Monday, June 11, 2007

Annual Conference--by drive through? maybe that isn't fair, but by sunday morning, I thought, is it over already?! Two days just seemed too are thoughts that I shared in my to know what others thought....

I want to express my sincere appreciation for doing something NEW with Annual Conference. The move to a “weekend” was a great idea and the change of venue was pleasant as well. The balloting process went so smoothly it was amazing!

Attendees found the facility accessible and convenient in many ways. I know that many women appreciated the great number of restrooms available!

The one “complaint” that I have is about the shortness of the conference and the “rushed” feeling. There were a number of times that I found myself not yet back into the sanctuary when the session had begun—in particular this was around short 10 minute breaks which were simply not long enough for folks to have used the restroom and gotten a drink from a water fountain (it’s those lines in the ladies’ room!)

I do appreciate the move to a weekend for the purpose of making it easier on the laity to be available to attend—especially younger lay members. My suggestion would be to continue conference through a Sunday! I’m certain there would be complaints about Sunday worship disruption, but I believe that could be an opportunity for creative, outside the box thinking! Why not make that Sunday a worship experience workshop! Have several worship experience options at Camp Sumatanga and at some of the churches in the Birmingham Area. Invite not just members of the Annual Conference to attend, but also United Methodists from across the Conference. Many pastors and church members don’t get to experience worship beyond the traditional setting where they are. Many may be afraid to try new things because they haven’t seen it done before. Why not provide opportunities for folks to worship in a variety of settings?

My reason for suggesting this is that the shortness of conference can have detrimental effects on several aspects of the life of the Annual Conference, not the least of which is clergy enlistment.

One of the things that I value about the United Methodist Church is the connection—the idea that church members are united in serving God across the world. I have been a part of United Methodist congregations in New Jersey, Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina, and here in Alabama. I have personally experienced “the connection.” For many UMC pastors, the point of contact is the Annual Conference meeting. And I would venture to say that for many lay members, their understanding of the “church universal” begins with the Annual Conference.

I think that we do not do enough to promote the “informal” connection between persons across the conference—both lay and clergy. When we limit Conference to a short “business” meeting with very little worship, then we limit the power of the Holy Spirit to be at work in those times of informal “conferencing.” (oops, I guess I have a second complaint—not enough worship at Annual Conference, but I won’t go into that here)

I said that this is also about clergy enlistment and I want to share a little of my history so that you can understand where I am coming from on that point.

When I was in high school, I had the privilege of attending two sessions of the Annual Conference in West Ohio. This is held at Lakeside—a community situated on Lake Erie much like Lake Junaluska. My experience of participating in all aspects of Annual Conference at that age probably confirmed my burgeoning call to ministry. My sense of belonging to Someone and something greater than myself.

Annual Conference was something that included all aspects of being at Lakeside…it was the shared meals as well as the business sessions, it was watching my Associate Pastor be ordained an Elder. It was spending time in legislative sections that debated issues and resolutions and it was spending time with the women in the house where I was staying.--learning from them about their churches. It was the youth delegates sharing doughnuts with the Bishop.

All that is to say, my connection to the Connection had as much to do with being with other delegates in informal settings as it did with the conference business sessions. I believed even as a youth delegate that I was connected to UMC in a life-giving, life-changing way.

I think that in the North Alabama Annual Conference, as the Bishop himself indicated during Conference, that sense of belonging and connectedness for young people in the North Alabama Conference has come through Camp. In introducing me to people in this conference where he grew up, my husband continually is saying, “he was my camp counselor” or “I know her from camp.” In my position, I speak in churches across the conference and in over six years now, with exception of one church, I have been asked in every church about members of my extended family either because of Camp or because they were missionaries and/or speakers at Camp.

That sense of belonging to Someone greater than ourselves often comes when we find ourselves connected to other persons—Camp is one of those places and Annual Conference can be one of those places. Annual Conference Sessions that allow time for fellowship, sharing and learning beyond the business sessions can be meaningful times when we make connections via the Holy Spirit with other United Methodist Christians and the Spirit speaks to us in sighs too deep for words.

When we limited our Annual Conference to “business only” and don’t allow time for special meals and gatherings or workshops, bible studies and worship, we are limiting the times when we can nurture our sense of connection –not just among clergy but also between clergy and lay members. Annual Conference was often a time when I as a pastor serving a local church forged a stronger connection with my lay member(s) through the informal time spent together. Also, in forging stronger relationships between ALL members of the conference, we allow ourselves to learn to trust others more and perhaps the true Christian Conferencing might take place.

I apologize for the great length of this, but hope that I have fully articulated my thoughts on this. I would be happy to speak further about this because I do believe it is important.

The length of Annual Conference is not about clergy privilege. It is about promoting an educated, inspired, committed, connectional church—both laity and clergy.

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