I have noticed something. We use the word “conference” or the term “the conference” in different ways, and that leads to confusion. In several meetings lately with different groups, I have heard people talk about “the conference” but they were implying very different things. Let me explain:
- The term “Annual Conference” refers to the annual gathering of the clergy and lay members of the conference, but it also refers to the geographic area which comprises the Annual Conference. So, for example, the term “Indiana Conference” describes the region of our ministry (the state of Indiana) but it can also mean our annual gathering. When I hear people talk about the “Annual Conference,” I am not always sure which they mean. To be more precise, we should probably say “Annual Session of the Indiana Conference” when we are describing the annual meeting. And to be more precise, we should probably say “Indiana Conference” when we mean the geographic area.
- The term “the conference” means many things. To me, it means the 1200+ local churches and quarter-million United Methodist people here in Indiana. But I notice to others the term “the conference” means the elected conference committees, or the CFA or Trustees, or even the conference staff (including the cabinet and the directors). Usually when people talk about “the conference” that way, they use the same tone of voice when they refer to “the government.” That is not what I mean when I say “the conference,” so I often find that I do not understand what someone is saying when they speak of “the conference” is that tone.
- Fewer people use the term “Annual Conference” in its full, legal sense, but that is actually an important point. Our Book of Discipline states that the Annual Conference is the basic body of the UMC. Not the local church, not the district, not the general church – only the Annual Conference is so described. That legal fact has been tested in the courts, and it has always been upheld. The UMC is a connection of Annual Conferences, not just an association of congregations, or certainly not a hierarchy of popes, archbishops, and bishops. Sometimes our office receives calls asking, “Who is the head of the United Methodist Church?” The real answer is Jesus Christ of course, but that is not what they are asking. They want to know which one person or persons can be sued or blamed. The legal answer to that question is, “The Annual Conference is the basic legal unit of the United Methodist Church, and only the General Conference of the laity and clergy elected as delegates from all of the Annual Conferences is authorized to speak for the UMC.” Most callers don’t want that answer, but it is accurate.
- The biggest confusion I hear is when the term “the conference” is used to refer to “them” as opposed to “us” – and “us” can be my local church, my district, my interest group, or myself. So I hear people complain about “the conference” in a way which implies they don’t see themselves as a part of “the conference.” That is ironic, because in United Methodism, the term “conference” is all about being together, praying together, deciding together, and working on our mission together.
So as we prepare to go to Annual Conference (or I should say, “As we prepare to go to the 2009 Session of the Indiana Conference”), I remind you that “the conference” is all of us. We are all in this together. Or as Jim Wallis has said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” It is up to us. This is not about “them” or even “the conference” – it is about all of us working together for the good of all of us, and for our service to Jesus Christ who is the only One who is the head of the whole church.