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COMMENTARY: Conferencing as a means of grace Andrew C. Thompson, Mar 7, 2012
Andrew C. Thompson
By Andrew C. Thompson UMR Columnist
The time for General Conference is almost upon us. Is that a good thing?
The once-every-four-years event represents a gathering of the entire United Methodist connection—from Europe to the Philippines, and from Africa to the United States. So it generates a lot of excitement.
But General Conference also generates something else.
It generates anxiety. And a lot of it.
The political nature of the gathering is undeniable, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Any group of three or more people has politics to it. And with a conference representative of 12 million Christians, the political component has got to be expected.
The question we should ask ourselves is this: “Must the politics of General Conference dominate the conference itself?”
The skeptical person might say yes. But the Wesleyan will want something different.
‘Chain of conferences’
The Book of Discipline describes the United Methodist Church as “a connectional structure maintained through its chain of conferences.”
Fair enough. We are organized and governed by an overlapping structure of conferencing. And for over 225 years, that’s worked pretty well for us.
At the most local level there is the charge conference that governs the life of the local church. Most Methodists would find that their local congregation is classified as a “charge” with its own yearly charge conference. Some smaller congregations are grouped together in a single charge.
There’s also the district conference that coordinates the ministry of local churches at the district level. It is, more or less, the descendant of the old quarterly conferences that met four times per year in between annual conference sessions.
Then of course there is the annual conference, which our Discipline explains as the fundamental unit of the church itself (¶11). The church membership of clergy is actually held in the annual conference rather than in a local church. Our bishops preside over the annual conferences. And since the early days of American Methodism, annual conferences have been the basic organizational unit of the connection for shared mission and ministry.
Jurisdictional conferences (in the U.S.) and central conferences (elsewhere in the world) exist as regional groupings of annual conferences. They have the important task of electing new bishops for the Church once every four years as well as some other limited duties.
Finally there is the General Conference itself. It is representative of the entire connection. And it is the only body that has the authority to speak for the whole United Methodist Church.
On the face of it, there’s nothing necessarily theological about this organization. We could have chosen some other form of church government if we had wanted. This one has some good qualities and some bad—an effective but not a flawless system.
But we also can’t stop by just looking at the face of the system. The idea of conferencing is too deeply rooted in the Wesleyan tradition for that. And by looking to our tradition, we’ll find that it is very theological indeed.
A key component
We can look first to the Book of Discipline, which recognizes the true meaning of Wesleyan conferencing in a section of our canon law dealing with the mission and ministry of the Church.
The Church affirms that its core mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. That phrase itself is repeated often. But what isn’t discussed as much is the way we understand the work of discipleship formation to happen.
Consider the statement from ¶122 of the Discipline: “We make disciples as we . . . nurture persons in Christian living through worship, the sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and other means of grace, such as Wesley’s Christian conferencing.”
This is a strong statement about the role of conference within the life of discipleship. It places the role of holy conference—quite rightly—as a key component of the Church’s mission and ministry.
It also situates conference as among the means of grace. That’s fitting as well, since as a means of grace is exactly how John Wesley considered it.
In his 1785 essay, “Thoughts Upon Some Late Occurrences,” Wesley identifies the original intent of a “conference” in Methodism. It is a valuable source from late in Wesley’s life that sheds light on his view of the practice of conferencing as a means of grace.
Wesley writes, “In June 1744, I desired my brother and a few other Clergymen to meet me in London, to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those that heard us. After some time, I invited the lay Preachers that were in the house to meet with us. We conferred together for several days, and were much comforted and strengthened thereby.”
Then he goes on: “The next year I not only invited most of the Traveling Preachers, but several others, to confer with me in Bristol. And from that time for some years, though I invited only a part of the Traveling Preachers, yet I permitted any that desired it, to be present. . . . This I did for many years, and all that time the term Conference meant not so much the conversations we had together, as the persons that conferred.”
These are key examples from Wesley that point us to how we can understand holy conferencing as a means of grace today. The conference is not a business session at the most fundamental level. And it is not a political arena in which to debate and pass legislation.
Conference is instead a group of people, who meet together to confer on the most crucial issues of ministry before all of us, and who can be “much comforted and strengthened” through the process.
So conferencing should be central to how we equip ourselves for the work before us. And if we’re approaching it in the right way, we’ll find the Holy Spirit at work in our midst and offering us God’s sustaining grace.
The Rev. Thompson is an instructor in historical theology & Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary. Reach him at www.andrewthompson.com.