I posted once during annual conference with intentions to post frequently. That did not happen, obviously, mainly “just because.” So here’s my summary post, for what it’s worth.
To say this first: I appreciate the enormity of the task of putting together a session of annual conference, and I am now on the sessions committee who will plan and organize the 2009 session. As hard as one works, one will never be able to please everyone every time. And it is very likely that there were many people who thought this year’s session was good, maybe even one of the best ever.
But I have to confess that I’m not among them. I apologize in advance for this, but here’s what I thought of conference this year. It is all, of course, "imho":
Tongue in cheek, I wonder if the theme of the conference was “You People Suck At Doing Really, Really Easy Things.” Once again, the decline in membership and attendance was a central focus. And once again, a litany of simple ideas you, too can implement in your local congregation in order to get more butts in the pews was presented. Once again, pastors who happen to have very attractive personalities and coincidentally serve in growing churches stood before the conference and talked about their own experiences as if they could be universalized into every context with equivalent results.
That last sentence is not really fair, to tell the truth. There were a couple of people who very humbly said this is what worked for us but you have to do what will work in your own setting. There was one who actually said don’t do anything by the “felt need” of the community or for the sake of being “relevant,” but rather just be the church in all it’s beauty and complexity and ambiguity. Be faithful and don’t worry so much about the numbers. This was my favorite moment of the whole weekend. But he was very obviously the exception.
At a recent event (not annual conference), a conference staffer in Missouri said that your theology doesn’t matter, just the packaging. And that theme definitely carried through into this year’s session. My eyes were glazed over by the shallow, vapid content of the conference. We were presented the idea of putting a church info label on a bottle of water and handing it out as if we were exploring the depths of the trinity. We allowed the health insurance industry to trump the covenant relationship of the clergy in conference as we discussed changing health insurance plans for our retirees – not in the result, but in the way we talked about it. Judging by our conference, you’d think putting up signs and some neat paint around your church building was equivalent to the via salutis.
We did not mention the war in Iraq one single time. Not even in passing.
We did not say anything about earthquakes in China or cyclones in Myanmar.
The emergent church movement was not even a glimmer in anybody’s eye.
One of the most powerful moments of the conference was when Carol Kreamer presented on the conference’s ministry in Mozambique. She told us stories about malaria. She broke down in tears as she related the death of a beautiful young woman to a disease that is running rampant in many, many communities. And yet she spoke of hope as we all wrote letters to senators urging the sponsorship and passage of Senate Bill S2433 – the Global Poverty Act. That was one of the only moments, outside of worship, that really felt like church to me.
There was some other good stuff: We raised enough money to buy a whole heck of a lot of P.E.T.S., which is wonderful. And we raised enough money to buy another whole heck of a lot of mosquito nets, which is also wonderful. And Bishop Robert Schnase threw out the first pitch at a Springfield Cardinals baseball game, and he did not bounce it, which was very not embarrassing in the least. And a few others …
So I guess that one of my things I’ll advocate on the sessions committee is to make the Annual Conference session NOT a collection of workshops. I think the conference should do those throughout the year, with specific foci at various times and places. Annual Conference should be a time to re-connect with the connection, worship together, and do business that absolutely must be done. And further, the re-connection must be comprised of loosely structured time, not just “free time” with nothing in place. And the worship must have some depth, not just more “butts in the pews” stuff. And a lot the business could very well be almost done by the time we get there, if the information we need would be made available online in advance of the actual meeting, and even if some of the rubber stamping … oh, I mean the votes … could be tallied ahead of time electronically.
48 hours is all we would need. 60 maybe. 10 a.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Sunday. Get in, hug everybody, worship, commission some people, ordain some people, have a few votes, have communion, fix the appointments, get out.
But the format doesn’t matter, the length doesn’t matter, the location doesn’t matter – none of the packaging matters, no matter what we are being encouraged to think. What matters most is the content. Churches grow because of the content, not the packaging. Lives are transformed because of the content, not the packaging. Conferences are meaningful because of the content, not the packaging. Packaging impacts content, but we must consider content first.
Fastest growing churches? In Africa, Central America – what’s their packaging like? Cinder block building? Benches under a tree? It’s all about the content!
When we are told over and over again that it’s all about counting heads, and that the numbers of those counts are in decline, and the ways to reverse that decline relate to packaging and are very easy to do (“not rocket surgery” was the direct quote, I believe), and that we are really, really bad at it even though it is apparently really, really easy to do, suffice it to say that one does not leave the event with a sense of “a future with hope.” It all serves to just make us more anxious, more frazzled, and to feel as if all of our hard work is not being valued.
If you’ve read the above and have actually made it to this concluding paragraph, thanks. And you all should know that I know the people who planned and most who led this year’s session, and I love them dearly. My responses are not intended to be personal by any means. However, it is the case that I left the session deflated this year, and very disappointed by the overall experience.