With Vacation Bible School and other events happening at church this week (read all about it right here), I haven’t had much of a chance to reflect on Annual Conference this year. This was my 10th Annual Conference (not counting a handful I went to as a kid), and it was very good. Maybe top two or three.
And what made it so good? NOT format. Content. And let me say it again – Content! There was nothing new or innovative about the format – big meeting rooms, worship, plenary teaching sessions, workshops, lots of paper with lots of names and numbers in lots of notebooks. But the content was great, focused on growing deeper in our relationship with God.
Actually, there was one innovative session the format of which was unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of before. Friday night, we met around Tables of Grace and Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher led us in holy conversations as we shared our meal together. It was very cool. I was one of three people providing some musical accompaniment for the event, but I got to share in some of the conversations.
Coordinating all of the conference content on spiritual growth, deepening our relationships with God, set a tone for the weekend that was grace-filled and … dare I say it … holy! There was none of the divisive rancor that can from time to time characterize our meetings. Now, the flipside of that, of course, may be that there are some significant issues that we have been avoiding talking about for a while. But on the other hand, I believe that sessions like this one will make conversations about potentially divisive issues better in the future.
This year, I knew almost all of the ordination class, and many who were being commissioned. And at the same time I knew many of the retiring pastors, including my dad. It was a strange “sandwich generation” kind of feeling, watching people I know and love retire and watching people I know and love be ordained or commissioned. And thinking about how every one of them is starting a new chapter of ministry.
This year we heard a lot about the Healthy Church Initiative. HCI has generated a lot of gravitational energy in Missouri, and other conferences have noticed and are starting to request the program for their own congregations. Now, I have heard some colleagues who have been a bit skeptical of HCI, especially when words like “effectiveness” get tossed around rather flippantly, without sufficient definition. But ever since I read the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, I have no trouble at all with being a part of a complicated, highly structured organization like the UMC. The key learning of that book for me was how to use the energy of the organization to orbit around it, neither getting sucked into the gravitational pull nor drifting aimlessly in the vacuum of space. That has been my approach to participating in the HCI as a Pastoral Leadership Development I teacher, and it has led to some wonderful moments of insight and spiritual growth. I will always be grateful to the person who introduced me to that book, and I commend it to anyone who works in a large organization, company, or denomination.
Melissa, Donna, Kory, and I came home from Conference this year renewed, and with some inspiration and insight about spiritual growth in the church. I have a whole spiritual growth process in my mind that is based on an MC Escher painting! We were inspired by Mike Slaughter to focus relentlessly on the mission of Jesus Christ. My friend Rob Barringer encouraged us to percolate through Christ so that we take on his aroma (great metaphor, Rob!).
In short, there is motion in the Missouri Conference, in a positive direction. I like it! Bish Schnay-Z has led and continues to lead in a way that inspires and energizes me for ministry. It truly feels like the false distinctions among evangelism, social justice, personal spiritual formation, and sacred community are dissolving. I am hopeful, and pray that God will reveal the best way to bring it to life in the phenomenal congregation I serve.