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50 years and counting

Words of a 19th century circuit rider and their meaning for Michigan United Methodists today.

Michigan Conference, Retired Clergy

This must have been my 50th year of unbroken attendance at a Methodist Annual Conference. I was received into probationary membership in 1970 and ordained as an Elder in 1973, but I am sure I attended conference while I was in college in 1968 and 1969, so that makes 50 years.

A couple reactions to our Annual Conference, now concluding at the Grand Traverse Resort:

First, it’s huge! This was the last meeting of the Detroit Annual Conference and the West Michigan Annual Conference as we move toward merger. For three years we’ve been living together before we get married and now we’ve made it to the altar and the union is complete. I’d say we have “consummated the marriage,” but that’s probably going a bit to far. We are now the Michigan Conference and the combined conference has over 2,000 in attendance.

As I looked out across the house, my mind flashed back to a quotation from the writings of Peter Cartwright, one of the early Methodist circuit riders and a one-time candidate for Congress. His journal, filled with the frontier life and spirit of those early saints of Methodism, reads like “Little House on the Prairie” or “Tales from Lake Woebegone”. If Peter Cartwright were to look out over the conference today, I wonder if he might have the same reaction he did when in later life he reflected on the Methodist movement:

When I consider the insurmountable disadvantages and difficulties that the early pioneer preachers labored under in spreading the gospel in these western wilds of the great valley of the Mississippi, and when I contrast the disabilities which surrounded them on every hand with the glorious human advantages that are enjoyed by their present successors, it is confoundedly miraculous to me that our modern preachers cannot preach better and do more good than they do. Many nights, in early times, the itinerant preacher had to camp without fire or food for man or beast. Our pocket Bible, hymn book and Discipline constituted our library. It is true many of us could not conjugate a verb or parse a sentence, and murdered the King’s English at almost every lick. 

But there was a divine unction attended the Word preached and thousands fell under the mighty power of God, and thus the Methodist Episcopal Church was planted firmly in this western wilderness, and many glorious signs have followed. The illiterate Methodist preachers actually set the world on fire while others were lighting their matches.”   (Journal of Peter Cartwright, page 12)

Of course the conference is no longer composed of just the preachers as it was in Cartwright’s day, and due to the “equalization formula,” it is probably more like two laity for every one clergy, but as I surveyed the crowd, I couldn’t help but wonder, with Cartwright, why we “…don’t preach better and do more good that we do”. We heard some incredible stories of growing-edge ministries and what many local churches are doing, but with a conference of 2,000 and all the tools which are at our disposal, just think what we should be able to do by the power of God! With over 800 congregations across the state just think of the fire we should be able to set in this world! If we were able to mobilize all 127,000 Michigan Methodists in witnessing to the Christian faith in the Wesleyan tradition…wow, what a blaze!

My second reaction was a personal one. Relatively few retired clergy come back for annual conference so there seem to be few of my peers in the massive crowd. Then there is the simple fact that I have more friends in the Memorial Service than I do in the ordination service–clergy colleagues who have meant so much to my life. Bill Quick and I transferred into the Detroit Conference in the same year. John Grenfell and I wrestled over more than one church struggle. Gil Miller and I have been friends since college days and this year we sang, “For All The Saints” in their memory. It was also a bit spooky to see “young” clergy who came into the ministry while I was on the Board of Ordained Ministry moving into retirement! The beauty of Methodist polity is that we have all made this journey together. We are bound together in this itinerant ministry and our lives have crisscrossed throughout the years. The annual conference clergy session really is our “home church” and these clergy colleagues are my traveling companions, my brothers and sisters in the covenant community. And some day (hopefully not very soon!)  they will all gather and sing, “For the Saints” for me.

I  pray that all the work which has gone into bringing together this “new conference” in the state of Michigan will result in a clearer shared vision which will mobilize these thousands of Methodists for witness and ministry. I pray we might be able to “preach better and do more good” than we have before. I pray a prayer of gratitude for those who have made this journey with me and have now gone on to glory ahead of me and I pray for those who come after us. May that “divine unction” inspire us once again so that we might set this world on fire…and not just sit around lighting our matches!

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