Saturday at Annual Conference


Here are my thoughts concerning last Saturday at Annual Conference.   My thoughts on Friday’s events are here.

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If there was a theme to Saturday at Annual Conference, it was “move.” It was a day of motion and spirit-led movement.

It started with Dr. Safiyah Fosua (Director of Preaching Ministries for the General Board of Discipleship) leading the delegates and guest lay speakers in a study of the book of Esther. This was identified as a Bible Study but I thought it more of a seminar. The hard part about attending this one day is that it was the third day of a three-day seminar and without the first two days or the information presented at those times, it was not easy to pick up the thoughts being presented.

But still Dr. Fosua made points that fit within the framework of what I had heard in the Evangelism workshop/seminar the day before that was lead by her husband, Dr. Kena Kwasi. How can we utilize what we know about the situation described in Esther to better map out responses for our own congregations today?

In other words, we know that the decimation of the Jewish nation is the initial goal in Esther but because of Esther’s actions, the Jewish nation is saved. When we see our own churches, perhaps dying, perhaps sick, can we sit back and do nothing? Or do we move forward, taking the initiative to bring our churches back to life? It set the tone for two of the events to come.

One was recognition of the Volunteers in Mission who have gone literally around the world in the name of the United Methodist Church. I was impressed by the amount of support, both in terms of the number of people who went on the missions and the amount of money that was donated for on-going mission work.

But it also brought forth, for me anyway, a disturbing question. Where is the money for the small churches in this country that are themselves literally mission churches? I know that we have money available for start-up churches (two such churches were recognized during the Saturday events) but that seems to be where the money is going. I am wondering why some of our time, money, and energy is not spent on churches in areas of this country where growth is taking place. When the appointments were announced on Saturday morning, the more experienced ministers went to the larger churches and the rookies and beginning pastors went to the smaller churches.

I know that the path in the ministry is to work your way up from the small to the larger and the smaller churches don’t have the resources to support experienced pastors. But I think that we are putting the wrong people in the wrong areas. If a small church already exists in an area where people are moving to, then we need ministers in those churches who can build the church. It is unfair to a student pastor or to a part-time local pastor to expect them to work on building up their church while they must also work at another job or their school work at the same time. It was this conflict between the secular and sectarian world that lead to my own decision to withdraw from the ministerial path; you cannot serve two masters but that is what we often ask our youngest ministers to do in order to survive.

We, as a church and as a denomination, need to seriously think about how we can build up churches that are in areas of growth. We know where those areas are and we know what we have to do; the question is whether or not we are going to be willing to do what is needed. (And if such procedures are in place, please let me know because I am not aware of them.)

The final event on Saturday morning was a wonderful sermon by Dr. Kwasi Kena. He chose the passage from Acts where Paul received the vision of a man in Macedonia asking Paul to come and preach to the people there. As Dr. Kena explained it, the key word in the passage was “move”. Paul was to move from where he was to where he was needed, and we, as lay speakers, must also be ready to move as well.

We as lay speakers must be willing, able, and ready to move. I heard in what Dr. Kena was saying some of the same thoughts that I have had concerning the future of the United Methodist Church. For whatever reason, it will be the lay speakers, not the pastors and ministers, on whom the future of the church will rest. It will be the ministries that the lay speakers develop, be it pulpit supply, music ministry, garden ministries, or whatever that will reach out to the people. And I know and have tried to point out that it is the laity that must reach out to the newcomers and the visitors, not the pastor. When it is the pastor who makes the first contact with newcomers or visitors, it is a sign of a church in trouble and perhaps dying. It is a message that tells the visitor or newcomer that the people of the church really don’t care about them.

Dr. Kena’s Saturday morning sermon was inspirational and gave lay speakers reason to be lay speakers. But it was more than simply inspirational; it was also moving. Now, in this case, move was more than just a verb; it was also a description of his preaching as well as that of his wife’s earlier that morning.

He was moved by the Spirit and you could sense how many in the audience felt that way. And Saturday was the first time that I had experienced the power and presence of Bishop Park. He, too, was Spirit filled and was not limited to presenting his message and words from behind the pulpit.

Now, I grew up in the South and I have experienced the “force” of a black minister preaching. It is one thing that cannot be faked nor can it be imitated; it only comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit. And unfortunately, too many of our pastors, no matter how much experience or education they have, do not have The Spirit. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. But each person who stands in the pulpit, be they laity or clergy, has to determine if they are presenting the message that is found in the meaning and the spirit of the words they have read and prayed over in preparation for the message.

We are faced with a situation much like in classic times. When Cicero had finished speaking, the people would say “how well he spoke.” But when Demosthenes finished speaking, the people cried out, “let us march!” Christianity was, is, and will always be Spirit-filled and Spirit-led; we did not become the church until Pentecost when the Spirit became a part of who we are as a people and as a church. But now we speak of things that were and wish that they were that way now when we should be speaking of what can be and asking how to achieve it (and yes, I know, I changed the Bobby Kennedy quote of a George Bernard Shaw quote).

When I left Annual Conference on Saturday, I understood what it was to be a lay speaker, to go out into the world and bring the Gospel message to the people. I understood what it meant to be filled with the Spirit and to lead by the Spirit. I have heard the call before and I have answered it. I hope that others did and will as well.

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