We Methodists love having an excuse to get together, and as such, our system of church government provides ample opportunities to join together in worship, in business, in study, and in fellowship. But the creme de la creme is Annual Conference.
Once a year United Methodist clergy and laity from all around West Virginia converge on Buckhannon, the home of our Methodist college, West Virginia Wesleyan. The local businesses prepare for the surge and they all know just when to expect the Methodists to come out of the woodwork and take over their beautiful town.
You see us everywhere–restaurants, shops, Wal-Mart. You know us by our blue name badges hanging around our necks (and hopefully by our love).
Over the years, my relationship with the West Virginia has shifted. I went through the long process of ordination–and as such, my relationship with the Annual Conference has shifted dramatically over the years as well. When I started, I was an “observer” who sat in the balcony, close to the exit, and who could skip out on anything I didn’t find absolutely riveting. Then I began ministry–and suddenly I was required to attend and began sitting on the main floor, paying attention to even the most boring, most tedious aspects (because, after all, this is my church and I care about what happens in it).
But as I journey through the steps to ordination, I found myself experiencing the power of United Methodist connectionalism in ways I had never expected, but in ways that have touched my soul very deeply.
After finishing seminary and being approved as a “Provisional Elder” there was an earth-shaking and thunderous round of applause that filled Wesley Chapel. Sometimes, during those long hours in seminary, I felt very alone. This was especially true of my journey because I chose to go to seminary so very far from home and was the only student from the West Virginia Conference in attendance. But that day, being affirmed and welcomed by hundreds of my colleagues and fellow Christians, I knew I would never be alone.
Words will never be able to express the holy moment of ordination–the weight of the hands that rested on my shoulders and back–how heavy the hands of the gentle-handed Bishop William Boyd Grove were on my head–or the amazing way the spirit just sort of lifted me up onto my feet. And as the crowd around me parted and the faces of the congregation greeted me with warmth and love, I knew I’d never be the same again. I was a part of something that would always be so much bigger and with roots that ran so much deeper than my life alone could ever be.
This is my third Annual Conference since that ordination and I still sometimes find it difficult to believe it when I see the “FE” (Full Elder) following my name on materials. When I started the journey, it felt like it would never end. Now, I can’t believe how quickly it all passed.
And then, during the Clergy Session, we went through the familiar routine of voting on and accepting the new Provisional Elders and Deacons as well as those who will be ordained as Full Elders and Deacons. By the time we get to Annual Conference, our actions are largely symbolic. These candidates have been working tirelessly on school work, candidacy requirements, and Board of Ordained Ministry (BOOM) examinations and interviews. They’ve written countless pages of theological and philosophical expositories. They’ve been wading through the world of practical experience. They met with mentors, small groups, and an endless array of committees. They’ve already been thoroughly vetted and BOOM has guaranteed the rest of us that they are suitable for ministry. Therefore, the motions they must go through on this day are really more symbolic than anything.
But don’t tell that to a candidate standing before the full body of clergy–nothing about being up there in the spotlight, with knees quaking and mind racing feels symbolic. They’ve sacrificed and given up so much, they traveled so far, just to answer a call. This is their life.
I have come to love seeing the smiles on the faces of those who candidates when they are marched back into the room after the vote to accept them–to see the joy that floods over them when the body of clergy rises to their feet and begin to applaud.
And let me tell you, these clergy just don’t give a polite little applause. After all, they’ve been there before, too. It’s a lot of whooping and shared happiness. It’s a thunderous, boisterous applause that goes on a little longer than expected–the way we would applaud for a rock star.
But that’s just it. We are applauding for our rock stars. These are the candidates who answered a call and will continue to carry the church forward. On the same day that we honor those clergy who have passed away, we welcome the new clergy and celebrate that they have joined the most amazing show in the world.
So, as I watched the smiles and the tears of happiness (and maybe even relief) on the faces of those taking huge and memorable steps in their faith lives, I couldn’t help but remember the holiness of those moments in my own life.
That’s the beauty of Holy Conferencing. When we come together we share. When we share, we can’t help but remember. And when we remember, we can see the full scope of just how much God has done for us.