Every year thousands of Methodists from all over the western half of Ohio descend upon beautiful Lakeside, Ohio one week a year to engage in worship, making reports, and conducting business. The worship and preaching is generally excellent, and this year is no exception. If you had told me we were going to get to hear Will Willimon, Reuben Job, and Rudy Rasmus all in the same week, I'd have laughed like a crazy man. But that's exactly who spoke this year.
Before he was a Bishop, William Willimon was an academic at at Duke Theological School. I have to say I've not been the biggest fan of his books (a little dry for my taste), but as a preacher he's fantastic. Wish he wrote more like he spoke.
I heard Bishop Job years ago while in seminary, and actually have been doing something he suggested to us seminarians back when dinosaurs roamed the earth - maintain contact with a classmate, and talk them with them regularly about life, church, theology, etc. Pauly Rebelo and I took that to heart and have practiced this friendship and community ever since. I told him after the service about how Pauly and I were still following his advice and how much it meant to us, and the man actually got choked up. Click here to take a gander at his new book, "Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living". It's a quick read, and very good.
Finally, we heard Rudy Rasmus, a radical urban prophet who pastors a rather large church in one of Houston's toughest neighborhoods. My Beeson Class met Rudy last year, and one of us, Alicia Coltzer, even talked to him about the possibility of serving at his church. He was nothing short of fantastic. You can order his book here, and if you get the chance to hear him preach live or via the web, do so. You won't regret it.
So the worship part of the week has been great. However, as for the reports and business stuff.... not so much.
My knock on the formal part of Annual Conference is that we rarely discuss business or legislation that makes any difference in any quarter of the world. For example, we spent the better part of an hour debating a resolution on encouraging our churches and members to live more environmentally sensitive. Finally, after endless debate, it passed, and now it will be entered into our conference journal at the end of the year. What impact will it have on the environment... zero. Almost no one will read the legislation, the few who do will barely understand it, and life will go on. We'd have been more environmentally sensitive by not wasting the paper that we printed the resolution on, and not using the fossil fuel necessary to keep the lights on in Hoover Auditorium and the sound system/video screens running.
The real truth is that nobody listens to us United Methodist conference leaders anymore.
Not even our own congregations.
The only thing that makes the news at events like Annual Conference is our debate relating to homosexuality. As for how we feel about gambling, or the war, or the environment, or any other social topic, people outside of those who showed up for AC (and not even all of them) could care less. People aren't waiting with baited breath, wondering what the Methodists think about land management policy in municipalities, yet that won't stop someone from putting some resolution regard such a thing on our agenda. It's just a crazy, crazy system.
How in the world we ended up wasting so much time on work that means so little is a mystery to me. And why we continue to do the same work mystifies me even more. At the current rate of decline, by the time I retire from ministry and work in the West Ohio Annual Conference, instead of an auditorium for 3000 people, we'll be able to meet in Annual Conference at a Tim Horton's in Columbus.
"Before we discuss our position on extraterrestrial life, who wants a jelly-filled donut?"
Yet, our continued march toward irrelevance seems not to bother us to sufficiently to do anything about it. Except maybe passing a resolution condemning the membership decline in the West Ohio Annual Conference. I may have to offer that one up next year just to see how poeple react.
But in the end, all of it, the worship, reports, and debates have been good for me personally, because in their relevance and irrelevance, they are forcing me to consider this question: As a pastor of a mainline denominational institutional attractional church, am I doing what Jesus would call me to do, or am I apart of something so insular and detached from reality that I'm more of a Pharisee than a disciple?
Pharisees would seek to first perpetuate the institution and then maybe do some theological instruction and do a few good things for people. Disciples would do theological instruction and good things for people first, and worry about the religious institution second. Sometimes its hard to figure out where I stand because the demands of the institutions are so doggone demanding. Funding, reports, repairs, paying bills - all the minutia that formal churches require - often overwhelm real opportunities for evangelism and service. And, as such, because we are so busy with the minutia, the lack of evangelistic and social justice activity serve to distance us even further from our mission. It's no secret that the largest churches in the denomination, while they may or may not pay their apportionments, end up turning their back on the denomination and become known for the excellent job they do in reaching and serving people.
What this might mean for me and Shawnee UMC I'm not yet sure, but I certainly want to have some conversation around these issues. I don't wanna be no heartless bureaucratic Pharisee more concerned with the bottom line than with serving those who are at their spiritual, emotional, or physical bottom. But that's the challenge.... being able to discern when you've gone over to the dark side.
In any event it's good to meet up with old friends, and since his office is in Port Clinton, I even got to eat lunch with Brother Esq twice. To see my now-responsible-adult-attorney-brother check his work schedule while gripe about moving into a new home and get a twinkle in his eye talking about his son-to-be is a very, very cool experience. How neat it will be to gather with him at our parent's house, as the cousins run around like wild banshees.
Thus ends another Annual Conference. May God have mercy on our souls.
(P.S. Hey Beeson peeps, Matt Scholl says "Hi")