Annual Conference

30 years ago I attended my first West Michigan Annual Conference.  In fact, it was my first experience in the state of Michigan!  Gary was ordained a deacon that year, and I came along for support.  We had been married less than a year, and I was taking an intensive Greek class at Yale Divinity School that summer.  I vividly remember sitting in a back corner of Goodrich Chapel at Albion College with my Greek New Testament, knowing no one and having absolutely no clue what was going on in the business sessions.  I recall trying to figure out how to write “boring” in Greek.

Little did I know that just a few years later I would receive an appointment in the West Michigan Conference, eventually transfer my Mennonite ordination credentials to The United Methodist Church and grow to love annual conference!  In the early years Gary and I always brought our 3 children to annual conference because we had no other options.  It was crazy, exhausting, fun and always an adventure.  Our kids have fond memories of staying in a run down hotel inAlbion (complete with dirty beds and dead birds in the pool), eating in the dining hall and getting root beer floats every night at the snack bar.  They also remember making friends with other PKs in Kids Camp and the Junior High Adventure Camp, which we and several other clergy couples initiated while trying to make annual conference more family friendly.

Annual conferences were always eventful.  When clergy session was held at night and occasionally went into the wee hours of the morning, Gary and I had to decide who was going to stay and who would take the kids back to the hotel.  One year, on an early morning run through Albion, I was attacked by a pit pull.  Seconds before I was about to be mauled, a boy ran out of his house with a baseball bat and fended off the dog.  Along the way, I found my place at annual conference by making committee presentations, reporting for the Michigan Christian Advocate, playing the organ a few times and simply getting to know people.

The most important aspect of annual conference for me, however, has always been John Wesley’s notion of “holy conferencing.”  The business that we conduct at annual conference is not mundane, perfunctory or meaningless.  It is sacred work.  John Wesley believed that holy conferencing was a means of grace, along with reading the Bible, attending worship, praying and receiving the sacraments. 

From the earliest days of the Methodism, clergy and lay persons have regularly and intentionally gathered to create a unified connection, worship together, address theological and organizational issues affecting the Wesleyan movement and listen deeply to God and each other through open and honest dialogue.  Although The United Methodist Church mirrors our country’s democratic form of government, holy conferencing has always been about much more than simply accepting the will of the majority.  Numerous times over the past 30 years I have witnessed the movement of the Holy Spirit, transforming our legislative process into one of true discernment rather than simply taking a vote.

I can’t wait for the 2009 West Michigan Annual Conference because this isn’t going to be any old meeting.  This is going to be holy conferencing!  I look forward to meeting in the just completed Van Noord Arena and observing how our Annual Conference Worship Committee creates new holy space.  Maybe I can even run a few laps around the indoor track during breaks or literally (rather than figuratively) climb the walls in the fieldhouse!

I look forward to being a part of the legislative process, knowing that the decisions we make affect tens of thousands of United Methodists in West Michiganas well as people around the world.  I look forward to hearing Rev. Dan Dick, who will be doing 4 teaching sessions.  After many of us in the Grand Rapids District read his book, Vital Signs, and 200 people attended his workshop last November, I know we are eager to learn more about what makes for healthy, vital, outer-directed churches. 

I look forward to the ordination service, as we share the enthusiasm, energy and gifts of those being commissioned and ordained as deacons and elders.  Most of all, I look forward to reconnecting with clergy and lay colleagues in ministry who have become dear friends over the years, some of whom I only see at annual conference.  At the same time, I cherish the opportunity to meet new clergy and lay delegates, who I anticipate will become trusted friends in the years to come. 

Unfortunately, connection is not always a given.  A few years back, when I was chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry, a clergyperson approached me with tears in his eyes.  He said that after 30 years in ministry, he never felt connected to the West Michigan Conference.  Even though he expressed a desire, no one ever asked him to serve on a conference committee, and he felt that his gifts were never used to their fullest in the appointments he received.  As I listened carefully and attempted to respond with compassion, my words seemed empty compared to the deep pain in my colleague’s heart.  I couldn’t help but remember the day 30 years ago when I was sitting alone with my Greek book in that back pew, wondering if all of those strangers would one day become friends and if there would ever be a place for me in ministry.

I cannot speak for my clergy colleague, but I believe that the difference for me was a growing understanding of holy conferencing.  As I got my own feet wet in ministry, I came to realize that whether at the annual conference or local church level, holy conferencing cannot happen until we intentionally nurture our connection with one another.    

  • Holy conferencing means that we don’t all have to agree, but we do need to honor and respect the views of others. 
  • Holy conferencing means that our personal agendas are set aside in favor of an attempt to discern God’s will together. 
  • Holy conferencing means that we are continually enlarging our vision to include all people at the conference table, which is really the table of the Lord.
  • Holy conferencing means that rather than complain about what the conference or our local church isn’t doing for us, we remember that we are the conference, and we are the local church.  
  • Holy conferencing means that we release the power of the Holy Spirit to blow where it wills.  If you have doubts, read about the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

Holy conferencing is one of the most remarkable means of grace we have been given.  In my ministry as a superintendent in local churches, I have the privilege of conducting many church conferences.  Just like annual conference, we have wonderful, difficult, grace-filled, gut-wrenching, hopeful and agonizing conversations.  When we ask for the Holy Spirit to lead us and vow to stay in connection with each other, however, every meeting becomes sacred and holy, a means of grace. 

I don’t have quite the same adventures at annual conference now that our children are grown.  But I do know this: God will once more surprise me with grace everywhere I go.  Thank you for your prayers for all of the delegates who will be at the West Michigan Annual Conference from June 4-7 atCalvinCollege.

Blessings, Laurie

P.S. Visitors are invited to attend all worship services and conference sessions.  Please go to www.westmichiganconference.org to find the schedule for the West Michigan Annual Conference.

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