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Conferencing as a means of grace

Bishop leading discussion

In this conferencing season, says Bishop David Bard, may we strive to become conduits of God’s grace for one another.

Michigan Conference

John Wesley, the cofounder of the Methodist stream of the Christian tradition, identified “Christian conference” as a means of grace along with prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, and fasting. Inspired by Colossians 4:6, “let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt,” Wesley wrote this about “Christian conference”: “Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?” (“Large Minutes,” paragraph 40.5).

As the Wesleyan renewal movement grew into the Methodist Episcopal Church and through various splits and unions, including the 1968 union of the Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to become The United Methodist Church, our church lives were structured around conferences.

Annual Charge/Church Conferences organize the life of a congregation for the year. The Annual Conference gathers clergy and lay representatives of all the churches in a conference, in our case, the Michigan Conference, every year to worship, celebrate, give an account of our ministries, and affirm the appointment of pastors and other clergy. General Conference meets every four years to worship, celebrate, and provide the parameters for The United Methodist Church across the world. Following each General Conference in the United States are regional Jurisdictional Conferences where bishops are elected and assigned to four-year terms.

I write this blog the week following our Michigan Annual Conference, which was preceded a few weeks earlier by General Conference. I am tired, but a good tired. I fully recognize that not all our “conferencing” consistently meets the Wesleyan standard. Not all our speech is filled with grace and seasoned with salt. Wesley did say this was difficult. In the grace of God, we try, and sometimes remarkable things happen.

At the 2024 General Conference, a genuine spirit of cooperation was felt as we created more space in our denomination while recognizing the need for a more regional governance structure. I wrote about that last month (click to read the blog). Our recent Annual Conference was filled with good spirit as we leaned into fearlessness in embracing a new future. We do so prayerfully, joyfully, and with a bit of dance in our step.

Next month, the North Central Jurisdiction meets in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. No new bishops will be elected, given the budget realities of our denomination (click to read previous news article). We will celebrate the ministry of two retiring bishops, Gregory Palmer and Julius Trimble, and those bishops continuing to serve will receive their assignments for the next four years. I have attended one other Jurisdictional Conference where there were no elections, and it seemed a little anticlimactic, but then I was not a bishop waiting to hear about my assignment.

Wesley believed that “Christian conference” was a means of grace, that in meeting together and discussing important matters, God’s grace could touch our lives meaningfully and profoundly. While that may happen as we conduct our business, my experience with United Methodist conferencing is that grace is most often encountered in meeting people and developing relationships.

I served as a district superintendent in the Minnesota Conference for seven years at a time when attending every Charge/Church Conference in person was the standard practice. Not long after I left that position, experiments with group church conferences started, with much success. Almost twenty years later, I still recall some of the relationships I developed with persons in my district, both lay and clergy. I stay in touch with some persons I encountered most often at those Church Conferences.

For clergy, Annual Conference is the only time we gather with our “church,” with the group which includes us as members. Of course, weekly worship is a vital moment of Christian conferencing. Yet for clergy, there is something very special about Annual Conference. As your bishop for these past eight years, Annual Conference is where we have been able to develop our relationship. It is when I have the best opportunity to share what is on my heart and where I sense God’s Spirit nudging me and perhaps us together. As tiring as it is, I love being with you all as we gather, and this year seemed particularly special. The spirit of our conference was so often joyful, even as we did hard work.

When I ponder General Conference, it is the people I have come to know and care about that most come to mind. Were it not for General Conference, I might never have connected with the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, this year’s Annual Conference guest preacher and teacher. Those who attended Annual Conference learned she is a delightful, faith-filled, and inspiring person.

Yes, all this conferencing is a little tiring, but it continues to be a means of grace. As we move toward Jurisdictional Conference, with all its unanswered questions, I trust God’s grace will be present, and I look forward to connecting with friends, old and new, who are so often conduits of that grace.

May we always strive to be that for one another, persons through whom God’s grace flows as we seek to have our conversations be filled with grace and seasoned with salt.

I have one final note, and it saddens me to have to add this. One “conversation” that is decidedly not filled with grace or seasoned with salt is a rumor circulating in some United Methodist Annual Conferences. The rumor is now that our denomination, because of actions at General Conference, is allowing congregations to hold marriage services for same-sex couples, churches could be sued for refusing to do so. Those spreading this rumor are doing so to encourage churches to leave the denomination before they may be sued.

This rumor has no basis in fact. Changes to the Book of Discipline: (1) allow churches and clergy to operate according to their conscience, without consequence; (2) do nothing to change the reality that pastors have always decided who they will marry, and no one will force a pastor to officiate a marriage ceremony for any couple; and (3) do nothing to change the fact that churches will continue to determine what weddings are held in their church buildings. This is the decision of each local church’s board of trustees. Further, the desires of all clergy and congregations in this matter are to be honored and not judged by others.

Again, though it may be difficult, may we always strive to be persons through whom God’s grace flows as we seek to have our conversations be filled with grace and seasoned with salt.

Last Updated on June 11, 2024

The Michigan Conference