By Rev. Dr. Jon McCoy
Christian Conferencing is one of the phrases that will immediately spark delight in the eyes of “a good United Methodist.” Those deeply steeped in the historic language of the denomination will quickly recall that Christian Conferencing is one of the means of grace that John Wesley identified. Any phrase that includes the word conference is vaguely familiar even to those who are among the uninitiated regarding the vast array of Methodist acronyms, symbols, and other esoteric identifiers. While not every member of a United Methodist congregation longs for the opportunity to attend the annual conference, most members of a Methodist congregation have heard the words Charge Conference. During the 2016 session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, I braced myself for the journey to find my assigned table at the opening session. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the numbering system was easy to follow. The lay members to annual conference and the clergy were seated at round tables with six to eight chairs. It appeared that people from various churches were randomly assigned and at various points during the annual conference, we were invited to engage in conversations with those with whom we were seated.
At the table to which I was assigned were two members from Sycamore UMC, a member of Princeton UMC, St. Mark UMC, and Baker Memorial UMC. (I was the only clergy person at the table.) Although we had already introduced ourselves to each other as we gathered around the table at the beginning of the opening session, it was during the Bible Study that it seemed that we really began to talk in more detail about some of the exciting things that were happening in our local churches. As the dialogue continued, I realized that we were engaging in and experiencing Christian Conferencing. It seemed that we began to look forward to breaks in the proceedings to resume our conversations about the ministries that were occurring in our local churches. It wasn’t long before we began to discuss the need to continue these conversations and to make plans to visit each other’s congregation.
One of the benefits and purposes of the annual conference is opportunity to engage in dialogue and to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit through the ministries of the various congregations of the conference. During the conversations at our table, there was much conversation about ministries with the youth and the young adults in our respective congregations. Some remarked that the youth from their church had attended the special activities for youth that were offered during the annual conference. Others remarked that their congregation was in the process of restructuring their youth ministries. While others noted that their youth were out of the country participating in an international mission trip that included youth from various congregations throughout their community.
During the annual conference, there were several references to the decisions made at the general conference to instruct the bishops to form a special commission to provide leadership to the general church to resolve the debates regarding human sexuality. While discussions regarding human sexuality have been discussed during the general conference for over 40 years, these discussions have occurred in annual conferences, charge conferences, and table discussions for probably far longer periods of time. In addition to writing “Eight Principles for Holy Conferencing”, Bishop Sally Dyck has hosted several conversations throughout the conference to help facilitate dialogues regarding human sexuality. The recent massacre at the Pulse (the nightclub in Orlando that was popular among the Latino LGBT community) has (re-)introduced (or, at least heightened) the need for more conversation about the various dimensions of human sexuality and the response from various institutions in society. In an article entitled “Means of Grace: Christian Conferencing” that appeared in the Interpreter magazine, Emily Snell notes that Dyck writes in her study guide that “holy conferencing is not limited to a specific topic or a specific venue for decision-making. It is also not a strategy to shut down conversation or stifle impassioned speech. It is a means for staying connected to each other in spite of our differences.”
Although there are vastly differing opinions regarding which are the most pressing issues facing our denomination, the Church, society, youth, families, etc., there are tremendous opportunities for the development of collaborative strategies to identify and address these issues. Emily Snell also quotes Steve Manskar, the director of Wesleyan leadership at the General Board of Discipleship, in her article regarding Christian Conferencing. Manskar noted that “the goal of Christian conferencing is illustrated in the final words of the baptismal covenant when “the pastor says to the congregation, ‘I commend this person to your loving care; do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.’”
These words parallel the concluding instructions from the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 13 in which he writes, “now faith, hope and love abide, and the greatest of these is love.” These words, their meaning and their context may not be well known or fully appreciated. Similarly, the covenant that is established between the congregation and the child being baptized or the youth being confirmed may need additional clarification. More than mere words or a symbolic ceremony, the pastor establishes a lifelong connection between the congregation and the child/youth.
In the years to come, the table conversations from the succeeding annual conferences will slowly fade from memory and the youth will hopefully become adults who will continue the process of engaging in Christian Conferencing for the benefit of local congregations, the Church, their communities, and beyond. However, before we wistfully dismiss the possibilities and promises of today, I pray that the plans that were begun to connect the congregations around the table and throughout the conference will continue to be pursued. As the youth participate in conference and district-sponsored mission opportunities, I hope that meaningful dialogues will occur during which we will listen more passionately than we speak. A conference, whether annual conference, charge conference, or Christian conference, should be eagerly anticipated as an opportunity to connect and grow.