Since the very beginning of the Methodist Church, both clergy and lay members from around the world have gathered each year in conference as an intentional act of unity and fellowship. Part of what makes us Methodist is the critical act of sharing our successes, our resources, our stories, our mission and our place at the communion table across the entire denomination. This tradition continues this year, as our Illinois Great Rivers Conference will gather once more at the Peoria Civic Center on June 7-9. Over 600 pastors and 600 lay leaders, in addition to special groups and conference committees, will descend upon Peoria community for worship, discussion and to vote on key issues within our denomination. The conference is open to the community and visitors can come and see this large gathering work to define our path forward as we struggle to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Conference is where the budgets of each church and of the denomination is decided. It is where we choose to embrace new congregations in our denomination, and vote to let other congregations finish their journey in faith as they close their doors. It is where we define and refine our denominational doctrines and beliefs. It is where we commit to global and local missions and decide our positions on matters of justice and morality. It is also where we ordain new clergy and fix their appointments in their local churches. All decisions (except for appointments and ordination) are voted on by an equal number of clergy and lay representatives from each church in our conference. This ensures that our denomination is run by a balanced group of leaders from all walks of life, not just powerful clergy who make all decisions for us. We don't always agree on everything, but we hold as important our process of discernment that gives voice to anyone who has one to offer.
This year's Annual Conference will be a special one for me. I will be commissioned as a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church on Saturday morning, June 9th, at a special 9:30 worship service. This action will first be voted on by the current elders in our denomination, and it will allow me to have the full sacramental rights of an elder in our denomination for a trial period of two years, when I will hopefully then be ordained as a full elder. An elder in the United Methodist church is a pastor who is set aside for the highest pastoral call we have in our denomination. Many people can answer the call to preach and teach in the UMC, but many remain as local pastors, given rights in their own local context (such as a local church, hospital, mission group, camp, etc). An elder is given the rights, by the bishop, to preach and teach the Word of God; provide pastoral care and counsel; administer the sacraments of Baptism and communion, and order the life of the Church for service in mission and ministry in any setting around the world.
My Commissioning will the be the next step in what will be a 6 year journey towards ordination, beginning when I was certified as a local pastor, and continuing as I completed my Master of Divinity in a 3 year program; passed countless interviews, assessments, projects and papers; and proved to our Board on Ordained ministry that my beliefs and my aptitude are up to their high standard for acceptance of this call. It is a long journey, and one that has not always been easy to navigate, but it has been part of my call from God that I've felt throughout my life.
While my call has been to this unique position within our denomination, I want to share with you that I believe everyone who calls themselves Methodist is called to participate in the ministry and service of our church, both locally and around the world. When we make decisions locally, it is our church who votes on those decisions (I can't even vote on local Administrative council matters). When we gather for worship, or study, or fellowship, or missions, each person who gathers together is equally called to use their specific gifts and graces as a part of our time together. My call did not come about because I felt a sudden whim to become a pastor. I was shaped and influenced by the work of the Spirit coming out of so many people who I worked with, worshiped with, learned from and was mentored by; people who influenced me sometimes decades before I found myself preparing to stand before the bishop this month. I truly believe that everyone in our congregation, no matter their age, station in life, or developed gifts for service, are called and used by the Holy Spirit to shape each other, and shape who we become as the church.
Now, I don't believe everyone sees themselves as called, and not everyone who recognizes their call steps out in faith into the service and mission they can. But I do believe that God wants us all, in our own way, to step forward in faith to do something profound as people within the church. What would happen is we all began to recognize the movement of the Spirit in our lives? What if we each took one step forward into doing something that we'd never done before, but felt compelled by God to do? What would our church look like, and more importantly, our world look like, if came together to live out God's vision for the world more fully, and deeply, than we are doing right now? I don't hope or pray that everyone follows in my footsteps in going down the road towards ordained pastoral ministry. But I do hope and pray that all 80 million United Methodists around the world come to understand that God has called us all to service and worship, and that together, we can truly change the world if we answer that call. You are part of that group, and God does have something in store for you. Will you go? Will you answer? Will you be a part of what we're doing together on this journey through life? Your answer will determine who we become in the days and years to come. And the answer of this congregation will mean so much more to this community than my answer on June 9th, when the bishop asks me to accept my call to commissioning. Christ said, "Come, follow me". I invite you to journey down this road with me, together. Amen.