Reflecting on New England Hospitality

The following is an article/guest column I’m writing for the Troy Conference newspaper and website, about my experiences at New England Conference (also known as Methodist Land) this past week.

If I, um, misquoted you or something, let me know. Please. I’m considered a writer of sorts for the paper/website, but I’m more along the creative-writing side. I tend toward a flair for drama and exaggeration in my writing and speaking. Lends itself to preaching. Reporting, eh, not so much.

Since much of this column is a repeat for my readers here, I’m hiding it under a tag.

“Welcome to Methodist Land!”

 Those were my first thoughts when I drove onto the campus of Gordon College in Wenham, MA, site of the 2008 New England Annual Conference. Everywhere I looked there were cars with “open hearts, open minds, open doors” bumper stickers and people carrying cross-and-flame bags. The campus center had been turned into one big Cokesbury bookstore and display-table gathering, and youth in bright red t-shirts were gathered on the sprawling lawns.

 It was all a bit overwhelming, actually, and I was grateful for the woman who pointed me toward the childcare.

 After I dropped my daughter off, I turned to find a man waiting patiently behind me. He introduced himself as Rev. Curtis Brown, Director of Congregational Development, and said that he and his wife, Meredith had overheard me introduce myself as a guest from Troy Conference, and they figured they would help me out.

 “Were you sent to find me?” I asked.

 Curtis looked confused. “No. I just figured someone should welcome you properly.”

 And with that, I was in the care of the Browns, who brought me to the Conference floor—a large chapel, packed to the gills with clergy and laity. New England Annual Conference is about as large as the General Conference of the United Methodist Church; there were 1000 voting members present on campus for the week.

 As we took seats in the balcony, Bishop Peter Weaver was giving his State of the Conference Address, describing the web of relationships and ministries that form the network of the Conference. It wasn’t long before he came to words that interested me.

 Speaking of extending the network and offering hospitality, Bishop Weaver began to address the upcoming resolution to welcome the Vermont portion of Troy Annual Conference. “I’m excited about what God is going to do with the gifts of linking our sisters and brothers in Vermont with New England and becoming the New England Annual Conference,” he said.

 The Bishop’s excitement was echoed by others with whom I spoke. I asked my pew-mates if they agreed with the Bishop’s assessment, or if they were concerned that adding churches from Vermont might make the Conference unwieldy or might add to some of the struggles the church is facing in New England. But Curtis Brown was hopeful that a boundaries change would represent a joining of our strengths, and highlight our focus on passionate spirituality and on mission. “I think we face the same challenges here,” Curtis said, referring to general decline in church membership and seeking ways to revitalize congregations, “and it seems that if we can find solutions, we should implement them together.”

 Another clergy person seated near me, who serves a church in New Hampshire, agreed. “It seems like the natural thing to do. I think our churches are probably very similar,” she said.

 I even ran the idea past a youth delegate I met in the hallway. She brightened when I suggested inviting youth from Vermont to attend gatherings in New England, much as the 4Word events have already built some friendships between the Conferences in New York. “It just makes sense,” she said.

 So people were already supportive of the idea of welcoming the United Methodists of Vermont, and I had seen the hospitality they were willing to extend. I also encountered great understanding about the sorrow the people of Troy Conference are feeling, along with our hope.

 I had written about the emotional nature of our discussion and vote on my web log,  and one New England Conference pastor and friend of mine, who had clearly read about the tears I shed at our Conference session, met me with a smile and a tissue. Another man reflected on the history of New England Annual Conference, which was itself the result of a merger of three conferences in 1992-1995, and said, “It’s like when we merged,” but then he trailed off. “Actually,” he said, “even though we lost our small Conference, we still had each other. This must be very hard for you folks.” He looked into my eyes, which were getting a little misty. “We understand. We’ll be nice to you.”

 Green Mountain District Superintendent Rev. Bob Lowenthal and Keynote speaker Rev. Barb Lemmel and I were the glad recipients of this hospitality and understanding during the two days we were at the Conference. Unfortunately, due to some lengthy debate on other legislation (aren’t you glad to know we’re not the only ones who get off schedule!), we had to leave before the Conference was able to discuss and vote on Resolution 209 to extend hospitality to Vermont United Methodist Churches.

 Since the vote on Sunday morning, however, I have heard from several people who were at the Conference session and were present for the vote. Resolution 209 passed unanimously. The discussion that preceded the vote was filled with overwhelming support, so much so, in fact, that the Bishop was hard-pressed to find individuals to speak against the resolution and fulfill the format of debate. The Rev. Jim McPhee, the Director of Connectional Ministries (like our Conference Minister), reported that during the discussion “a great number of people spoke of the tremendous gifts that Vermont churches and people will bring to the New England Conference.  Many also spoke with excitement at the new opportunities in ministry together.”

Although there were questions about all the details (something we’re familiar with, too!), and concerns about wanting to find appointments for incoming clergy from Troy, all of these concerns did nothing to reduce the spirit of hospitality. In fact, Rev. Will Green, a delegate from New England Annual Conference to both General Conference and the Northeast Jurisdictional Annual Conference, told me later that one main concern was how to make sure Vermonters were adequately represented on boards and teams since they’d be coming into the Conference in the middle of the quadrennium, when most positions are already filled. Now that’s concern for radical welcome!

 With the passage of this resolution, our attention turns to the Jurisdictional Conference session in July, which has the authority to redraw the boundaries, making our recommendations a reality.

 More importantly, with the assurance of the hospitality and understanding of our neighbors in the current New England Annual Conference, we can look forward with excitement and hope to the ministries that we will do together, trusting that our mutual commitment to God and God’s church will carry us through this transition.

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