Why I Do General Conference
Jay Voorhees, Sr. Pastor of the City Road Chapel United Methodist Church (located in Nashville, TN), offers his perspective on how to keep hope in the connectional value of General Conference 2016, beginning May 10.
By Jay Voorhees
In 1988 I participated in my first United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis, MO. I was 27 years old, a relatively new employee of United Methodist Communications, and had been sent to coordinate the very first use of video screens and electronic voting by the General Conference. I still claimed to be a Baptist boy back then, albeit not a very active church participant, and the gathering in St. Louis was my first real taste of how United Methodists came together every four years to figure out who they are and where God is calling them.
Since then I've attended every General Conference with the exception of the 2008 gathering in Ft. Worth (when I was in Israel instead). I've worked coordinating facilities and arrangements (1992, 1996, and 2000). I served on the organizational staff (2004). I helped the conference embrace social media (2012). Sometimes I've been paid well for this work, but other times I went and worked simply for the experience of be present. Every four years for the past 28 years I have given up two weeks of my life to help United Methodists conduct their business.
There is a sense of "homecoming" at these gatherings, even though they happen in a different location each time.
Why? Well there is a sense of "homecoming" at these gatherings, even though they happen in a different location each time. There are people throughout the broad family of the United Methodist Church that I reconnect with during these meetings. Our lives are so busy and our work is in many locations so we rarely have a chance to see one another (outside of Facebook) and the General Conference offers the chance to speak face-to-face, sit down and break bread together, and catch up on what has been happening since the last time we met.
But the main reason I continue to attend these gatherings is that they most fully represent what we United Methodists call our "connectional nature." Unlike other church groups, United Methodists believe (or at least we claim to believe) that we are mutually connected to one another. We are not individual entities gathered together in some sort of federation. Instead we are radically and intimately connected to one another, and the General Conference is our chance to define what that means.
For me, the General Conference is an expression of the Rev. Martin Luther King's vision that all of us are interrelated, and that we are caught up in a web of mutuality and connect that is part of God's design. In my idealistic interpretation of the work of the General Conference (more on that later) coming together as a connected people represents a prophetic statement about who God is in a world that is more often caught up in individualism. The General Conference is more than simply a business meeting. It is part and parcel of what it means to be a connectional people for the delegates to that meeting are discerning God's will for ALL of us for the next four years. That requires a lot of trust -- something we struggle with very much.
General Conference is a meeting of broken humans in need of God's grace and that reality leads to brokenness in our relations with one another.
I know that the previous vision is overly idealistic. If attending 6 of the last 7 General Conferences has taught me anything, it’s that our lack of trust leads us to depend more often on legislative gymnastics than the power of God's Spirit. The General Conference is a political meeting, and as a political junkie there is a certain appeal to the machinations that go on. The fears and desires of folks from all backgrounds are projected on the General Conference meeting, and as is true throughout the rest of our lives those fears and desires can often lead us away from Christ's ideal of love. General Conference is a meeting of broken humans in need of God's grace and that reality leads to brokenness in our relations with one another.
And yet, what other option do we have? If we believe that God has brought us together, that we are connected in profound ways to one another, and that we are being sent with a mission to share the love of God to the world, we have no other choice but to come together to organize and deploy. To do otherwise is to fall into a sort of spiritual anarchy. From the beginning of creation God has been forming chaos into order. The General Conference is the means by which United Methodist engage in the act of creating and re-creating, working together toward becoming more fully who God wants us to be.
I'm going to Portland this May for my 7th General Conference. I wouldn't miss it for the world.
Jay Voorhees is the Sr. Pastor of the City Road Chapel United Methodist Church (located in Nashville, TN), and is a founding partner of CircuitWriter Media LLC, a media holding company which operates The United Methodist Reporter and The MethoBlog. A former television producer/director and event manager, Jay offers commentary on issues of faith and life in the UMC at Only Wonder Understands. Jay has been an advocate on issues of justice and public policy in his hometown of Nashville, TN, and has written about these on his blog: Just Nashville.