Russ Richey has taught me that conference in the Methodist/United Methodist tradition has multiple purposes. One of them is family reunion. It started out as the covenant of itinerant clergymen who gathered annually and sang “And are we yet alive, to see each other’s face, glory and thanks to God for his almighty grace”. Over time the family grew to include lay members of conference and clergywomen as well. The General Conference had the same characteristics as the annual conferences, especially for those who attend several times in a row. As the church has expanded geographically, we are now multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and
We United Methodists are a family. We are sisters and brothers in Christ, and thus bound together with all other Christians. However, there is no unified Christian church to which we belong. We belong to particular denominations, and so the United Methodist Church is our most functional family.
We are bound together by our common doctrine, our common mission, and our common discipline. As we preach together, pray together, worship together and serve God together we build relationships. We form communities that embody the unity of the church and embody the missional work of the faith. Preeminently these communities are found in local congregations. Each annual conference is a family as well, and United Methodist clergy live in their conferences. Lay members of conference also belong to that community.
For everyone who comes to General Conference, both delegates and observers, a new form of the United Methodist family appears. In many cases this happens because people who have been partners across US/Central Conference lines, worked on general agency boards, or worked in Volunteer in Mission projects see each other again. These relationship are powerful, affirming, and help embody the diversity of the Body of Christ.
However, some families are dysfunctional. Such families allow for mistrust to breed. When leaders fail to behave properly, a breach between the leaders and the rest of the family develops and dysfunction increases. Sometimes these breaches develop because leaders misbehave. Sometimes family members take positions in the family system bent on disruption.
Most families I know have some level of conflict. The difference is that healthy families process their conflict well, usually exemplifying openness, honesty, love, transparency and integrity. Unhealthy families allow conflict to spiral out of control and use a variety of means to inflict harm on each other.
I have appreciated the opportunities at this General Conference for holy conferencing. We often have members of our family who are passionately committed to their proposals. We have occasionally behaved as a dysfunctional family using abusive, dishonest or manipulative behaviors to win. If we believe that conferencing is a means of grace, and that our goal is to discern the will of God for the people called United Methodists, we should exhibit the values that characterize a healthy family.