For a third year, it was my honor to represent Glenn as a lay member of the Annual Conference. From the first gathering at Opening Worship to communion at Closing Worship, from walking shoes every day to seersucker on Thursday, from handwritten seat labels to electronic voting devices, the three thousand North Georgia Methodists were connected and united in many ways as we took over the Classic Center in Athens, GA for nearly three days of reports and votes, prayers and praise, and songs and sermons.
A few months before conference, Glenn friends Donn Ann Weber and Robert Gilleo invited me to join the Planning and Logistics Team. Robert has previously managed much of this himself, but for 2018, he recruited a team that included Nate Abrams, whose wife Joya was ordained this year, and Glenn’s pastoral alumna, the Rev. Dr. Jessica Terrell, who now serves at Eatonton First UMC. We were ably assisted by Glenn members Carole Adams, Carolyn Gilbert, and Ken Weber. Our group did an incredible variety of things to facilitate the work of the conference, to support the other teams working at the conference, and to assist individuals and groups moving to and from the Grand Hall and Theater stages for reports, presentations, and worship. Even when seat cards stuck to the robes of the Bishop and Cabinet members, even when we were asked dozens of times if the unmovable lectern could be moved, even when the names and total numbers of those to be licensed, commissioned, and ordained kept changing, even when we were up late and then asked complicated questions at our 7:00 a.m. breakfast meeting, it was truly a joy to be among good people doing good work and to be able to contribute to a successful annual conference.
The most meaningful time of conference for me came on Thursday morning when our outstanding bishop, Sue Haupert-Johnson, talked frankly and clearly about the work of the multinational Commission on the Way Forward and the called General Conference in 2019 that will take up matters relating to the way that human sexuality is dealt with in Methodism. Bishop Sue outlined the three models developed by the Commission and the intense meetings of the Council of Bishops as they considered these models. Two particular quotes from her presentation have stayed with me: "Distance yourself from those who love dispute" and “Do not rashly tear asunder.”
Those are good pieces of advice any time, especially in the months ahead, as these matters are discussed and debated with emotion, passion, and intensity. May we all pray with and for those who will attend the called General Conference and make crucial decisions for our denomination and its people.
Annual Conference was especially meaningful to me this year because of the serious forceful and direct content of the sermons. Bishop Sue and other leaders spoke of our responsibility to bring Jesus’ message to persons outside of our regular “in house” programs and to witness in love to all persons since we are all precious in God’s sight. This implies that we must make the changes in our social principles which are barriers to inclusion. Our congregation has a unique opportunity to increase our loving outreach ministries here at Emory and in the broader community.
I am so grateful to be a member of a democratic denomination. I am also grateful to represent Glenn as a delegate! I’m always proud to say that I’m a member of Glenn, but especially at Conference. Below were some of the stand out moments for me.
I really enjoyed Bishop Sue starting with a call for repentance and humility. This was something I felt was missing from last year’s conference. Her opening sermon went on to call for us to love God, love our neighbor, and to not judge others. These days, it feels especially necessary for us as individuals and as a church to remember these core teachings of Jesus.
The presentations on spiritual disciplines were also enjoyable. My particular favorite was Dr. Ellen Shepard and Dr. Greg Ellison both quoting Howard Thurman, in helping us seek the “Sound of the Genuine” inside ourselves. As a huge fan of Howard Thurman, working in one of his quotes effectively, will almost always win you points with me!
I don’t often want to be ordained, but if I could pick a preacher for my pretend ordination ceremony, I’d pick Rev. Byron Thomas. His sermon during this year’s ceremony was nothing short of inspirational: "You are not here by accident. You are here on business, and therefore your worth does not come from anyone outside yourself. You were born in this world with intrinsic worth or value. If you did not grow up in the best of circumstances, it's alright. God already incorporated into your very fiber worth and value." His words undoubtedly inspired the new pastors as well as those of us in the congregation to go do the Lord’s work.
Finally, Bishop Sue addressed the big issue facing our church right now: Are we, as a church, able to LOVE LGBTQI people? The Bishop was very diplomatic, which was probably needed in a room so divided. She did a good job being diplomatic while still leading the church toward love and full acceptance of our LGBTQI siblings.
This year at Annual Conference, the bishop and worship leaders spent considerable time focusing on “The Art of Spiritual Formation.” Bishop Sue feels strongly that each of us, clergy and laity alike, need to spend time away from the world - reflecting, meditating, and renewing our relationship with God - in order to “move toward Perfection in Love.” Our Methodist founder, John Wesley, was dedicated to spiritual practices and discipline.
We were encouraged to be like an athlete who works at a physical strength, employing exercises to strengthen our spirits as well. Our bishop referred to “your prayer closet” often, and throughout the “work elements of the conference” - hearing reports, reviewing budgets, and other administrative areas of church work - we were given time to focus on several methods of aligning our spirits with God’s will for our lives. I was struck by the images of John Wesley’s fasting each week and a Candler School of Theology professor’s approach to understanding our own spiritual type (which explains why some of us focus on ritual and liturgy, for example, while others consider these ceremonies less important). Other disciplines included “Care for the Earth,” “The Examen” which is a prayer practice, “Fixed Hour of Prayer,” Lectio Divina” which focuses on reading scripture and reflection, “Visio Divina” a “holy seeing using a work of art in meditation," and “Spoken Word” using poetry and music. Our former minister of Glenn youth, Millie Kim, was a leader in one of these practices and gave us insights into her personal use of Lectio Divina. All of these served as reminders to make time for connecting with God daily, and made me think of the work of Glenn congregant, Luther Lewis, whose Prayer Guides have aided us monthly in reading, reflection, and prayer.
A Candler professor, Tavares Stephens, gave perhaps the most powerful image for me: he read a passage about his grandmother who took him on a “Summer Dark” where they went to an area away from city lights and sounds. She encouraged him to look and listen for the ways God related to him. He thought of sitting on her old porch, feeling the strength of her own faith, as he learned to seek God for himself.
May we each set aside time to learn a new way of developing our spiritual lives and being open to God’s voice and spirit. Seek your own unique way to renew your spirit, and become more of the being the Great I Am called you to be.
All shall be well, all shall be well...For there is a Force of Love moving through the universe that holds us fast, and will never let us go. Julian of Norwich, 1342-1416