The word on the street is I’m going to be gone this weekend. You heard correctly. The North Carolina Annual Conference is gathering in Greenville. I will be there. To be honest, I dread going. It’s not the idea of conference that makes me queasy. I get it. I know we need fellowship and friendship. Attending annual conference is part of my job. I’m OK with doing my job.
It really comes down to this: Annual Conference can be a little weird. My awkwardness stems from the plethora of outside voices in inside settings, the simmering anger never fully addressed, and the elephants in the room (which everyone has an opinion about) that no one wants to address head on. For a guy who lives on an island (two miles wide, fourteen miles long) and works hard to keep up with the world around him; it’s like going to a family reunion with relatives you barely know. Under no circumstances would you want to talk about religion or politics with some of your relatives at dinner.
Preachers swap stories at annual conference. Pastors talk about church growth, their plans for new buildings, evangelism, money, and vacations. The biggest news I’d like to share with my colleagues is that a drunk man came into worship on Pentecost Sunday, urinated all over himself, the pew and carpet, then created a commotion as we walked out of a full church in the middle of my sermon. My stories, while all true, gross people out. So what do I do? I grab a hot dog and listen to people argue. Time well spent.
It’s not all arguing. There’s good preaching, worship, ordaining, and business meetings. The work of the church must be done. What are we doing? What exactly is our work? That’s the one question my congregation asks most often, “What is it you do at Annual Conference?” This year, my answer has been a little different. I usually give a pat response. I talk about budgets, resolutions, pensions, reports, and ordinations. This year, I’m putting our work in historical terms. Much like Abraham’s Lincoln’s preparations to resupply Fort Sumter in April 1861, we’re getting ready for something bigger that we’re currently able to articulate or understand.
The United Methodist Church doesn’t know how to think, speak, talk, preach, or pray about what we’re doing. We’ve lost our way amid bureaucratic delay, commissions, and blamed our unwillingness to act on simply following the “Holy Spirit”. I am convinced our attempts to cite divine discretion are excuses for inaction. So much uncertainty hangs over our heads and will continue to do so (at least until the interim General Conference in 2019), it feels like we’re playing church and treading ecclesiastical water until we allow someone to decide who we are going to be. These last few conferences of a post 1968 Methodism , while prescribed and rich with the pomp and pageantry of liturgical worship, are place holders for the United Methodist Church currently evolving out of existence.
The status quo will not hold. When the present state of affairs changes, the powerful (even those with good intentions) will be removed from leadership. Whatever a commission decides or an annual conferences votes will ultimately clash with those whose economic and social interests are tied to Methodism’s remaining United. In the end, it will not come down to a question of God wanting us to remain United. We will be told we can’t afford not to be United, regardless of theology or how we read the Bible. Capitalism is the invisible hand keeping United Methodism together. However, this too is slipping.
Our finely tuned machine is crumbling. Playing church and pretending that the present won’t catch up to us is simply sad to watch. But that I’ll do, over this coming weekend, with a hot dog in hand. I’ll see you there.
Richard Lowell Bryant