In June, 1744, I desired my brother and a few other clergymen to meet me in London, to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those that heard us. After some time, I invited lay preachers that were in the house to meet with us. We conferred together for several days, and were much comforted and strengthened thereby. The next year I not only invited most of the traveling preachers, but several others to confer with me in Bristol. . . . this I did for many years, and all that time the term Conference meant not so much the conversations we had together, as the persons who conferred. *
The agenda for the first conference 268 years ago was threefold. Mr. Wesley and the Methodists conferred on “1. What to teach, 2. How to teach, and 3. What to do, that is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice.” **
Ever since those first gatherings, Methodism has organized its life and ministry through conferences—charge conferences, district conferences, annual conferences, jurisdictional conferences, central conferences, and general conferences. From the earliest days, a Methodist conference referred not only to the meeting and the act of conversing that took place, but to the people who gathered. The conference is you and me. Clergy and laity not only attend a conference, they are members of a conference.
According to Russell E. Richey’s The Methodist Conference in America, early conferences comprised a family of preachers and church leaders held together by affection, common rules, a shared mission, and by a watchfulness of the members over one another. They were strongly relational, providing mutual support and encouragement for pastors and congregations, and they were purpose-driven, focused on how to extend the gospel message in ever more fruitful ways. Far from merely serving an organizational or governance function (as we usually consider them today), they served as the spiritual center of Methodism. They dealt with the training and deployment of pastors, and they pooled their resources to provide for common ministries to address needs beyond the scope of any local congregation.
Conferences were times to renew commitments, to encourage ministry, to learn together and to pray together. People left conferences feeling clear about their mission, confident about their future, and connected in Christ. Wesley says that the people left feeling “comforted and strengthened thereby.”
Wesley’s notes from the 1747 Conference record this discussion:
“Q: How may the time of this Conference be made more eminently a time of prayer, watching, and self-denial?
A: 1. While we are in Conference, let us have an especial care to set God always before us. 2. In the intermediate hours, let us visit none but the sick, and spend all our time that remains in retirement, and 3. Let us then give ourselves unto prayer for one another, and for the blessing of God on this our labour.”***
As people met with Mr. Wesley to “confer” together on their common ministry, he invited them to keep God front and center in their deliberations, to care for the poor and ill, and to pray for one another and for God’s blessing on their work together. I love the way every moment of the time together is imbued with purpose. There are no meetings for the sake of meeting. All serves Christ.
Conference is a Wesleyan expression of the body of Christ, the notion that I belong to you and you belong to me because we both belong to Christ. Your ministry is mine, and mine is yours because we both serve Christ; and so we pray for each other, strengthen each other, watch over each other, and hold each other accountable in Christ.
United Methodists hold many diverse theological and social perspectives. We communicate the core of the mission in ways that derive from our unique contexts. We disagree about budgets, structures, and organizational strategies. We come to conference with differing priorities and divergent plans for how to fulfill the mission of the church. Every local church, annual conference, general agency, and global gathering of United Methodists includes a mix of people who love Christ and desire to serve the church, but who perceive the task, purpose, and means of ministry differently. A continuing task of leadership for every United Methodist is to consider, “How do I seek to understand those who do not understand me?”
Community in Christ is persevering and resilient and eternal, binding us to one another and tying us to those who have come before and those who come after. And yet community in Christ is also fragile, something elegantly intangible and subtle, spiritual and breath-like; it requires of us great intentionality and care. The threads of grace that bind us to Christ and to one another require sustained and gentle attention by all of us. Perhaps this is what Wesley meant when he writes, “let us have an especial care to set God always before us” and invites us to focus on the mission of Christ and to pray for one another through all the organizational deliberations. Our mission begins in Christ and ends in Christ. Wesley also reminds us to fulfill every step of our mission in the spirit of Christ.
* John Wesley by Albert Outler (NY: Oxford University Press, 1964), 134.
** See chapter 13, John Wesley, the Methodist by a Methodist Preacher (NY: Methodist Book Concern, 1903). Accessed on wesley.nnu.edu, 2012.
*** Outler, John Wesley, 164.
How has “conferring” together in the Wesleyan way strengthened you in your ministry? How does our contemporary way of holding conferences expand ministry, encourage spiritual growth, and deepen our witness, and how does it limit or discourage ministry?
How might you make conference “more eminently a time of prayer”?
What do you hope the leaders of The United Methodist Church learn through their time together at General Conference? What do you hope they teach or model?
For moving deeper, read Philippians 4:6-9 from The Message by Eugene Peterson for perspectives from a well-known passage.
For a more complete understanding of the history, purpose, and evolution of conference, see Russell E. Richey’s The Methodist Conference in America.