’Tis the season – Less debate, more worship for some annual conferences

In the past, delegates headed to Annual Conference might carry copies of Robert’s Rules of Order for long hours of legislative sessions and budget debates.

This year, delegates might do better to pack hymnals, work gloves and sneakers.

Delegates to the Kansas East Annual Conference in 2012 voted on a resolution by holding up their voting cards. During sessions last year, the Kansas East, Kansas West and Nebraska conferences approved a measure to merge into one conference by the start of 2014. PHOTO COURTESY KANSAS EAST CONFERENCE

With the seven-week annual conference season under way (having begun with the May 16-18 Eastern Pennsylvania Conference at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center) many such gatherings will spend less time on business and more worshipping, learning, performing mission work and even fostering healthy habits.

“You will hear fewer reports, shorter reports and less emphasis on institutional concerns,” Bishop Gary Mueller promised delegates in a preview of the Arkansas Conference, which meets June 9-12 in Little Rock.

Bishop Mueller’s vow reflects a broader evolution in the way United Methodists do annual conferences, according to Russell Richey, a historian of Methodism and former dean of Candler School of Theology.

“[Conference leaders] are limiting the time devoted to legislative concerns, and increasing the time for special events that are motivational in character,” he said, reflecting a broader effort among church leaders “to make the church more effective, more goal-oriented, more missional and more spiritual.”

Annual conferences date to the 18th century. The first in North America took place in 1773.

“This is the way Methodists have come together to do business, to care for one another, and to increase the spiritual depth and range of the movement,” Dr. Richey said.

The 59 annual conferences in the U.S. are a key link to the church’s connectional structure. Active clergy are required to attend, along with elected lay delegates and other lay leaders. The meetings are tasked with approving programming and budgets, examining and recommending candidates for ministry, and, once every four years, electing delegates to general and jurisdictional conferences.

“It’s partly a revival, partly a family reunion, partly an educational and learning time, and partly a business meeting,” said Great Plains Area Bishop Scott Jones.

The Miracle Offering at the 2012 West Ohio Conference session was given to Wings of the Morning, a United Methodist ministry in the Democratic Republic of Congo. UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE PHOTO COURTESY OF WEST OHIO CONFERENCE

The Great Plains Area conferences—Kansas West, Kansas East and Nebraska—will, like the Arkansas Conference, spend less time on reports and legislative business this year.

Taking cues from evaluations by lay and clergy members from past years, Bishop Jones said, “We will devote more time to the things that were more meaningful, and less time to the things that were less meaningful.”

Similarly, the Missouri Conference is paring non-essential reports and greetings from dignitaries in favor of workshops and seminars that give delegates practical tools.

Annual conferences, some say, are getting smarter about the way they handle the many reports that must be delivered to delegates. Many are moving toward presenting reports as short (usually 4-5 minute) edited videos, said the Rev. David Wood, executive director of Good News TV, a United Methodist ministry in Macon, Ga., that provides audio-visual services to many annual conferences. He said that spurs presenters to distill the most important information and helps keep delegates more engaged.

The tone and focus of reports has changed in some annual conferences.

“More and more of our reports end up being stories of lives changed,” said Danette Clifton, director of communications in the North Alabama Conference. “The details of the ministry, you can put in the written report. That’s a more effective way to use that stage time.”

Required voting

All of the annual conferences do face some required business this year. They’ll be voting on four proposed amendments to the United Methodist Church’s Constitution. The 2012 General Conference approved all four amendments, which relate to lay speaker ministries, episcopal boundaries, Christian unity and the scheduling of General Conference.

Delegates to the 2012 session of the Missouri Annual Conference in Springfield, Mo. PHOTO COURTESY MISSOURI CONFERENCE

Issues relating to homosexuality, including same-sex marriage, typically get floor time at many annual conferences. Also on the agenda of several conferences are health insurance and pension changes, restructuring plans, and debates over gun control, immigration and military spending.

But Bishop Jones says many annual conferences are spending less time debating social issues.

“There’s less arguing over social issues, more inspiration and more teaching,” he said. “I believe that people have realized that the resolutions we pass don’t make any difference, and they are tired of the polarizations that causes.”

Shorter gatherings

Most conferences in the U.S. meet for three to four days. This year, at least six conferences—Tennessee, Iowa, Detroit, Kansas East, Kansas West and Nebraska—have shortened their gatherings by a day or half day. Some did so for logistical reasons; but leaders in Iowa and Detroit say their shorter meetings will mean better stewardship of time and resources.

“This makes attendance easier for laypersons and reduces the costs of the session for both the annual conference and attendees,” said the Rev. Bob Burkhart, Iowa’s assistant to the bishop for administration.

For example, lay delegates with jobs will need to take off only one weekday, instead of two, in order to attend.

Another conference, Northern Illinois, is preparing to trim its schedule back by a day and a half in 2014. South Georgia trimmed its schedule from four to three days in 2012, and will keep the shorter format his year when it meets in Macon, Ga., June 2-4.

“If you’re trying to get a younger demographic to attend, you’ve got to be sensitive to the work schedule,” said Brad Brady, assistant to the bishop for connectional ministries.

Bishop Will Willimon (retired) echoed that sentiment in his memoir Bishop, and sharply criticized protracted annual conference sessions. Under his leadership, the North Alabama Conference meeting shrunk. In Bishop, he writes that his team “transformed our annual conference from a four-day somnambulant conclave to a lively two-day teaching/mission fest.”

That led some delegates—but only clergy, according to Bishop WIllimon—to complain that the shorter meeting shortchanged fellowship. This year, the North Alabama Conference will add back half a day, in part to allow more fellowship.

Bishop Willimon does admit to a bias against long meetings.

“Annual conferences can be depressing,” he said. “I’m not allowed to be left alone with scissors.”

Bumping up worship

Several annual conference leaders say they’ve made an effort to shift more focus to spiritual renewal. This year’s schedule for the Arkansas Conference, for example, includes no less than 10 worship services.

“The more worship, the more holy conferencing, the richer the experience is,” said Bishop Mueller. He thinks more annual conferences are moving in that direction because “people are wanting annual conference to be a time of growth in spirituality.”

Some annual conferences will get the spiritual focus rolling even before the first gavel. In advance of the Memphis and Tennessee conferences, Bishop Bill McAlilly called on church members to join a “40-Day Walk with God,” following a daily prayer guide. Arkansas delegates were invited to commit to prayer and fasting for three weeks before Annual Conference.

Mission work

Many annual conferences have added some kind of mission project to their agendas in recent years, and will continue to do so in 2013.

The South Georgia Conference and the South Carolina Conference will each devote time to packing meals for Stop Hunger Now. Delegates to the Northern Illinois Conference will assemble hygiene kits or volunteer at a food pantry. When the Alabama-West Florida Conference meets June 2-5 in Mobile, Ala., delegates will fan out to food banks, ministries and community centers to spend an afternoon helping out.

“We wanted to be the eyes, ears and hands of the church and leave Mobile a better place after our four-day session,” said Susan Hunt, director of mission and advocacy for the conference.

Healthy breaks

Following another trend that’s been underway for a few years, many annual conferences are offering fitness events, a nod to concerns about clergy health as well as a break that gets delegates up and moving, bright and early.

This year, the Memphis Conference added a new, one-mile “Witness Walk” at 6:30 a.m. on Monday, June 3, when the conference meets in Collierville, Tenn.

At the Iowa Conference, delegates may opt to join the Bishop’s Fitness Walk at 6:15 on Sunday morning. Health screenings—including blood tests and blood pressure monitoring—will be also offered throughout the conference.

The Arkansas Conference will feature a “Skeeter Beater Run/Walk” at 6 a.m. on June 12. For a $10 donation to Imagine No Malaria, participants can enjoy a trek along the River Trail.

Over-managed?

Organizers’ instincts toward keeping annual conferences mission-focused and “on message” are understandable, according to Thomas Frank, University Professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a historian of Methodism.

“Historically, nobody’s been in charge of annual conference,” he said. “Traditionally, the group that actually organizes it has really had to struggle to get everyone to coordinate and cooperate. It can easily get out of control.”

Dr. Frank likens annual conferences to state fairs, with a wide array of music, speeches and entertainment under one big tent. But he cautions that the pendulum could swing too far in the other direction. Too carefully orchestrated conferences could leave little room for debate, conversation and even a few surprises.

“I’ve seen the spirit sweep through a conference and blow the agenda right off the table,” he said, recalling an annual conference where delegates, one by one, spontaneously volunteered to donate 400 generators needed by a guest speaker from Africa.

“I actually think it’s important to retain the state fair quality,” he said. “There is an unbridled openness that I think should not be entirely reined in.”

mjacobs@umr.org

Mary Jacobs

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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