This week I had the opportunity to attend the Tennessee Annual Conference as a lay delegate. For any non-Methodists out there, Annual Conference is a representative body of United Methodist clergy and laity within a common geographical location (in this case Middle Tennessee) who govern the churches in their area. The conference meets once a year to approve appointments, reports, and resolutions on behalf of the entire conference. This was my first time attending. Coincidently, this was also a first for my conference’s new bishop, Bill McAlilly, who was just elected to the episcopacy this year and thus had never presided over an annual conference before. In my humble opinion I think we both did very well.
Annual Conferences are (or so I’ve been told) relatively tame events compared to their cousin, the dreaded General Conference which meets every four years and brings in Methodists from all over the world. Because Annual Conferences happen once a year, have a number of regular attendants, and draw from a small area, many of the delegates already know each other and work together on a regular basis, which makes everyone pretty friendly. Still like many lifelong Methodists I’ve not been above the occasional joke about Annual Conference being just another way Methodists like to punish themselves with bureaucracy. I think after this week I’ll think twice before I start poking fun at this particular institution because every day I was there I saw instances of the conference acting as a “means of grace.”
“Means of grace” is a term we Methodists use a lot. We’re not the first or the only ones, but it plays a big role in our theology. A means of grace is anything which offers the believer access to God’s love and transformative power and that assists or refreshes them on their path of sanctification. These include among others things the sacrament, scripture, prayer, evangelism, discipline, and acts of mercy and justice. At its most basic level, this is the mission of the church: to be a means of grace. On our own we as the church can do nothing, but through the incredible power of God’s grace channeled through us, disciples are made and lives changed every day for the Kingdom. This week in nearly every meeting, every report, every worship service, and every request from the floor I saw a church enthusiastic about sharing grace and trusting God in the face of all challenges before them.
John Wesley called Christian discipleship, “watching over each other in Christian love.” The annual conference was established for this very purpose, to provide accountability and charitable encouragement to members of the first Methodist societies. To many the “conference” has become a buzz word for bureaucratic waste and excessive oversight, but attending conference this week I saw a very different picture. In all matters the conference leaders and delegates were interested in whether churches could see God at work in their congregations and whether those churches were having a positive influence on the larger regional area. Reports from local ministries and foundations reflected a commitment to serving the poor, troubled, and oppressed according to the example of Christ. A video series that played throughout the conference called “God Stories” celebrated lives transformed by grace. In all these instances the church reaffirmed its mission and identity born out of grace.
But it wasn’t just in these big presentations and promotional pieces that the conference identified itself as a means of grace. This identity appeared naturally in virtually every part of the conference. The first night’s worship included the formal ordination of all new clergy and commissioning of deacons and lay servants. These are individuals who have worked and studied in order to assume a specific and significant role in the church. As in many denominations ordination is confirmed through the laying of hands upon the candidates by the bishop and several elders. The practice is an ancient one going back to the days when priests and prophets anointed their own successors. The intention is still the same today as it was then. It is the granting of authority by the church, but it is a granting steeped in grace. The bishop and the elders know that it is only by the grace of God that this authority comes and is channeled through the offices of the church, and not the other way around. The following day the conference held a celebration for those retiring from ministry at which time the newly ordained and commissioned servants are presented again. This time the retirees extended their hands toward these persons and offered a blessing of their ministry in the tradition of Elijah.
Other services during the conference included a remembrance of baptism service and a communion service, both of which are tangible means of grace to all those in attendance. Communion is also offered to anyone who desires it in the Memorial Chapel each day during the lunch hour. During the final worship service the district superintendents for each district (a sub-division of churches in the conference) offer up the appointment list of all clergy for the coming year. To most outside the conference, the appointment list probably doesn’t seem that important or spiritual, but to the pastors who are leaving one ministry to begin another and the bishop and conference staff who have been discerning the needs of each individual church that year few things are more serious. For this reason, after each DS presents the list, the bishop invites all the delegates (clergy and lay) for each district to stand. He then tells the other delegates to extend their arms toward the nearest person standing to them as he offers up a prayer of blessing. We know what we’re being asked: to be a means of grace to the members of that district and to all the clergy appointed to serve it.
Several times during the conference a person would come to the nearest microphone and request “personal privilege”. Oftentimes this was done to lift up a prayer request: a church that was struggling, a conference member or family member that was ill, a recent death. Sometimes it was to lift up a celebration. Each time the bishop not only allowed the person to speak and offered prayer on the spot, but he used the opportunity to ask others with a similar concern to step forward toward the altar and allow the conference to pray and extend their arms toward them. When the conference announced the names of each church that was closing its doors this year the bishop asked any members or clergy from these churches to stand and once again asked us to extend our arms toward them as he offered prayer.
But it wasn’t just these repetitive exercises in session that challenged us to be a means of grace. The conference took numerous offerings for charitable causes that combat poverty, global disease, addiction, and economic and social injustice. On Tuesday evening, instead of the usual informative dinners put on by various ministry groups, the entire conference was invited to go to the Family Center where they put together boxes of food for the hungry. Other charitable ministries were given time to present to conference. Conference officials challenged delegates to raise money on the spot for Imagine No Malaria. A representative from Open Table, which is an organization that provides assistance to the homeless, told the story about how someone cynically criticized the organization’s work as impractical. She responded to this statement saying, “Yes, we are as impractical as Cavalry.” Such bold statements and actions are not the works of an institution secure its own stability, but a humble body inviting God to do miraculous things through it.
When the conference was over Bishop McAlilly reiterated the belief that undergirded everything that had happened over the past three days. He reminded us that a good year in the church is not determined by figures and numbers. It’s determined by whether the members are willing to hand over control to God and let themselves become part of what God has in store for the world. We can be that church. We can be the means of grace for someone. I am glad I attended Annual Conference. Now I know that others are “watching over us in Christian love” year after year and that matters a great deal.