Warning: if you're not Methodist, you may not 'get' this.
It’s that time of year. Annual Conference rolls around the first week of June every year. It’s that time of year when the pastor and the lay delegate pack their bags and head to the mountains of Lake Junaluska for four days of meeting, greeting, and eating. Actually, there’s not that much eating (any more than we would do at home). And the greeting (seeing old friends from other parts of the annual conference) is limited. So, mainly there is just meeting. And boy, will we meet!
In particular this year, the annual conference is making some important decisions about how we will fund various parts of the annual conference budget at a time when money is very tight at the annual conference level. As you may know, the NC Christian Advocate ceased to exist this year, primarily because there were not sufficient funds to continue its publication. If serious changes are not made at the annual conference level, other ministries will have to be eliminated or seriously reduced.
There are three main sources of the connection that a local church has with the Annual Conference:
#1. The annual conference (through the office of the bishop and cabinet) appoints the pastor to a local church.
#2. The local church pays conference askings, which enable the conference to support things like:a. missions around the world,#3. There is a spiritual and theological connection that we have to the annual conference, which is partially expressed in numbers one and two above.
b. United Methodist institutions like the children’s home , retirement home and camps and retreat centers.
c. United Methodist colleges in our geographical area
d. other ministries for youth, children and adults
The idea of an annual conference was something we inherited from John Wesley (a priest in the Church of England who launched an evangelical revival in the 18th century that became known as Methodism). Father John had the idea that all the preachers in the Methodist connection should get together once a year, not so that they could have dialogue or exchange ideas, or take votes, but simply so that they could listen to John Wesley tell them what Methodist doctrine was. It worked great, as long as John Wesley was alive. People would sit and listen to him explain Methodist doctrine for days (no one dared interrupt him as he was explaining the subtle differences between justification and sanctification)! Unfortunately, John Wesley died in 1791, and we haven’t been quite sure what to do with annual conference since then.
Since we didn’t have another John Wesley (the Lord only made one of him), we developed a system of bishops and committees and board and other leaders in our annual conferences. These leaders did not have the authoritarian power that John Wesley wielded, so we had to start taking votes in order to make decisions. Hence, the long process of voting by parliamentary procedure that goes on for days at Junaluska the first week of June every year.
But I sometimes get concerned that in our emphasis on numbers one and two in the list above, we lose our appreciation for number three. We need to remember that we have a spiritual and theological connection with the United Methodist Church in our Annual Conference. That is, we are about more than shoveling papers around and lifting our hands for votes and passing resolutions and allocating money. We are united by our faith in Jesus Christ, our baptism into His church, our communing at His table, and our commitment to make disciples in His name. It is these core elements that are at the heart of being Methodist, that connect us with the Body of Christ around the world, and that give us a reason to hold Annual Conference in the first place.