Since I have been a Methodist all of my life, going to conference seems like a natural thing. It is hard to imagine being a part of a church which does not have an annual meeting of representatives of all of the congregations and clergy in a region. Yet I know that this Methodist pattern is unusual in the larger Christian community.
I must admit that over the years I have had different attitutudes at different times about going to conference. When I was a young new pastor, conference was a break from the routine of the local church. I got away for a few days, connected with old friends and made new friends, and got a reminder that I was a part of a much bigger church. I did not have much responsibility at conference, and frankly I did not pay close attention to all of the business of the conference, but I was grateful to be a part of something bigger than my daily experience. I think as I got older, I became more interested in the business of the conference. Being more mature, I developed a better understanding of the importance of even some of the mundane business, and I suppose I developed a little more patience for sitting through long sessions. It was a slow process for me, but over the years I came to really appreciate and enjoy the whole experience of an annual conference, not only the connecting with friends I did not usually see, but also being a part of the connection at a state-wide level. Now I think it is strange how there are other Christians who have no conference to attend every year.
Along with many others, I have been preparing for the 2009 Florida Annual Conference at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. I really appreciate President Trudie Kibbe Reed and the administrative staff of the University bending over backwards to host us. Hosting an annual conference is not part of their usual agenda, and I am grateful for their generosity in allowing us to be on their campus.
I have sought to guide the planning of our conference this year toward a different kind of format. I have asked our presenters to get away from reading reports or summarizing their work for the past year. We can read about that in the written reports. In recent years, we have not had much reading of reports, but we have had reporting on the past year's activities. I have encouraged the presenters to use their time to call our attention to some dimension of ministry we can learn about and discuss. We cannot discuss everything at one conference, but over a period of conferences, we can cover much territory. For example, I think that we need to focus on "making disciples of Jesus Christ" as one major part of every conference. Rather than hearing reports from every conference entity that deals with disciple-making, let us turn our common attention to just one concern, or to one way we all can become more faithful and fruitful in our disciple-making ministry. The conference this year will be organized around the following segments: Transforming the World by Cherishing the Creation; Making Disciples of Jesus Christ; Celebrating the World-Wide Church (when we shall bless Dr. Armando Rodriguez and Icel Rodriguez for their year of work as our conference missionaries to East Angola, and we shall debate constitutional amendments); Ad-Ministry (the services which support the ministries of the churches and clergy of our conference); Leaving a Legacy (when we shall celebrate anniversaries and retirements and look forward to participating in the Together! capital and endowment campaign as a way of handing on a legacy of strong common ministries of our conference); and Sending Forth Leaders (when we shall elect our officers and announce clergy appointments). In the Administry section, I want to try a different approach than receiving detailed reports from the committees which deal with pensions, finances, insurance, and property. I have asked our Treasurer to give us a holistic overview of the administrative and financial life of the conference so that we can all get the big picture. Then we shall ask the heads of the committees to present their reports for adoption. Unless the conference wants to vote on each resolution of each committee, I intend to ask us to vote on all the resolutions contained within the whole report at one time. We are going to try this approach this year and see how you like it.
I know this is a difficult time financially, but I hope that every congregation will receive an offering for our annual conference offering this year. Even if you have not taken it yet, you could take it this summer. Thanks to your generosity over several years, the Florida Conference has made a big difference in the life of The United Methodist Church in Angola. To have Armando and Icel there for a year will be a tremendous advance in our partnership with the East Angola Conference. Icel will take care of several teams who will get a first-hand look at the needs and hopes of the people and church in Angola. Armando will be a part of the School of Theology in Quessua which our conference has helped to rebuild after it was destroyed by the rebel forces of the late Joseph Savimbi. Actually, I am hoping congregations will want to become sponsors of the Rodriguez's this year, but we will need a good offering to send them off and to accomplish the other goals identified by our committee overseeing the partnership under the leadership of the Rev. Steve Price.
I ask for your faithfulness in attending the sessions. This is the only time every year when we come together as members of one body, and the absence of any member in our sessions diminishes us.
I said that I have been preparing for conference. I have also been praying. I am praying that we shall experience God's Spirit with us and sending us forth in mission. I am also praying every day for all of our clergy and churches and ministries across our state. These are times when often it is not easy to be a Christian or to be the church of Jesus Christ in a community. At the same time, I have a lot of hope for the future as we shake off the lethargy of past ways and embrace God's call to be Christ's real church in this time and place. But this is not something we manufacture; it is the work of God's Spirit. I ask you to pray for our conference and for the work of the Lord through us in the year to come.