When we arrived this morning, there was a beautiful cross and flame symbol on the stage. Upon closer inspection, I realized that the flames were made out of the tiny flowers we’d used during Wednesday’s memorial service. Such wonderful symbolism!
The Youth led devotions and music before the session began. Besides the increased numbers of people, the role of the youth is what has changed most in the 27 years since I last attended Annual Conference. Back then, the Conference Council on Youth Ministries (CCYM) met regularly throughout the year and the youth involved Planned youth rallies, camps, and an entire worship service during Annual Conference. Now that the Conference is so large, the youth delegates are spread over enormous distances and their role is more limited and they are unable to lead so many programs. They are still a visible presence at Annual Conference, serving as ushers, helping with communion, and sitting through sessions. The youth who spoke today were powerfully eloquent and the bishop commented on how much hope they bring.
One of the pleasures of Annual Conference is people watching. Even better is running into people you know. Today I chatted with lots of old friends, including several who are familiar to Grace. Like John Martin.
And Isaac Chua.
And Aaron Duell.
Today’s schedule was completely different and included new-for-Conference activities. Everyone, clergy and laity together, were divided up and spent part of the morning in small workshops and part listening to a speaker. Lora and I were assigned to the speaker first.
We listened to Rev. Dr. Stephen Cady, who is originally from Kansas but now serves a church and teaches at a seminary in New York. He spoke primarily about reaching youth in the church and he was amazing, both funny and very serious about our job as members of the local church. He introduced himself by saying, “I am a child of God. But it’s important to remember that I’m not an only child.” And neither are we.
Rev. Dr. Cady had interesting things to say about youth in our churches. He explained that even if we have only one youth, then we have a youth ministry. He explained “The church is at it’s best when we have generations talking together.” Youth, and adults, feel God’s presence during times of trial, in “between” places (like camp or being in nature), and in meaningful community. Most youth, and many adults, do not feel a connection to God during worship, which is difficult. We, as members of the church, need to do a better job of listening to youth, to talk in church about what is happening in the outer world, and sharing why worship matters.
I very much enjoyed this speaker and found his words challenging and meaningful. I thought about how much individuals in my church influenced me as a youth and how their encouragement and support fostered my own faith. And I was reminded once again of my responsibility to the youth of our church today.
I’ve mentioned that the conference center is on the grounds of the Nebraska State Fair. While the arena is generically ordinary, it is surrounded by stock barns, windmills, and fair buildings which make stepping out to the parking lot a bit surreal.
For the workshop portion of our day, Lora and I had both chosen one entitled Narrative: The Most Important Thing About You. It was located in a different building, in a room called the Beef Pit. We were rather confused by this, but Nebraskans explained the it was the site of one of the best food booths at the fair!
The Narrative workshop proved to be disappointing. I had hoped it would be about writing or telling about personal faith journeys. Instead it was largely about theological definitions, with few practical ideas. Oh well.
Lora and I had no meetings scheduled and no responsibilities during the lunch hour, so we went out for pizza. It was nice to take a break and get away from the Conference crowds and to talk about what has happened this week. Annual Conference is physically and emotionally draining. Except for our lunch break, we were at the conference site from 8:15 this morning until 9:00 tonight. There is so much information to process and so many decisions to make that it can be overwhelming at times. An hour spent breaking bread together made the day easier.
Lora invited me to sit with her for the afternoon session. This gave me a whole new perspective, both literally and figuratively. Wednesday and Thursday I sat in the bleachers, surrounded by other lay members, most of whom are considerably older than I am. Lora sat in the chairs on the floor of the arena, amidst her pastor friends, most of whom fall into the under 35 “young clergy” category. Most of the pastors I know in our Conference are older, so it has been fun to get to know younger pastors and hear their ideas and responses.
The afternoon session included a long list of presentations, updates, and information. A number of these affect Grace.
The Personnel Committee recommend a 2% increase in minimum salary compensation, which was easily approved. The speaker for the committee asked for prayers for staff members whose jobs will be cut or moved because of the decision to consolidate conference offices.
Several years ago, our conference challenged local churches to form partnerships with schools and to be more involved with the education of children in our communities. Today churches that have done this were recognized. Grace has done a great job with this challenge and we continue to build stronger ties with Irving. We should be proud of our church!
There were updates on the conference’s camps, including a video with Ben Hanne hamming it up at Horizon.
Ben and his counterparts at other colleges and universities gave updates on Campus Ministry programs.
There was a report from the Commission on the Way Forward, the special group that will meet with the bishops in 2019 to decide whether or not the United Methodist Church will choose to ordain and fully accept LGBT clergy. The bishop asked that we continue to pray about this as we wait for a decision. No matter what happens, there will be conflict and people will be hurt.
The session ended with the presentation of information on health insurance. We must decide if the conference will continue to grant clergy a health allowance, as they do now, or if they will go back to a conference group plan. There are significant positives and negatives about each option. Health insurance decisions are always hard and the unknown status of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) makes it even more challenging. We will vote on insurance decisions tomorrow morning.
Lora and I attended a Campus Ministry dinner tonight.
Ben Hanne talked a bit about the ministry programs at Southwestern and gave a shout out to Grace for all of our support for students. Another reason to be proud of our church!
Tonight was the annual Ordination Service, which is always a moving experience. The service always begins with a formal procession of the bishop, pastors who have a role in the service, and all the ordination candidates. The provisional candidates were named and the bishop lay his hands on each of them and prayed over them. Friends and family stood silently in support. Then the bishop preached, directing his words to the candidates instead of the congregation. Bishop Saenz was funny and encouraging and threw in a few “dad jokes”. He clearly felt honored to have this important role in ordaining pastors.
After an offering to collect money for refugee resettlement, there was music and liturgy. Then the candidates to be ordained came forward. One by one, they knelt at the altar while the bishop laid hands on them, prayed over them, and gave them authority to be elders in the church. Each newly ordained pastor was presented with a stole, placed over their shoulders by a beloved mentor. This is a solemn and beautiful ceremony.
A year ago, Lora was one of those candidates being ordained. Tonight she was cheering on the newest ordinands, celebrating with them. She stood in support of most of men and women being ordained, people she has helped mentor. I stood with her as Kim (Schwartz) Shank was ordained, acknowledging the role that Grace had in the life of this new pastor.
The ordination service ended with a tradition called Passing of the Mantle. A retiring pastor symbolically passes on the responsibilities and dedication of the older generation to a just ordained pastor. This is what the biblical prophet Elijah did for his younger friend Elisha and is a touching tradition that we continue to carry on.
This has been a full and rewarding day. There is much hard work to complete in the morning, but I am happy to be here and honored to be a part of it all.