A motto of mine when it comes to writing is that though sometimes I may struggle to find words to write, I will never refuse to try, so that is what I am doing for this post. This post is my attempt at combining, to the best of my ability, the Spirit-filled weekend that I just witnessed and experienced at the Virginia Annual Conference. While there is much to process from this past weekend, and I am still in the process of processing it all, I have been so eager to write about it and share it all with you, and I do so with the hope and the prayer that maybe you would get a feel for how powerful the Holy Spirit is, and how much potential all of our Churches have.
This was my third time attending annual conference, and I went into the weekend with great anticipation because of passed years, and because of our new Bishop. I went in excited to see how our new Bishop, Bishop Sharma Lewis, runs things, already knowing that I loved and have been inspired by her. I went in knowing that I would be reunited with the many pastors and laity who have had a tremendous impact on my life, and I knew that I would experience God’s presence among us, seeing as he never fails to show up. I did not know, however, the change and growth within my heart that God would do over the course of the weekend. I did not know just how much the Spirit would be at work through my Bishop and through the conversations and hugs that I shared with people, as well as the tears shed with them.
Annual conference in general holds a special place in my heart because of the memory that I have from my first time ever attending annual conference. I attended the ordination service when I went to conference for my first time, and after the service was over, our Bishop at the time asked everyone who was sensing God calling them into ministry to come forward and pray with one of the newly ordained clergy. I walked up with confidence I can’t quite describe, as though Christ himself was walking right alongside me holding my hand (and maybe even tugging/shoving me up there a little). This was and is such a significant part of my call story that when the Bishop called everyone up at this annual conference, while I didn’t walk up this time, I remembered, in detail, the time that I did. I went back to my hotel room and cried – tears of joy because I love so dearly this call, but also tears due to doubts that the enemy has often placed in my head of why I can’t or shouldn’t pursue God’s call to the pastoral role. But then I prayed. I prayed and God was, I kid you not, screaming in my ear the rest of the weekend, “this is for you!!” Friends, every single time you are discouraged or think that you cannot do something, God is always going to be there to remind you, “yeah, you’re right – you can’t, but I can.”
I guess you could say that this conference affirms your call in a way. Not only a call to ministry but also your call as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Maybe some people find this conference dreadful, and maybe someday I will, too (hopefully not), but speaking for myself, and maybe for others, it affirms your love for the Church. You may be thinking, “how in the world is that so?” And I would tell you that it affirms your call and love for the ministry you’re in because though it is exhausting, you wouldn’t want to do anything else. It affirms your call because you love the Church you serve enough to go and represent it with attentiveness, care, and concern for the present and future of that Church. So, just as I think that my friends who love math, or my friends who want to be nurses and don’t mind blood are crazy, I guess you could say that loving these conferences and loving spending my life in the Church, is my form of crazy.
So, needless to say that while annual conference is certainly a time where our conference gets together to discuss serious matters, vote on important things, and have vital church conversations, it is also a time to be filled up, to worship, and to praise our God for all that he is doing within the life of our messy, beautiful Church.
Ministry is a crazy, beautiful thing. That is something I found myself thinking and talking with people about a lot over the course of the weekend, and it is a way that I think I will always describe it. It is not perfect. While Christ, the One whom Church is all about, is perfect, we, the body, who make up the Church, are not. No church, no person, no conference, no denomination is perfect, and never will be. Ministry has its ups and downs, and then some. I have seen the ugly sides of ministry, as well as the wonderful, beautiful ones. I’m very grateful for having seen both sides and everything in between at my age, and I believe that knowing and having seen the ugly sides will help me maybe even more as I prepare for pastoral leadership than the not so ugly ones will. But today, I’m not focusing on that. Today I’m focusing in on the beauty, and the power of the Holy Spirit that myself and everyone else witnessed at this conference.
I can say, and everyone I think will agree, that this conference was proof that, like in ministry, things will get out of order, and that is okay. It is okay to go off script. We had an alter call that was not planned at all, but it was beautiful. During one of the sessions, we ran out of time for certain things, and we had to move those discussions to another day. My Bishop and another Bishop preaching this weekend both ran off of the stage during their sermons and into the crowd of clergy and laity. Bishop Lewis hopped up on a chair, in high heels, and preached. She preached. There was a lot of preaching this weekend, and it was hands down one of my favorite parts of the weekend, because that is where I saw and heard the Spirit speak and move the most. My Bishop, you all – my Bishop preaches in a way that has you convinced and left with no doubt that the Holy Spirit is using her as a vessel to speak directly through her. Like I said, she literally ran into the crowd of all of us, got up on a chair and continued to preach. She is a woman of faith, she is a woman of grace, passion, strength, wisdom, courage, power, and she is someone who is clearly open to the Spirit’s voice and movement at all times. Witnessing her preaching, and even simply hearing her speak with the grace and the passion that she does is something that can only be credited to God because of how Christ-filled her language and actions both are. And do not even get me started on how inspiring and beautiful it is to see her up there as Bishop. Bishop Lewis became my Bishop right after I completed an academic year at a university that told me and taught me each day that I could not pursue my call to be a pastor because I was a woman. Being able to watch her be Bishop (and kill it) is more inspiring than I have words to describe to you all. So, of course, I couldn’t write this post without expressing my gratitude to the denomination that has my heart, despite its flaws, the United Methodist Church, for its inclusion and affirmation of women in all areas of ministry.
Speaking of people supporting people, it was funny, I had tweeted at one point during the week leading up to conference something about annual conference being like a giant family reunion, and then my Bishop said that very thing when we all got together on Friday, and boy, it really is. This weekend made me think a lot about the importance of faith communities, networking, mentoring one another, and having support systems. Right when I walked into the convention center, left and right, I was seeing people who I either knew very well, knew of, or simply recognized, and it was a joy. I got to see former pastors of mine – pastors who have left everlasting impacts on my life, pastors who were by my side during very dark times and very happy times, pastors who have mentored me, loved me, and prayed for and with me. God is so gracious to have allowed such amazing ministry leaders to walk into my life, who have impacted me for the better, who have challenged me, who have given me opportunities, and who have encouraged me in some way, whether big or small, since hearing God’s call to ministry. (Shout out to Rev. Davis, Pastor Will, Pastor Rob, Jason, Pastor Larry, Pastor Marc, Pastor Megan, Bob, Bishop Cho, Pastor Fuss, Chelsea, Pastor Steve, Bishop Lewis, Emma, Rachel, Danny, and for the many others who I am forgetting but love!)
The theme of the conference this year was “A New Thing” and I have been sitting here thinking about how I can incorporate some important notes from this conference into a sermon I’ll be delivering in a couple weeks, because this is a message we need to bring back to our churches, both clergy and laity.
God is doing a new thing! He is doing many new things, and we are probably aware of about two or three of them right now, but man, he is working. He is working, and we get to be part of the new thing or things in which God is doing – Get excited!! But as Bishop Lewis said, we need to take our excitement and use it. Use it to assist God in doing new things. Use your excited spirit’s to do the Lord’s work. Go out and make disciples, remembering our new vision:
Disciples of Jesus Christ are lifelong learners who influence others to serve.
Friends, let us remember that God is big. God is bigger than the Virginia conference. God is bigger than the United Methodist Church. God is bigger than you and God is bigger than me. The new thing(s) that he is doing are going to be great – may we listen intently, wait when necessary, work hard always, and do good each day.
At this conference, we prayed, and we prayed a lot. It sounds like the most cliche thing in the world, but there is so, so much power in prayer, friends. So much power!! The prayers heard at conference we evidence of the Spirit working and now that conference is over, there is still so much prayer to be done! My prayer, following this conference, is that we would all hold tight to the feeling we have right now. The exhaustion from a busy weekend will fade, but the joy and the hope and The Spirit we felt present, does not have to. I pray that we would take what we learned at conference, back to our home churches – the churches we love and adore. I pray that we would apply what we learned to our churches and I pray for the ability to communicate to the people back home the power and lively Spirit that we witnessed at this conference.
Friends, personally, I was exhausted after this conference, and I know that if you were there and you’re reading this, you probably were or are too (thanks for reading though) Emotionally, we may still be drained, but spiritually, I know that I am filled up. My soul, and I’m sure I am not alone in this, is so on fire, and ready to go out and use that fire for the good of God’s kingdom. Let’s be ready to talk about conference with anyone who asks, but more importantly, let’s be ready to talk about Jesus and apply what we’ve learned at conference to the churches we love and to our daily lives, with every encounter we have.
Church, we’ve got work to do. Let’s get started.
Disclaimer: The featured header photo was not taken by me, but by the live-stream from the Virginia Conference of the UMC.