readers may respond by going to Andy’s blog at http://notesonpracticaldivinity.blogspot.com.
Regardless of organizational structures, we can never escape our history and need for God’s grace.