I left this morning for Topeka, the site of this year’s Great Plains Annual Conference. I always look forward to Annual Conference and the work we do there, but this year I am a little anxious. After the special General Conference on LGTBQ inclusion this winter, our Church is facing big and complicated issues and none of us know exactly what is going to happen, only that change is coming. So coming to Conference this year means facing some big unknowns. But I am grateful to be a part of what happens here this week.
One of our main duties this week is to elect delegates for General Conference 2020. (Every conference meets yearly at Annual Conference, but United Methodists all over the world meet every four years at General Conference.) Great Plains will have 7 clergy (pastor) and 7 laity (local church members) represented at General Conference. Anyone who wants to run for one of these slots fills out an application, which is shared with everyone attending Annual Conference and then we vote for the 14 delegates during our time here this week. Earlier this spring Pastor Lora suggested that I run for a laity position. I had never thought about doing such a thing, but after some consideration I decided that this would be a good way to put my faith into action and so I applied. No matter what happens this week, the whole election process will be an adventure!
During Annual Conference week, there are various clergy groups, United Methodist organizations, and other groups connected to the church that meet outside of the official Conference schedule. This afternoon I attended such a gathering. MFSA (Methodist Federation for Social Action) is a network of United Methodist clergy and lay people who care about social justice issues and work to create legislation, organize events, and educate people about LGTBQ inclusion, environmental issues, poverty, racism, and other issues. All of Grace’s most recent pastors have been a part of MFSA. During the meeting today, all of the General Conference candidates present were invited to introduce themselves. Then a special speaker led us through some interesting exercises about identity and privilege. Lynne Hunter is now serving on the Conference Creation Care team, and she and Charlie were there, too. It was an interesting gathering.
Next I went to a Laity Meet and Greet. The election of General Conference delegates is very complicated (I’ll explain more about this tomorrow), but part of running for delegation includes meeting people and trying to sell yourself for the position. The Meet and Greet was a time set aside for this purpose. Standing in a hot, loud, very crowded room schmoozing with strangers is seriously outside of my comfort zone, but I did it and survived. I was able to meet numerous other candidates, chat with people I already knew, and answer questions about myself for interested lay people. Meeting other lay people was important because pastors elect clergy delegates and lay people elect laity delegates. I know many, many pastors, but very few lay persons. Now I know more!
Annual Conference is being held at the Kansas Expocentre. There is a big carnival set up at the far end of the parking lot, which has led to lots of little ironic jokes. The Conference sessions are held in a big arena, with a raised stage at the front, rows of chairs set up on the floor, and stadium seating at the back. Giant screens stream video of the speakers so that everyone can see. The stage area has been decorated with an altar, a huge bright cross, and smaller screens with pictures or designs showing. Tonight we opened Annual Conference 2019 with a worship service and communion. Bishop Saenz preached and we all sang and prayed together. Worship with a huge crowd is very different than our intimate worship at Grace, but it is still so meaningful.
The best part of Annual Conference for me is the chance to see many people I know. For pastors and lay people with conference wide ties, Annual Conference is like a family reunion. Today I chatted with a pastor who went to church camp with me when we were both teenagers, the pastor who married Steve and me, a friend I met when I went to Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington DC last year, and a pastor that I babysat when she was a toddler. I talked to former Grace pastors John Martin and Jerre Nolte. I saw former Grace student pastors Shayla Jordan, Daniel Reffner, and Isaac Chua, who was proudly carrying his baby daughter. At worship tonight I sat with our incoming pastor Maddie Johnson, who was proudly wearing one of the tie dyed Love Your Neighbor shirt our youth made.
Tomorrow will be a very long day for Pastor Lora, Madison Stumbough, Pastor Maddie, and me. Please keep us in your prayers. We are all so proud and grateful to represent the people of Grace.