A Most Awesome Annual Conference

A question was posed to me in the midst of the 2011 Session of the West Virginia Annual Conference.  “If you were in charge of Annual Conference, what would you do?”  For the record, I suck at Administration and my wife keeps the bills.  I am fully aware of this.  So spare me your ‘we can’t afford…’.

There are some things about Annual Conference in WV that I really like and would not change:

  • The Memorial Service…There are few accolades that I really covet in my life.  One of those is to be remembered at the Memorial Service at Annual Conference.  This is always a simple service with classy liturgy, good music and solid preaching.  the centerpiece is the reading of names of clergy and clergy spouses that have passed away in the past year.  Family members come forward to light a candle.  Anyone close to the deceased is invited to stand as the candle is being lit.  I want my ministry to be so effective that LOTS of people stand when my name is called.  I do think about that.
  • The Ordination Service…This is always well-done: traditional, with just the right amount of pomp and circumstance.  I always feel the weight of the Connection at the Ordination Service.
  • West Virginia Wesleyan College…The connection between the West Virginia Annual Conference and West Virginia Wesleyan College is pretty tight.  Their President Dr. Pamela Balch delivers an address every year, which has become one of the most impressive 5-minutes of Conference.  She has taken the college from the brink of extinction to solid footing to expansion.  I’ve concluded that she is the best leader of any kind in all of West Virginia.  Also, the Chapel is a beautiful setting.  Finally, West Virginia has a love-hate relationship with education.  This is all-the-more true for the UMC in WV.  Most West Virginians prefer folk-wisdom and our guest preachers routinely disparage education.  How fittingly ironic that we host an important meeting at a place of higher learning.

Nevertheless, there are things about Conference that I find frustrating, not to mention antithetical to the gospel.  Rather than name the crappy parts, here are the things I’d rather see.

  • Day of Service…One of the best parts of Methodism is our commitment to mission.  Annual Conference in WV is hosted right across the street from one of our finest Mission Agencies.  We talk about our witness as if saying the word enough times means that we really do it.  It would be a worthwhile witness to spend part of a day serving at the Parish House, Habitat, etc.  The next day headline: “United Methodists descend upon Buckhannon: houses are built and the poor are lifted up”.  Business-as-usual is usually less productive than this.
  • Panel Conversation on Christian Life and Contemporary Matters…This year, I followed the Twitter feed for several Annual Conferences.  I overheard that the New England Annual Conference was talking about the Dream Act.  I thought: “They are talking about things that matter”.  These kinds of conversations rarely happen in West Virginia.  A panel discussion is a good way to remedy this glaring absence.  A panel discussion is not a debate.  It is not a Town Hall.  It is equal time with opposing but informed perspectives.  Its intention is to inform and educate.  When I go to Conference, just as when I go to church, I want to leave a better person.  I want to have loved God with my mind, as well as with my heart, soul and strength.
  • Congregational Profile…This year, there was a brief narrative about a new church to be chartered later this year.  I’d like to hear more about the congregations that make up our Conference.  Conference should include a profile of one congregation: it’s history, it’s worship approach, challenges to the congregation, ministries, etc.  We’re always hearing about how we are failing, I’d like the focus to shift to congregations that are thriving and important to their communities.
  • Small group conversation about the role of the pastor…I made a rudimentary poster of the job description of a pastor (h/t John Meunier; para. 340 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2008).  I thought, these 15 bullet points are very, very thick.  I made the poster to place next to my office door, so that people understand the breadth and scope of full-time ministry.  It would be beneficial for Conference to dedicate some time to defining, clarifying and defending the duties of the pastor.  As I imagine it, one hour is dedicated to one bullet point on the job description.  Lay and clergy alike break up into small groups to talk about and listen about this particular aspect of the pastor’s responsibility.
  • Afternoon of Rest and Recreation…We have been hammered for the poor state of clergy health.  It is usually couched as an economic matter (we cannot afford our insurance).  And yet, Conference is built around the worst aspects of Puritan work ethic.  Conference should offer chair massages, playtime and recreation.  Or we can just pay it lip service.
  • Cooking Demonstrations at Lunch…Part of our poor health is unwise food choices.  We eat terribly in West Virginia.  A lot of our health challenges are lifestyle related.  Instead of another guilt trip, invite a chef to offer cooking demonstrations during lunch, showing us how to eat well.  And anyone who has been to a cooking show knows, these exhibitions are great fun.

There is a lot I like about Conference.  There is a lot that leaves me shaking my head.  I think it could be better.  But it requires imagination and a rededication to who we are Methodists.

Image: Wesley Chapel at West Virginia Wesleyan College, by WVUMC

One thought on “A Most Awesome Annual Conference

  1. It seems we may be thinking on similar lines about how an Annual Conference gathering could function in a more engaging way, involving more of us more interactively. You can see my post, ReThink Annual Conference, on the emergingumc blog, here.


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