Anyone who has been a Methodist for awhile has likely heard the language of “conference.” That word will usually be uttered as a part of the phrase annual conference to describe the yearly gathering of clergy and lay representatives from local churches in an area overseen by a bishop. But once every four years – or “quadrennially” – the United Methodist Church holds a General Conference that brings together delegates representing the entire global church.
I want to argue for a return to the original sense of Wesleyan conferencing as a means of grace. I say this because conferencing has veered so widely from that sense and become an overly politicized exercise in ecclesiastical business. (This happens at annual conference sessions, but it is particularly acute at the General Conference once every four years.)
It isn’t that politicking and necessary church business weren’t always a part of conference in early Methodism. They were, of course, because the church has always been made up of real people with real (and differing) opinions. That was the case particularly in American Methodism’s first few decades after the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church, when the Methodists were trying to figure out how to be a full-fledged church rather than an evangelical movement within a larger church structure.
The difference between then and now was that there was a serious attitude toward conference as – first and foremost – the place where the Methodist preachers gathered to renew ties, celebrate the church’s ministry in worship, and engage in planning for the church’s mission going forward. Reading accounts of early conferences, there are surely examples of sharp disagreements and even of power plays made for particular points of view. But what seems to be the case quite clearly was that conference was also a means of grace, which the preachers considered to be vital to what they were doing in their lives and ministries. And what seems entirely lacking is the business-heavy, bureaucratic feel that attends so much of our conferencing in the present.
For my current column in the United Methodist Reporter, I’ve written an article advocating for just such a recovery of conferencing as a means of grace. For those who don’t know a lot about Methodist polity (that is, church governance), I’ve also included some material there that might help you understanding how and why the United Methodist Church is structured in the way that it is.
The idea of “conference” is not just a handy way to organize and govern a large ecclesiastical institution like the UMC. When it is done as it should be, conference is a real means of grace that can center all that we do in mission and ministry. That should be what we’re aiming for in all our conferencing.