By: Bishop Scott Jones On 4/29/2011
Topics: Bishop's Columns & Blogs
On June 25, 1744, a group of clergy met in London in the first annual conference of Methodist preachers. The minutes for that day begin with the following entry:
“The following persons being met at the Foundry—John Wesley; Charles Wesley; John Hodges, Rector of Wenvo; Henry Piers, Vicar of Bexley; Samuel Taylor, Vicar of Quinton; and John Meriton; after some time spent in prayer, the design of our meeting was proposed; namely, to consider,
For 267 years continuously, Methodist, Evangelical, United Brethren and now United Methodist leaders have gathered for essentially the same purposes. When the Kansas East and West annual conferences gather in May and June, we are conferring together, with much prayer, about how God can guide our work for God’s kingdom.
There have been many changes in the annual conference since it was first held. Lay people are now full participants. Local pastors have voice and vote. Women and youth are included. After more than two centuries, we have relationships with many mission organizations here in Kansas and around the world. These changes have made us more inclusive and more effective in thinking about where God will lead us in the future.
Many of us have been attending annual conference sessions for many years, and we have gotten used to certain patterns. As patterns change, the questions arise about how the conference should best spend its time. When those questions arise, I find it helpful to return to the basic purposes that it fills.
First, the annual conference is the basic unit of United Methodism. Clergy have their membership here rather than in a local church. Hence, a basic purpose of annual conference sessions is the meeting of the clergy where people who are being commissioned or ordained receive their final approval. Even retirements from active ministry are voted on there, reflecting the fact that we are a covenant community holding each other accountable.
Another purpose is to seek God’s inspiration and guidance. Hence, we worship together and pray for God to direct us. We also invite teachers to help us see what God is doing in the world and how we can participate in that.
There also is the family-reunion aspect. John Wesley once said, “The Methodists are one people in all the world.” When we gather, we see friends, former pastors and clergy colleagues. We also meet new friends and colleagues. By eating together and visiting in the hallways, we renew the relationships that strengthen our lives and our ministries. I am well aware that some of the most important activities of any conference session are not on the official agenda, and I am grateful for the impact those informal times have on our lives.
Then there is the business part of conference. We have a mission, given by God, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our joint mission projects, our policies, our apportionments and our relationships with ministries like our camps, colleges, seminaries and ministries with the poor are all ways in which we are faithfully following Christ. Thus, when we discuss the budget or our policies or our new mission initiatives, we are seeking the best way forward.
Christian conference was listed by John Wesley as a means of grace. What he had in mind was the class meeting, where sisters and brothers met weekly to support each other in the journey toward full salvation. However, I also think he meant the annual conference.
I look forward to how God’s grace will be manifest at each of our conferences this spring!