And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another … [Hebrews 10:24-25]
I recall a science fiction movie back in the early 1980s that featured a fictional company where everyone in the entire organization was named John. Suffice it to say, it made for a very confusing atmosphere. You can almost say the same thing about the organization of the United Methodist Church, where it seems that everything is called a “conference.” A conference can refer to a geographical area, a body of people, or an actual event.
Let me explain. A local church, like St. Andrew’s is part of a group of churches organized in a geographical area called a district. A district superintendent (DS) is an appointed clergy that provides administrative and spiritual leadership for the churches for that district. We currently have an interim DS, the Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin.
All the districts in a particular geographical area make up an annual conference. We are in the Florida Annual Conference, which includes all the state of Florida, except the panhandle. And this is where it gets a little confusing because “annual conference” can refer to either the geographical area that makes up the grouping of local churches or to the annual meeting of lay and clergy members within that geographical area of the annual conference.
A bishop presides over an annual conference and sometimes presides over two. That will be the case for the current Florida Conference bishop, Bishop Kenneth Carter, who on Sept. 1 will also become the bishop of the Western North Carolina Conference.
The reason that I am giving you this quick tutorial of the UMC organization is that today, June 11, marks the beginning of the Florida Annual Conference event, a time when an equal number of lay members and clergy members gather to conduct the business of the conference organization.
Yet the conference is more than just a business meeting. It is a time to worship together, pray together, hear the achievements of the many agencies and ministries that make up the Florida Conference: its youth ministries, associated colleges and seminaries, mission work, initiatives on addressing hunger in our communities, and the initiatives on addressing anti-racism, just to name of few. It also is a time to ordain new ministers, celebrate church anniversaries, announce church appointment changes, honor those retiring and remembering those who have passed.
For the second year in a row, this year’s Florida Annual Conference will be virtual, which is unfortunate because one of the values of the yearly Conference is being reunited with other clergy and lay people—those you went to seminary with, served together in previous churches, attended spiritual retreats together, and served together on ministry teams. It harkens back to the days of the circuit riders, where Methodists would be scattered across the landscape, sharing the message of Christ and making disciples, yet each year would gather together at the annual conference for spiritual renewal and refreshing. It's a special time for getting reacquainted with old and new friends, with the ties that bind us together with a common mission.
For the United Methodist Church is said to be a connectional organization. Connectional simply means that all United Methodist churches are linked to all other United Methodist churches by organization and by purpose as they go about the work of making disciples. The structure of the UMC encourages conferencing. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, considered Christian conferencing among the spiritual disciplines through which God’s grace may be made known to us. Conference may seem to be an overused term in the UMC, yet we understand as we conference together, serve together, worship together, and fellowship together, we can more fully experience and realize the grace of God that is offered to us through His son, Jesus Christ. What a blessing this is!