Lately I have concluding many of my conversations, phone calls, and e-mails with the words, "See you at Conference." I guess that reveals where my thoughts, concerns, hopes, and plans are focused right now -- upon the North Indiana Conference Session which begins Wednesday evening and with the South Indiana Conference Session which begins the follow Thursday morning. Years ago these two Sessions were held with a week's break in between, but somehow the schedule over the past few years has adjusted so that now they are "back to back." Thus you can understand why preparing for Conference is my focus right now.
Annual Conference is a unique Methodist animal. Other denominations have annual meetings and such, but Annual Conference is really a distinctively Methodist phenomenon. It is partly a family reunion as we get a chance to see old friends and to memorize those who have passed during this last year; it is partly a political convention or business meeting as we deal with budgets and reports; it is certainly a worship time almost like the old camp meetings of early Methodism; and it is a time of focusing upon ordained ministry as we retire clergy at the close of their careers, commission and ordain new clergy at the beginnings of their careers, and give appointments to all clergy.
The term "Conference" really means two things: it is a time of conferring with one another, but it is also a time of inviting God to confer upon us a renewed sense of purpose for the ministry and mission of our church. In the best sense of the word, "Conference" is always more than just a meeting -- it is a gathering which is potentially transformative and empowering in nature. Certainly we can make Conference into just another boring church meeting, but that is not the purpose of Conference. At its best, Conference is a time when the collective church gathers to receive from God our direction for the coming year.
For the clergy present, Annual Conference is also a time to gather with their own congregation. In our polity, clergy are not members of local churches, they are members of Annual Conferences, so coming to Conference is coming to church. It is appropriate that clergy spend a lot of Conference time in fellowship, in remembering those who are departed, and in joining with each other in prayer and worship and study. "Going to Conference" for clergy is the same as "going to church" on Sunday for laity.
I confess that I took much of that for granted until 1996 when I was elected a bishop and was no longer a member of an Annual Conference (bishops are members of the Council of Bishops, so when we meet each year that is "going to church" for us, too). After being elected a bishop and moving to the Dakotas, I found myself grieving over that lost relationship with my home conference, even as I celebrated finding a new faith community in the Council of Bishops and discovering the joy of sharing as presiding bishop in a new Conference.
So, this week I will return to my "old conference" in North Indiana, not as a member but as the bishop to preside. Then next week, I will come back to South Indiana where I was the guest preacher just a year ago, only this time it will be to preside as the resident bishop. Of course the two Conferences run quite different schedules, and both of those schedules are quite different from what I experienced the past eight years in the Dakotas. So I am studying, preparing, and anticipating what it will be like to experience Conference here in Indiana this year. I am sure it will be for me a rather strange mixture of emotions, memories, expectations, and new experiences.
I am excited about it all, so that is why I find myself saying, "See you at Conference."
from Bishop Michael J. Coyner