In the days since our 2015 Annual Conference adjourned on Sunday morning, June 21, I have found some time to rest and recover as well as to look back on our days together. I offer my personal reflections and pray that God will continue to use all of us to advance the mission of Christ in this world, starting in our own neighborhoods and communities.
The Election Process
Once every four years we engage in this exercise of selecting persons who will participate as delegates at the General and Jurisdictional Conferences. It can be frustrating, tedious, and time-consuming. At the same time it can be exciting and hopeful. This year was no different. Using electronic voting equipment did speed up the actual counting and reporting of the ballots, but for some in the auditorium it was aggravating. While there were moments of uncertainty and tension, I deeply appreciated the overall spirit among all of the clergy and lay members and the way in which the conference went about the work of electing delegates.
The forty-eight people now elected and certified will have an extra burden in the coming year. In addition to regular responsibilities and ministries, there will be meetings, discussions, materials to read, and decisions to make. As the facilitator of the process, I watched from a distance and was intrigued by the ebbs and flows of the elections. I know that not everyone or every group was pleased with the results. However our delegation has been selected and I am committed to pray for them on a daily basis over the next twelve months. I urge everyone to join me in supporting and encouraging them.
The Business of the Conference
My hope each year is that the agenda of Annual Conference will balance the work that has to be done with the worship and prayer time that must be done. Over our seven years together, I have strived to make the sessions of Annual Conference truly worshipful work. There are some matters that must be done at conference: adopting the budget, setting the course and vision, commissioning and ordaining clergy, and celebrating the ministry of the laity. We were able to accomplish all of those matters, complete the election process, and hear several key reports, and still finish twenty minutes ahead of the agenda schedule. Again, I am grateful for the cooperation of all the members to move through these items.
There were, of course, moments of intense debate and necessary voting. From the chair where I presided it seemed to me that we did engage in civil conversation, even though not everyone agreed with what might have been spoken. I struggle with attempting to create an atmosphere that allows us to have holy conversations in an assembly of more than 2000 people. I believe that in order for those to be a means of grace as Wesley envisioned, small groups, where trust is built and open dialogue can happen, are a better setting. I learned last fall in our series of “Listening Sessions” across the conference that we can talk about difficult subjects and issues, that we can express differing opinions, and that we can work together in Christ-like love.
The reports and results of the actions of the conference can be found in the various news items posted on our conference web site. The Annual Conference did vote to have me, the bishop, appoint two task groups: one, in cooperation with our Justice and Reconciliation Team, will focus on designing and implanting a series of “healthy conversations” across the conference. It is my hope that these gatherings will allow us to listen to one another, to listen for the promptings of God’s Spirit, and to discover new ways in which we can serve and be in ministry together in spite of holding different opinions about a number of issues. The other task force will work with a similar group in the North Carolina Conference to address issues with and for public education in our state. I will be announcing the make-up of these two groups within the next six weeks, and anticipate creative responses to emerge.
As I reflect on our almost five days together at Lake Junaluska, there are several impressions that will remain with me.
- In the midst of our sessions we heard the news of the tragic event that unfolded at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I will remember the prayerful, tearful response of the members of our conference as we stood and sat in prayer and support for our sisters and brothers.
- The sight of newly licensed, newly commissioned, and newly ordained clergy standing before me is always inspiring. This year was no different as we commissioned 28 persons as provisional members and ordained 28 persons as full connection members of the conference. This is the future leadership of our conference, and I rejoice.
- Recognizing and honoring one clergy and one lay person with the Harry Denman Evangelism Award is a special moment, reminding all of us of the clear call to be witnesses for Jesus Christ in the world, in both deed and word.
- The worship services were wonderful and I am grateful for our Worship Planning Team who worked for months to incorporate our theme and plan a variety of services.
Into the next year
The theme of our conference this year was “Until the Whole World Hears” and was focused on our evangelistic task to make disciples and transform lives and communities. This was the third year in our series of conferences centered on what it means to be a vital church: missional (2013), generous (2014) and evangelistic (2015). I commend to all of you the Laity Address by Jane Boatwright Wood. She did a great job of laying the groundwork for our evangelistic outreach. Also, I refer you to the sermon from our Sunday morning worship service in which I drew upon the call of the disciples in Luke 5:1-11 to “catch people” for Jesus and for the Kingdom as our mandate.
We have several initiatives which will occupy time, attention and energy in the coming months. Our “Congregations for Children” project continues to expand in several districts, and in partnership with the North Carolina Conference. Our “Missional Networks” provide concrete opportunities for many of our churches to serve our communities, to connect with our neighbors, and to witness to the amazing love and mercy of God. FlameBuilders will begin a new cohort of young adult lay persons in a year-long leadership development program; and, churches and volunteers-in-mission teams will travel to other parts of the world to share God’s love. Through it all, my hope is that we will all grow as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
As we closed and adjourned the annual conference session, I challenged all of our churches, both lay and clergy, to engage fully in the work of being evangelists by showing and telling the good news of Jesus Christ. It is my fervent hope and prayer that when we assemble next June the Western North Carolina Conference will show an increase in membership, worship attendance, missional outreach, and lives transformed by God’s grace.