Annual Conference has occasionally been difficult for me to attend. I have sometimes been much too cynical and easily disillusioned. I have occasionally thought that we were like kids fascinated with the explosive power of fireworks when we are surrounded by dynamite.
This post, however, is not intended to be a lament. It is meant to be a testimony. Last week, I saw felt the Spirit of God at work throughout Annual Conference. I prayed during my drive to Annual Conference each morning. This was truly a means of grace for me. As a result, I arrived at Annual Conference each morning expecting to see God at work in some way during the day. Here are a few glimpses of where I saw God at work:
On Monday, I felt the privilege of being able to vote on those who would be commissioned and ordained at this Annual Conference. I was reminded of the blessing and responsibility that comes with being a member of the order of elders in ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. I was also convicted by hearing the ordinands answer the same questions that I answered just last year. I was reminded that I made these same vows last year. And I was reminded that these vows are ongoing. We did not promise to do this until we were ordained. Rather, we took these vows as part of our entrance into ordained ministry with the expectation that we would uphold them as long as we are in this order. I found myself looking around and thinking about all the people at the clergy session who had previously made these vows, praying that we were all reminded of the promises we have made before God and one another.
(One slight suggestion: I love the questions about Christian perfection. We should not only keep them, but should take them more seriously. I think one way of more honestly answering these questions would be to respond “Yes, by the grace of God.” Rather than simply saying, “Yes.”)
On Tuesday I had dinner and a wonderful conversation with Brandon Blacksten. Brandon was in the youth group when I was working with the youth at McFarlin Memorial United Methodist Church when I was in college at the University of Oklahoma. He has just finished his first year of seminary at Vanderbilt and is a candidate for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. I will resist putting words in Brandon’s mouth, but I left our conversation refreshed and thankful for the interaction.
I was also very apprehensive about the debate about the proposed constitutional amendments. The actual discussion and debate, I thought, went very well. It seemed to me that people were trying to understand and love those who seemed to be on opposite sides of some of these issues. (I would also highly recommend the format that was used at our Annual Conference. We had round table discussions and spent about 15 minutes discussing the amendments – they were clustered into four groups. After the table discussions people were able to speak to the entire gathering for or against the amendments. We agreed to allow 3 one minute speeches in favor and 3 against each amendment. As I recall, only one amendment actually had three people speak for it and three against it – the amendment concerning membership that would affect paragraph 4 in the Book of Discipline. This format seemed to give everyone a chance to speak their mind, but also to avoid it becoming an unnecessarily polarizing and divisive occasion. The entire process took about two hours. I think this is as close as you could come to genuine Christian conference when there are 32 Constitutional Amendments under consideration. The folks who planned this discussion did a wonderful job.)
There were several other conversations that were means of grace to me. More than any Annual Conference I had previously been to, at this Annual Conference I was frequently part of conversations which challenged me, inspired me, gave me hope, and made me realize that there are many, many people in Oklahoma who I am thankful to be in ministry with.
If your Annual Conference is coming up and it is often a negative or neutral experience… I would encourage you to find a meaningful amount of time to pray each day. As obvious as this insight is, it had a profound impact on my Annual Conference experience. This does not mean that I have put my hope in the Annual Conference to save the United Methodist Church. But it does mean that I was reminded that God is still able to work within the United Methodist Church, just as God is still able to work without the United Methodist Church.