Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Western PA Annual Conference 2011 in Review

We had a fine Annual Conference last week. From June 9-12, the people called United Methodist in western Pennsylvania gathered at Grove City College in Grove City, PA for our annual gathering. It was a time filled with grace, peace, and joy. For me, it was once again a time of challenge, renewal, and great affirmation. The week was unusual for me in that I left Conference for about a day and a half in order to preside at a wedding in Pittsburgh, but the overall feeling in my view was still positive.

Clergy session saw the approval of some fantastic colleagues in ministry, which is always exciting. Once again, I am blessed to call most of this year's Elders class friends, and I am grateful for that (the few I haven't met, I hope to meet soon!). There were also some painful moments in our clergy session, as sometimes happens, which demonstrated for me afresh the great integrity of Board of Ordained Ministry chairperson David Morse and the members of the board, who seemed to prayerfully and diligently struggle over serious issues in a sincere effort to be fair, just, and faithful. Navigating troubled waters while seeking grace is not easy; they lead us in remarkable fashion and I am blessed by their efforts. I am also renewed in my love and appreciation for my clergy sisters and brothers in our Conference, who continue to be women and men of extraordinary character and steadfast passion. It is without question one of the great honors of my life to be counted in their hallowed ranks, unworthy sinner though I am.

The primary feature of this year's session was the election of delegates to the 2012 UMC General Conference in Tampa, FL and to the 2012 Northeast Jurisdictional Conference in Charleston, WV. The voting went relatively smoothly, and great credit is owed to Conference Secretary John Wilson and his staff as well as to the patience and calming nature of Bishop Tom Bickerton. It is difficult to understand, however, in this age of technology, why we still cast our ballots using 1970s era Scantron cards; surely in future years we can find faster, more efficient ways to perform this simple task. (The EmergingUMC blog has a few suggestions here.) Several good friends of mine were elected as delegates, and I rejoice, even as I begin to pray for their stamina and courage as they face the mountains ahead of them.

If I have one criticism of this year's session, it has to do with the way we elect our delegates. No speeches are permitted, no campaigning of any kind is allowed, and the sharing of any information is to be kept to a minimum. Our well meaning Bishop frowned on any efforts of voters to coalesce around a slate or any pertinent issues. His rationale was that by removing this kind of conversation and dialogue from the process, we might be more open to the movement of the Holy Spirit and less attuned to the politics of the day. This is puzzling in light of moves at the General Church level to encourage campaigning and organizing, as evidenced in this UMNS story, which - ironically - shows a picture of our Conference delegation in years past. I'm not quite certain why we're so out of step with the denomination on this one.

The result of all this, sadly, is in my opinion to create a hyper-political atmosphere in which everyone knows the issues but no one talks. It means that our laity delegation - good people all - is composed primarily of names who work for the Conference, not necessarily a more diverse group of leaders from across the region. It means that for laity and clergy important issues of justice, holiness, and inclusiveness are ignored in favor of fame and popularity. My honest prayer is that in future years our Bishop does not stifle conversation, but is more open to loving dialogue and the challenging means of grace that is real "Christian conferencing".

I often complain about Annual Conference and, to be fair, there are some things we could do better. The endless "commercials", both onscreen and onstage...the tremendous area of opportunity that is "time management"...the failure year in and year out to raise up leaders of color...all of these are areas in which we must improve. I often dread spending a week in Grove City. I've come to the realization, however, that I need to reject that sense of dread. Annual Conference for me has been for several years now an amazingly affirming time, as I reconnect with colleagues, laugh with them and break bread with them. I leave physically worn out but emotionally and spiritually energized, and that is really at least part of why we gather.

So I am thankful to God for Barb Moore, Mark Goswick and the Sessions team, for their commitment to service and excellence each year...for Renaye Hoffman and the Youth Ministry Team for their tireless efforts to minister to the rest of us...and to Bishop Bickerton, for whom Annual Conference is like Christmas; may the joy that he holds for God's people remain with all of us throughout the challenging days of ministry ahead.

1 comment:

Craig L. Adams said...

Thanks for the report.