This is the week that annual conference begins in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. It’s our 143rd iteration of this annual event. When people speak of annual conference meetings they often do so with nostalgic melancholy lamenting that annual conference isn’t what it use to be.
I have to admit that I am enchanted with old photographs of long-gone annual conferences where the men (literally, the men– and all white, too) are all dressed up in their wool suits and their wire-rim glasses looking rather reverently and somberly at the camera as if there were far more important things to do than to be standing in front of a camera. And maybe they did have far more to do because those old photographs are from an era when everyone was busy leading people to faith in Christ. The church was growing everywhere and the influence of leading clergy and laity alike was on the rise in communities all over because they were seen as people who were making a difference.
I think my enchantment with those old images is that I can imagine that the things they were dealing with were of far greater impact than our meager agenda. I imagine they were dealing with theological controversies like Arminianism versus Calvinism and Transubstantiation versus Consubstantiation and Universalism versus a Proactive Participation in God’s Saving Work. And when it wasn’t theological controversies to debate they were arguing about where to put the church’s resources to reach the most people for Christ. Person-after-person rose to plead with the conference that their area was in far greater need for evangelism (and the resources that followed!) than any of the other areas vying for the precious tools of proclaiming God’s saving word. Finally, the esteemed and even more somber Bishop (which is why he was deemed Bishop-quality) speaks in a voice that defines grandeur and says it’s time to vote.
It’s judgment day as each grand matter processes before the conference for a vote. The decisions are so important that time slows down to a crawl under their weight. Everyone gathered in the meeting hall is painfully aware that the well-being of the Kingdom of God is at stake in their votes. They feel both a sense of dread and, at the same time, pride at the realization that they are some of the ones chosen to determine the fate of these significant matters. With each call for a vote, the room grows overwhelmingly silent with anticipation– while ardent and urgent prayers are uttered in the hearts and minds seeking wisdom and discernment until… finally, they cast their votes. The determination of the ballot is always excruciatingly long… but the Bishop loudly and authoritatively issues his analysis of the results and the room bursts out in shouts of delight while others sullenly prophesy under their breaths the doom that is to come. Some assembled even question whether the unity of church can be preserved in the face of such tendencies as was demonstrated in the direction taken. But they will be back next year to strike out once more for what is right in their heart-of-hearts.
Who wouldn’t mourn the loss of annual conference meetings like that? Is it ever possible that we’ll experience annual conferences like that? I think what I described above is more like television drama than reality but if we were ever even to come close to that kind of gravitas at annual conference we’ll need a major shift in our position and our perspective.
Our annual conferences are the victims of our current reality. We conduct more business for the sake of preservation than we do for transformation. There is nothing exciting about decisions related to preserving what we have; that is, unless what is at stake is going to require me to do with less– then you’ll see some drama. The business designed for preservation has always been a part of annual conferences but the problem is that business of preservation has become the “primary” business at annual conference.
Institutions require care and feeding that eat up resources. Movements, on the other hand, are largely free from the constraints of preservation and they are better able to focus on transformation and thus are able to fuel the desired transformation with the resources that normally get tied up in institutions. The problem of focusing on preservation is even worse in institutions that are in decline because the limited (and often shrinking) resources are used in greater proportion for preservation.
There’s not a lot of drama between funding unfunded liability in a pension program and funding an emerging missional opportunity because everyone knows in an institution focused on preservation that the unfunded pension liability is going to win out. We’ll be certain to have some pretty solid arguments why that has to be the case and even though we may want to debate it– the conclusion is foregone. If you want drama– fund the emerging missional opportunity instead of the unfunded pension liability and you’ll get drama!!! I haven’t seen a modern-day conference that has been willing to do that yet!
So… if we want more exciting annual conferences, we’ll have to value transformation more than preservation; which means we’ll have to be willing to give up more of what has become, in our minds, that to which we’re entitled. Annual conferences generally reflect what is going on in the hearts and minds of those who make up the annual conference. Do you really want more exciting annual conferences? Maybe we need to be willing to risk a lot more of our security and the exciting conferences will follow. Hmmmmm. Makes me think!