In chapter 5, Kisker turns his attention to conferencing in the Methodist tradition. His description of the way annual and general conferences function is not much different than my experience with them over the past five years. We meet as an Annual Conference every year. We ordain a new group of Deacons and Elders, we honor those who cease active service, we remember those who have died in the previous year. We also get to spend time in worship and in reviewing legislation that comes from various committees across the conference. Additionally we get to reconnect with sisters and brothers in Christ that we haven’t seen much in the prior year.
Kisker believes the majority of United Methodists would be surprised that none of these activities are the reason conferencing was established within Methodism by John Wesley. That, instead, grew out of Wesley’s oversight of the Methodist movement. It is describes beautifully here,
In 1738, a high church Anglican, Oxford academic met Jesus for real and began acting very contrary to character. He lowered himself to preach outside of a church and to focus his attentions not on the promising young men in the university, but on the working class men and women struggling along in early industrial England.
As a result, Wesley incorporated lay leadership and lay preaching in the leadership of the early Methodist groups. The first conference, then, was designed to gather the spiritual leaders of these Methodist groups, those in particular who were open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, to think, talk, and pray together as they sought God’s direction. All of their questions reflected these general questions,
- What to teach;
- How to teach;
- What to do; that is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice
The early Methodists didn’t gather to discuss legislation that made little difference in the lives of the people they served. Instead of meeting and using the same tactics and practices as congress, we are called to confer for only one reason,
We confer for one reason and one reason only. Because we are called to play a part in a movement of God’s Spirit. And that movement is big…United Methodism matters only if it is connected to, a part of, that movement. If not, it is worthless, and might as well cease to exist. To make sure we are continuing to be part of that movement requires discernment. And discerning the Spirit of God requires a seeking community.
I agree wholeheartedly with Kisker’s read on the situation at this point. Not only our churches, but any of our institutions cease to matter if they are disconnected from the movement of God’s Spirit.
After a discussion of the steps it would take to truly conference in our world today, Kisker closes with a segment that provides hope for what could be,
It might amaze people to find out that at one time conference was a place of expectation – where revival might break out – where people might get converted to God…Conference was a place where ordinary people might find something extraordinary to pledge their lives to – a movement of God’s Spirit sweeping this world… Many a newcomer gets converted at annual conference, but I fear it is generally not to Jesus.
I actually think this (conversion) could happen at our annual conference, if only based on the strength of our Bishop’s preaching. He effectively offers the gospel in ways that call people to repentance and conversion. I can picture women and men giving their lives to the extraordinary call of Christ in response to the worship that we sometimes encounter at conference – if you were at last year’s ordination service, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
However, I also sense the frustration that Kisker describes. Sometimes we spend thirty minutes to an hour working on a piece of legislation that is basically passing a proclamation about something or another that apparently goes in a file that never impacts anything. I still remember a piece of legislation that proposed the highest paid employee of a church couldn’t make more than a certain percentage more than the lowest paid employee. It was poorly thought out and didn’t factor in a consideration of rural churches whatsoever, but we spent forever talking about this inane piece of legislation. That’s the kind of thing conference can devolve into.
All in all, I think Kisker’s hope for conferencing probably won’t happen in my lifetime, and it is probably the weakest chapter in an excellent book. In the next (and final!) installment, we’ll look at his thoughts for a way forward.