Our Annual Conference has come and gone, and all in all I would say it was a good one. First off, it inspired my brother to conceive of a heavy metal ecclesiology that I think holds a lot of promise for the reinvigoration of the mainline. But in addition to that, the three things I’m going to take away from this year’s gathering are 1) a shift in my thinking about church growth, 2) a growing understanding of what it might mean to be a liberal evangelical, and 3) a decision not to wear a stole in worship any more until I am ordained, an event I hope to be experiencing next year.
1) CHURCH GROWTH - At one time, I was so freaked out by using numbers to assess the health of a church, that I kind of did everything I could to avoid them. I never talked about membership (341 here in Northtown) or about worship attendance (~175) or anything, because of my conviction that there are as many healthy small churches as there are unhealthy large ones. But this weekend I started to think about “growing” and “healthy” as two different characteristics of a congregation. These characteristics are closely related, but not directly correspondent. It is perfectly alright to encourage churches to grow numerically, because that is a reflection of healthy invitation and hospitality ministries. But alongside the encouragement of growth needs to be the encouragement of health, and neither can be assumed due to the presence of the other.
2) LIBERAL EVANGELICAL - This conference featured a heavy emphasis on spreading the word, bringing people to Christ, reaching out to make disciples, and that kind of theme. It had the more vocal evangelicals in the bunch leaping out of their chairs to make extravagant pledges from the floor of the conference to increase worship attendance by hundreds of people over the next several years. But this conference also featured a heavy emphasis on risk-taking mission and social justice issues, a learning time led by Neil Christie of the General Board of Church and Society, and a long-awaited beginning of a conversation about how differences of opinion and belief among Methodists need not estrange us one from another, basically affirming our diversity as a God-given reality that is wonderful to live in. One breakout session featured two well-known Missouri clergy, both of whom who had been delegates to General Conference in the past, and who have voted opposite one another on just about every issue. Yet to focus of the breakout session was how it is possible to love one another and manage to get along, in spite of those differences. One of the commonalities is a strong, Methodist, evangelical spirit, one that “liberals” have been hesitant to claim for far too long. (Rest assured, I will be posting more on this later, as I continue to process.)
3) STOLE WEARING – I am always inspired to the point of tears by the ordination service, and this year was no different. Bishop Sally Dyck from Minnesota preached the sermon, and gave as passionate a proclamation of the Gospel as I have ever heard. A one-hundred voice youth choir presented the worship music, and organ and trumpet accompanied the congregational singing. As always, the new ordinands were present among the clergy, wearing their robes without stoles. As a part of the ordination, a bright red stole is placed over their head, symbolizing the servant leadership of the ordained deacons and elders. I suddenly was overcome with the conviction that I should, in preparation for my own ordination next June, stop wearing my stoles in worship services that I lead. I started wearing stoles when I was commissioned, having asked several pastors and my District Superintendent if it would be appropriate. But this next year is going to be different. I am going to remind myself every Sunday morning, every wedding, and every funeral, that I am but preparing for ordination into servant ministry as an elder in the United Methodist Church. I am not there yet. I am hoping that omitting my stole will give next year’s ordination liturgy that much more power.
So that is pretty much that. There should be some more information here, if you want some specifics. I guess I would give this year’s conference a B+. It was boring sometimes, exciting sometimes. It both inspired me and pissed me off. It was at once a glimpse of the realm of God on earth and a reminder that we are fallible human beings. It was Annual Conference, ya gotta love it!