Well, Wisconsin Annual Conference, Session the 41st, ended yesterday. Tracking all my rookie mistakes — this being my first year organizing the agenda for conference in my role as DCM (Director of Connectional Ministries) — I can proudly say I only made a few, and a couple of them were of ignorance rather than poor performance. Now, others might have a very different opinion. What I feel good about, others may be disappointed by. That’s the nature of things. But having a day of “detox” from the madness of the past four days, I am mulling over three things.
First observation, conference breeds bizarre ambivalence. There is an atonal rhythm of moving from unifying spiritual focus to divisive topical debate. So many people gathered together is the ideal environment for discord, but so much of the time is (should be) celebration of the faith we share. Jeremy Deaner, a bright, young shining light in our conference preached one of the finest sermons I have heard in years reminding us that we are one. No amount of human pettiness can change that fact. Just because one Christian decides he is better than another Christian, or that a Christian is somehow superior to a non-Christian, or that one Christian’s theology and reading of the Bible is better than her peers, or that clergy are somehow more spiritual than their laity counterparts, doesn’t change the fact that God makes us one. We have no choice in the matter. God has already done it. Deal with it. And yet we don’t deal with it. We spend half our time celebrating our unity out of our diversity and then we spend the other half trying to divide the body into the worthy and the unworthy. How very sad.
Second observation, it only takes a few people to sour a conference experience. Overall, we had a truly remarkable conference. We had a civil and respectful conversation about homosexuality and the church — raising important considerations about talking with people instead of about people, needing to shift focus to a positive celebration of human sexuality as a gift from God, and to keep perspective about the larger issues of justice, grace, and community. Yet, just one or two personal agendas can derail the whole train, shifting the spirit and energy from the positive to the negative in the blink of an eye.
Third observation, we need revival — not just good, old spiritual revival, but revival of our positive regard for one another. So many people initiated contact to accuse, to blame, to confront, and to voice displeasure — and rarely was it done kindly or courteously. Interestingly, those operating with the least grace were clergy. Instead of saying, “I have a problem, could we work together to find a solution,” in any kind of conciliatory way, people tended to address problems by shouting angrily about how they were injured. From registration to room arrangements to displays to plenary to agenda, a handful of people flew into fits, pouting and blaming, accusing and making all kinds of assumptions about malicious intent. Where has this aggressive victim mentality come from? Why is selfishness becoming the default? Are we really so ego-driven that we think everything is about us? I wanted to hug conference staff people who were unfairly treated and downright abused. Sure mistakes were made and things fell through the cracks. In situations like this where there are so many details to cover, things are bound to go wrong. But why does that seem to give some people the right to be small-minded, rude and petty?
And I say again, it was only a few. As I look at the past four days, my best memories are of the positives — a lovely ordination, a fine celebration of our retirees, an excellent commissioning service, an even-handed and grace-filled conversation about a “hot” subject, fine preaching by our Bishop Linda Lee and Jeremy Deaner, some great witnesses to the wonderful ministries and missional projects throughout our conference, and great people. At the heart of the annual conference, it is the people — connecting, conferring, and celebrating. I would love to see the day where we gather and hammer through the tough stuff first, so that we could simply have a couple of days together to celebrate the fellowship and worship and glorify God. There is a wisdom to saving the best for last.