Where is the power and energy at Annual Conference this year? I am not talking about any one Annual Conference — I’m talking about all of them. Is our energy toward building, creating, forming, bridging, healing, mending, bonding, uniting, and becoming? Or is it about conflict, controversy, contention, competition, factions, divisions, agendas, and egos? Oh, I know, it’s both — but I’m talking about our intentions. I am talking about the decisions we make going in. Are we going in as positive forces for transformation or negative forces for getting our own way? Are we going in open to possibilities or are we going in loaded for bear to champion a personal cause? Are we seeking to solve problems or create new ones? Each person has to make up her or his own mind about what kind of attitude and approach she or he will take. Where is our energy?
This is a different question than “where is our power?” — and that may be part of our problem. Annual Conference — and church in general — has come to be so much more about our power to control our own destinies than about God’s power to transform the world. This is a personal observation, gained by attending no less than 31 different annual conferences over the past 15 years (this is the first year that I have only attended my own annual conference since 1995…). What I have seen over the past decade-and-a-half are lots of hurt feelings and endless controversies grounded in a lack of trust and respect, an insistence on narrowly defined theologies from one end of the spectrum to the other, and an unwillingness to concede even one opinion or belief. It is not a pretty sight. And, sadly, it only takes a handful of people to define the energy of the whole Annual Conference. The vast majority of people hold a positive attitude and energy. They love the church and the love the annual meeting. They bask in worship and learning, take very seriously the policy-making, and enjoy the fellowship with other United Methodists. Most have no desire to spend lots of time arguing, debating, fighting, or posturing. They are there to celebrate the work and witness of The United Methodist Church. But that is rarely what gets reported or remembered. Conference after conference, I hear people lament about something that happened at the 2004 or 2006 session. A big bru-ha-ha, a blow-up, a fight. Conference leadership tend to talk about what went well; conference members talk about “the good stuff.”
Is it all bleak? By no means. That’s the point. It doesn’t have to be negative. It doesn’t have to erupt in endless controversy. We don’t have to be The Divided Methodist Church. With very little effort and a small commitment to stay positive, many of our conference encounters could take a 180 degree turn. The key is that WE WANT TO be better. If people make a commitment to make something work, then they find a way to succeed. They don’t give up on each other. They don’t attack each other. They may not like each other, but they care enough to find a way to work things out. This shouldn’t be so hard for Christians to grasp. The reconciling love of God that gave us redemption through Jesus Christ is alive and well and present in the Holy Spirit. (Yes, this is a statement of personal belief. It is a theological, rather than a factual, statement…) The same power that destroys the dividing walls of hostility is available to us today. How we are different and what we disagree over does not have to define us. How we are the same and what we can accomplish together could define us. But we have to want that to happen.
Where is the energy coming from this year at our Annual Conferences? And will we draw from God’s power, or will we fight over our own power, in such short supply?