Yesterday, the Kansas West Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church did its last business and celebrated its final worship service. I was a member of the conference for most of my ministry (until 2010) and I’m so glad I made it back for the closing day. It was truly a bittersweet moment. I can’t resist some personal reflection, but this post is about much more than my feelings.
I am a Methodist preacher’s kid. Dad was a Jack-of-all-trades kind of guy who received a call to ministry later in life and served small, rural churches his whole ministry. During his ministry, we lived most of the time far away from even the county seat churches. For whatever reason, Dad got me involved in “church things” early. I think I sang my first solo at age 5 at Grace Methodist Church in Pittsburg, KS, when Dad was a lay person and preaching some on weekends. At Dozier (Texas), I began regularly reading the scripture in worship at age 10 or 11. Randy Lange and I took up the offering every Sunday at Miltonvale UMC and I helped with other worship functions on occasion. The last couple of years of high school, I led the singing for the Ionia congregation. When Dad had one of those funerals that lots of rural pastors have – the funeral for the person who died with no family around – he would take me along to provide the “special music.” I “preached” my first sermon at age 16 or 17. It was a doozy.
As a preacher toward the bottom of the pecking order that any organization inevitably has, Dad had varied feelings about district superintendents and conference structures. Back in those days, the appointment process remained hidden to most folks and I think Dad felt like he suffered cabinet whims at times. There was no consultation. I remember learning that we were moving (or staying) only when Dad returned from annual conference.
But on the other hand, we all felt and showed much loyalty to the denomination. Whole families (mine included) attended district and sub-district functions of various sorts. I remember big crowds at district picnics. Local church members attended these events in large numbers.
And I went some to annual conference as a teenager in high school. I remember watching the goings-on. I watched Dad received his Deacon’s ordination and become an associate member of the annual conference, in Sam’s Chapel at Kansas Wesleyan University. Almost 20 years later, I was ordained deacon on that same platform. My elders orders were bestowed at First UMC in Wichita.
I started the candidacy for ministry at age 18 in the Salina District. I was too young and immature. But I picked it up again a few years later and the Dodge City District saw me through to ordination.
Jack Fogleman was a District Superintendent who helped me identify and nurture my own call as a United Methodist clergy. He invited me to his office the first time when I was a college freshman. I will forever be grateful to him for his steady presence. He put me to work as a college student, preaching for vacationing pastors in the summer times. He matched me with the Florence-Aulne-Youngtown charge in 1984 after the annual conference session.
All this to say that the Kansas West Annual Conference truly did help to raise me. Thank you.
These memories will always be sweet. But we don’t live in the past.
At yesterday’s final session, Bishop Scott Jones’ closing sermon was an opening one. The Great Plains Annual Conference will formally start its mission January 1, 2014 (if I have the polity right). Scott’s sermon acknowledged the past, to be sure, but he offered a stirring challenge for the mission going forward.
And that is where we live. We live in the present. We serve today, fueled by the vision of the now-and-coming Reign of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. His mission is ours because he deigns to share it with us and calls us to serve with him.
As Bob Hope would say, “Thanks for the memories.” But the mission is what matters and it still lies in front of us.
If you read this blog very often, you know that I often “worry” about the future of The United Methodist Church. I actually think it is quite bright, though I believe its institutional features will look much different and in that regard, I think we have some difficult years yet in front of us. I believe the future is bright because of the faithfulness of our Lord. So, Kansas West comes to an end and Great Plains begins. Of course, there were and are, already, United Methodist congregations scattered across Kansas and Nebraska that will form the new conference. Different conference structure, same mission. Now. In the present.
And that mission needs leaders. Three times this week, with three different UM clergy friends, I’ve had conversations about leadership. While we often talk at the macro (denominational) level about leadership, in these cases we were talking about local church leadership. How do local churches develop leaders? This is a key question.
It requires strategically keeping in mind two “levels,” you might say, simultaneously. Pastors can give great attention to the congregation’s mission statement and efforts to realize it. This is a necessary dimension of the pastor’s work, obviously. But how do you get individual church members to receive and grasp that vision? What motivates the church member in the pew to become more than just a pew sitter? In order to realize the vision that Bishop Jones cast in that ending/beginning sermon, what will get more church members on board a s disciples who become leaders?
So, pastors must pay attention to that other dimension, the individual discipleship of members. How do they realize the vision that they each are called to the church’s mission? To Christ’s Kingdom mission? How does the pew sitter become the disciple who becomes the leader? Developing individual disciples is as crucial as having a clear congregational vision and mission.
Some of those disciples will hear a call to ordained ministry. We need to start early with them. But every church member, every individual Christian, is called to discipleship. We enjoy the benefits of God’s Kingdom. We share – every one of us who names Jesus as Lord – in the responsibility. Every church member is not only someone who needs pastoral care. Every church member is gifted by the Spirit and has a role to play in the Mission.
God bless the Great Plains Annual Conference. May it bear much fruit. May it know great leadership, now and in the future