Annual Conference in the Age of Coronavirus

We had our meeting of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church this past weekend. The clergy session back in June, Friday’s business session, and Saturday’s ordination service were all done online, mostly via Zoom. Normally Conference runs several days. Normally Conference requires over a thousand people to take time off work, travel hundreds of miles, stay in a hotel, eat out, and in other ways inconvenience themselves.

By doing Conference online we were able to eliminate much of the cost. Instead of spending days away from our normal work and life, we did our business Friday between 8:30am and 4:30pm. We were fast and efficient. We saved thousands of dollars by not having to stay in hotels, eat out, and drive the hundreds of miles to get to Houston. Doing Annual Conference this way was a model of efficiency in so many ways!

It was horrible. I hope we never have to do it that way again.

Conference traditionally starts with Charles Wesley’s hymn:

And are we yet alive,
and see each other’s face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give
for his almighty grace!

Watching Conference online we saw SOME faces as they sang the song – but the video doesn’t start at the beginning, so we don’t even hear the first part of the hymn. We DO NOT see “each other’s face.” We did not see each other at all.

We all know there’s a good reason we did things the way we did. We know that with a highly contagious virus on the loose, a virus that has killed at least 170,000 in our country (some estimates put the number well over 200,000), a virus that has maimed thousands with lasting health impairments, it’s makes sense to play it safe and NOT be face to face this time around.

I understand it, but I don’t like it.

Those who know me know that I’m all in favor of efficiency and saving money. Being efficient and cost effective are good things to aim for. But if we make them our highest goals, if they become our focus, we’ve lost.

God made us embodied creatures. We’re not just, as James K.A. Smith says, “brains on a stick.” If we were just “brains on a stick,” hearing reports and engaging at the distance online “connection” affords may be just fine. But we need more – we need to personal connection, the “having our bodies in proximity to each other.” We need to “see each other’s face.”

When we focus on efficiency alone, we miss the other dimensions of Annual Conference. We can say that it’s the annual need to do business that draws us together. On my own list of why I go to conference “conducting business” is way down the list. For me the top reasons for looking forward to going to Conference are:

  1. Seeing each other.
  2. Worship with enthusiastic, vigorous singing.
  3. A change of pace for my life

Seeing the faces of people I know – laity and other pastors – builds me up. It creates and strengthens our frayed connection. Taking time to sit down and catch up with people I see once a year touches my soul. The pace of a multi-day conference, a style with inefficiency built in, makes it possible to step away from business sessions so I can engage with people without feeling like I’m missing something earth-shattering. By having sessions extended over days we have the opportunity for chance meetings in hallways. We get to meet new people and establish new friendships.

Our United Methodist connection is frayed. We’re divided beyond repair, with each side finding the convictions and practices of the other side not just wrong or misguided, but repulsive, ungodly, and evil, contrary to the gospel. Having personal relationships with people – even friendships – across the lines of conflict, has slowed our demise. Now, being unable to be face to face, unable even to set up the terms of our divorce in a peaceable, structured, thought-out manner, is hurting us all even more.

I’m not optimistic – if optimism means looking at where trends and events in the world are taking us. I do have hope, hope based on the resurrection of Jesus, his gift of the Holy Spirit to the church and the saints, and the continued call to fulfill his Great Commission. I’ll be coming boldly before the throne of grace in my time of need. I need more than Zoom, more than virtual conferencing, more than efficiency.

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