An Ecosystem of Conferences: The Methodist Way of Being Christian Together

April 06, 2016

Seven Reflections 
by Ken Carter, Resident Bishop Florida Area, United Methodist Church
  1. We are created in the image of a God who is communal and trinitarian. Our lifelong journey of sanctification is the recreation of that image, which is love, in each of us. This process happens in community and not in isolation. Social holiness, we are learning, is not so much a synonym for social justice as it is the context by which we undertake this journey: we walk together, not alone. For this reason Methodists are a conferencing people before we are a confessional people. We work out our convictions in relationships with each other. We cannot work out our own salvation unless others are watching over us in love. Through conferencing we clarify what to believe, what to teach and what to do—and at our peril we have neglected the first two of these concerns. Through conferencing we are open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of our brothers and sisters and their churches and contexts.
  1. At our best, Methodists are shaped by an ecosystem of conferences. Our well-being rests in the health and vitality of each of these distinct forms of community. These are the class meetings, the charge conference, the annual conference and the general conference. In his definitive book The Methodist Conference in America, Russ Richey describes the character and purpose of the conferences: Charge Conferences were about revival; Annual Conferences were about fraternity, and General Conferences shaped our polity. These historic descriptions might be seen in the present time as spirituality, community and governance.
  1. In reframing the purposes of these conferences for our own time, we might say that Charge Conferences are where the adaptive work happens; Annual Conferences are about the alignment of leadership (clergy and laity) with missionary strategy, and General Conferences are about direction, legislation and governance. I am convinced that one of our challenges, as we approach Portland and the 2016 General Conference, is that we have confused the reasons for these gathering. Many charge conferences have lost their spiritual purpose, and have become attempts to construct polity with an increasingly small (and anxious) leadership base. Many annual conferences are dominated by polity and legislative direction, even as the strength of Methodism in a regional area weakens. And each General Conference has a decreasing level of trust and expectation.
  1. In our tradition each of the three conferences assumed a more primary experience: the class meetings of the early Methodists. Here we embody and teach the core activities—the practice of becoming disciples of Jesus and making disciples of Jesus; these practices do not happen in any of the conferences. Here we reflect on our journeys in relation to questions of faithfulness and fruitfulness. In our tradition discipling happens in small groups that include support and accountability, and that, in time, build trust—in each other, and ultimately in God.
  1. I am convinced that our ecosystem of conferences, our way of being Methodist Christians together, is fragile and even endangered. The anxiety about division and schism in our church speaks to this reality. When I am asked about the upcoming General Conference, I often hear two underlying questions—what will the church say about human sexuality and will the church stay together? And so we gather in that place within our ecosystem where the trust level is most fragile—the General Conference—to do work that assumes an intimacy, a dignity and a trust level that is simply not present.
  1. Strengthening our ecosystem of conferences, our way of being Christian together, requires a renewed attention to the basic experience of social holiness. In small groups we confess our sins, acknowledge our need, and claim our gifts. In circles of trust we disciple each other and mature as disciples. In these contexts we can teach and learn about subjects of extraordinary complexity, precisely because we know and are known. In covenant relationships we more fully reflect the nature of God, whose nature and name is love.
  1. My sense is that we have lost our way in the United Methodist Church by abandoning the stewardship of our ecosystem of conferences. Were we attend to this birthright gift, again, we would ask a very different set of questions: In the Charge Conference, “who is my neighbor?” as a way of renewing our spirituality; in the Annual Conference, “and are we yet alive?”, as a way of reclaiming our connections; and in the General, “what is the relationship between law and grace?, as a means of remaining in covenant as one church. More fundamentally, the urgency is to attend to conferencing at the most basic, local and personal level, and here the questions are simple and severe: “How is it with my soul?” and “How am I bearing fruit?”

(Ken Carter served in the WNCC from 1983-2012. He offers this reflection in gratitude for the experience of community in the annual conference during these years.)

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