In the May edition of his blog, A Joyful Journey, Bishop David Bard remembers his first ever Annual Conference in 1983 and reflects on the upcoming 2019 Michigan Annual Conference …
It was 1983, and I was headed for my first ever United Methodist Annual Conference (this one in Minnesota). I was a seminary student at the time and was scheduled to meet with my District Committee on Ordained Ministry just before the Annual Conference session so that I could be certified as a candidate. I was hoping for that status as I was going to graduate from seminary in 1984, and you were required to be a certified candidate for a year before applying for probationary membership. I hoped that I would become a probationary member and receive my first appointment after graduating from seminary.
Julie and I had been married not yet a year, and she was expecting our first child. We were living in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area and that year Annual Conference was being held in Duluth, 150 miles north and east. I was waiting with the car packed to pick Julie up from the bus she took from work in downtown Minneapolis so we could head north.
We never arrived at Annual Conference. While leaving work, Julie’s water broke. She ended up in the hospital where a week later our son, David, was born, six weeks premature. My district committee was gracious in certifying me, pending a later interview. I was elected to probationary membership and ordained a Deacon in 1984, receiving my first appointment that same year.
I have never missed an Annual Conference since 1984. During the seven years, I was in Texas completing my Ph.D., we returned to attend the Minnesota Annual Conference each June. The year I completed my doctorate, I had my name drawn to be the conference preacher for the following year.
Yes, Minnesota has this interesting tradition where all the clergy have their name in a box, and the bishop draws a name at the end of the Annual Conference for the following year’s Annual Conference preacher. My 1995 Minnesota Conference sermon was entitled, “Wildy Wise and Winged,” and I still have a copy or two around if you have a VHS player and are interested. In the early 2000s, the Minnesota bishop needed a new parliamentarian, and I volunteered for the role, a position I held through the 2016 Annual Conference.
In 2017 there was a dramatic change in my participation at Annual Conference. I was now attending Annual Conference here in Michigan and I was the bishop.
For all these years I have enjoyed and appreciated Annual Conference. I love the creative and energetic worship. I love connecting with friends. I appreciate the enriching conversations, including those that happen during committee meetings and plenary sessions. Though my role and responsibilities have changed dramatically now that I am a bishop, I still look forward to Annual Conference. I also understand that each of our recent Annual Conferences has been significant. 2017 was my first Annual Conference with you and your first meeting together in Traverse City. In 2018 we took our final votes to become the Michigan Annual Conference, with the special session of the General Conference looming on the horizon. Now as we come together at Annual Conference in 2019 we are on the other side of General Conference, a General Conference that highlighted and even heightened our differences and divisions as a denomination. This will be yet another significant Annual Conference.
I know there is anxiety and apprehension as we get ready to be together in Traverse City. We will gather with very different ideas and feelings related to where we are as a United Methodist Church. We will consider resolutions that ask us who we are and who we want to be as a conference moving into the future, particularly if The United Methodist Church creates multiple new Methodisms. These will be delicate and passionate conversations. This will be deep and heavy stuff.
Yet remember that we gather with those with whom we have shared the journey of ministry for some time now. We have prayed together, worked together, sung together, laughed together, wept together. We gather to celebrate licensing, commissioning, and ordination. We gather to acknowledge our colleagues and friends who are retiring from active licensed or ordained ministry and to express our deep gratitude to them for work well done. Together we will mourn the loss of colleagues and friends who have finished their course in faith and who now rest from their labors.
As we get ready for Annual Conference 2019, I know that our anxieties, fears, hopes, dreams, disappointments, and passions will come with us. They pack themselves. In May 2017, getting ready for my first Annual Conference with you, I encouraged us to pack some other things, too, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart and a humble mind. (I Peter 3:8) I mentioned a powerful section of Scripture, creatively rendered by Eugene Peterson in The Message. So chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline…. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic all-purpose garment. Never be without it. (Colossians 3). I invited us to pack these as well.
At this significant and challenging Annual Conference, we will have the opportunity to express hopes, dreams, fears, anxieties, and passions. How we choose to do so matters. If we let sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, a humble mind, compassion, kindness, quiet strength, and discipline guide our way, we will say what we want to say, make the decisions we need to make. We will make those decisions in ways that are less wounding and more caring, in ways that acknowledge our shared history and work rather than ignore it, in ways that more adequately reflect the love of the One who has called us by name and who continues to send us into the world to witness to that love in word and deed.
Annual Conference this year will not be easy, but it can be gracious.
Get ready for Annual Conference with me on the next leg of this Joyful Journey.