Part of my responsibility as the delegate to Annual Conference is to give a report on and share my reflections of the Conference. When preparing for this I wasn’t sure who would be here today and I felt perhaps a bit of Annual Conference history might be helpful. Not only for those not as familiar with Annual Conference, but also for all of us. This is a write up found on the Church of the Brethren website.
Church of the Brethren Annual Conference
For over 250 years, Brethren have gathered regularly together to worship together, to discuss questions of faith, and to be reacquainted with believers across the country. The first official meeting of this type was in 1742 when Brethren met to reaffirm their unique identity. Thirty years later, the event would become an annual occasion held during the observance of Pentecost, as an invitation for the Holy Spirit to once again come down upon the hearts and minds of these believers.
At Annual Conferences, Brethren have dealt with many practical questions of living out their faith. They’ve worked through many public issues such as war, death penalty, abortion, and environmental issues. And have helped foster and develop the unique perspective of the Church of the Brethren.
Annual Conference Today
Annual Conference is the highest and final legislative authority in the Church of the Brethren, including all matters of procedure, program, polity, and discipline. It is held annually in different geographical locations, chosen to bring the annual meeting into every area where Brethren have congregations. The authority of Conference has its source in the delegates elected by local congregations and districts, who come together as a deliberative body under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The voting body consists of two sets of delegates – those representing local congregations, and those from church districts, who also serve as the Standing Committee.
Annual Conference also hosts many non-delegates, family and friends of delegates, as well as others interested in the future and direction of the denomination. Worship services are central to conference activity. Business is conducted daily. In addition, educational activities are offered in the form of Insight Sessions, forums and exhibits of denominational programming agencies and related groups. Fellowship is enjoyed by all at events like organized breakfasts, lunches and dinners, informal ice cream socials, and at other times between conference activities. A full range of age group programming is available for early childhood development, children’s activities, junior high, senior high, young adults, and singles.
Four agencies are reportable/accountable to the Annual Conference. They are Bethany Theological Seminary, Brethren Benefit Trust, Church of the Brethren, and On Earth Peace Assembly. Part of the membership of the above agencies’ boards is elected through the Annual Conference. In addition, a mandate requires agencies to present audited financial statements to the Annual Conference.
This year the 230 recorded Annual Conference was held in Greensboro, North Carolina. The moderator was Andy Murray. The theme was Carry the Light.
I attended my first conference over 55 years ago. My father was a Church of the Brethren pastor for the first 13 years of my life and our summer vacations revolved around Annual Conference. I am not sure how many I have been to through the years, but I do know Conference was always a time for good fellowship and worship.
This year delegates were all charged with being prepared for perhaps particularly contentious business sessions. In preparation I attended a preconference briefing, read the Conference handbook, read the messages online from the moderator and others, watched the prepared online videos, talked to church members, and prayed for wisdom. We were asked to come in the spirit of God’s people, to listen, to share, and to be respectful.
When Christy Crouse found out I was delegate to Conference this year. She asked me if I was excited about going. I told her that no one had asked me that. I had been asked if I was ready for Conference and my answer to that was, yes. I felt I was prepared by the time I was ready to go, but excited? My answer to her was no. Excitement was not one of the top feelings I was experiencing. I was a bit sad that that was my answer, but I had to be honest with her. That being said, I had a bit of a knot in my stomach as I drove my mother and I to North Carolina unsure exactly what the days ahead would be like.
Upon arriving at Greensboro we found that the Koury Convention Center was a most convenient place for Annual Conference. I parked my car on Wednesday and didn’t see it again until Sunday. Everything we needed was within the center.
The center was buzzing when we got there, got checked in, unloaded our things in our room, and found the registration desk. We attended the worship service Wednesday evening and stayed in the conference hall to participate in and listen to some music which included Jacob’s band Mutual Kumquat.
One of the main responsibilities of a delegate is to attend business sessions and to be involved in voting. Business sessions began Thursday morning. There were 704 delegates registered. The delegates were seated at 90 round tables in the conference hall. This is a relatively recent change to business session proceedings. Prior to about 7 years ago there was a delegate section reserved, but delegates sat where ever and by whoever they wanted. The current set up allows conference organizers to assign delegates to tables so as to have a mixture of districts represented at each table. There were 8 people at my table which included the facilitator. We each received a delegate packet with pertinent business session info, shared a bit about the churches we represented, and spent a bit of time getting to know each other before business officially began.
Under new business there were 4 queries on the agenda to be discussed and voted on. Initially there were 5, but 2 of the queries were combined by the Standing Committee before business began. Each of the queries had some component or components that could easily elicit some passionate discussion.
The 1st query Same Sex Weddings was presented on Thursday. Being a particularly difficult query to come to agreement on it was discussed through several business sessions and finally on Saturday, after failing to reach a 2/3 majority vote to pass, a motion from the floor was adopted to refer the concerns of the query to the Leadership Team who will work in consultation with the Council of District Executives to bring recommendations to the 2017 Annual Conference. They are being asked to “bring clarity and guidance concerning the authority of Annual Conference and districts regarding the accountability of ministers, congregations, and districts”.
As each query was presented as well as usually before voting, each table would engage in table talk. The facilitator at each table would initiate discussion and when the time came explain exactly what a yes vote or no vote would mean. Though all those at my table didn’t necessarily agree, I think we each felt relatively comfortable expressing our feelings and views. I don’t know if this was true at every table so I can only speak for table 83.
Since query 1 took the majority of the business session time the final 3 queries were addressed on Saturday, the last day for business sessions. Query 2 On Earth Peace Responsibility/Accountability to Annual Conference and query 5 Viability of On Earth Peace as an Agency of the Church of the Brethren were the queries combined by Standing Committee. After discussion the delegate body adopted the recommendation of Standing Committee and referred the queries to the Review and Evaluation Committee for their consideration.
Query 3 was Continuing the Study of Our Christian Responsibility to Care for God’s Creation. I am going to read the report given us in regard to this query since it proved difficult for me to put in my own words.
“The 2016 Annual Conference adopted Standing Committee recommendation that a Creation Care study committee be appointed to work, in consultation with Brethren Benefit Trust and other relevant organizations, to develop ways to support and extend our knowledge of renewable energy production with our financial investments and involvement in community projects to reduce our contributions to greenhouse gas concentrations and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The study committee shall consist of 3 members elected by Standing Committee.”
Query 4 was Living Together as Christ Calls. Standing Committee recommended that the concerns of this query be adopted and referred to the Mission and Ministry Board. The 2016 Annual Conference adopted this recommendation.
In addition to business each business session also included among other things, an opening Bible study, a variety of reports, some musical interludes, as well as updates from conference director Chris Douglas. Representatives from 6 new congregations were introduced and welcomed. During Friday’s business session time David Steele, the new General Secretary elect, was introduced and he briefly spoke
By conference end there were 2439 delegates and non-delegates registered. The Sheraton had allowed a heifer named Joy to spend time in a small enclosure by the Heifer Project booth, in addition to that booth there were 36 other booths to visit in the Exhibit Hall, 5 worship services to attend, and 5 business sessions. There were 62 insight sessions offered, 43 catered meal events, and activities offered for 7 age groups. The conference blood drive collected 160 pints of blood for the Red Cross and the quilt auction raised $10,050 for world hunger relief. During the Jubilee afternoon, which took the place of the Friday afternoon business session, over $7300 was raised by Ted & Company for Heifer International during their production of “12 Baskets and a Goat”. The Annual Conference “Witness to the Host City”, which our church participated in, received over $3600 in cash donations between the backpack project collection and the thrift store clothing project collection as well as a large supply of the requested backpack items and gently used dress clothes.
The theme Carry the Light was woven through the conference. In the scriptures chosen, songs sung, sermons preached, daily Bible study, and the worship center display. At one service we were literally given lights to hold and carry away with us. As we read earlier the first line of Matthew 5:14 reminds us “You are the light of the world.” Even though we know the Bible tells us this it is always good to be reminded that we should be living God’s word and to be light where we are and through our actions. I think the Brethren are good at this and Conference certainly is a time when we are reminded how we as a denomination strive to be a shining light.
To warp up I want to say that as a long time Church of the Brethren member and as a child of the 60s and 70s. I remember Annual Conference moderator, Andy Murray as well as his wife Terry, as musicians. They are still musicians as was displayed many times during conference proceedings. This was my first experience seeing Andy Murray in this type of leadership position. When asked what the highlight of conference was for me, I have first and foremost said Andy Murray. As a man of tremendous talent, patience, faith, intelligence, and humor he masterfully led the Annual Conference business sessions.
It was obvious from preconference preparation, views shared at my table at conference as well as the microphone sharing and question time from other delegates and conference attendees that those of us in the Church of the Brethren are divided on our thoughts and feelings about many issues facing the church. We are divided, but we also worked together. We prayed, we shared, we deliberated, and we voted. We made decisions together and we move forward. It is difficult to predict what the future will bring, but I am hopeful that our common objectives outweigh our differences.
It was a challenging conference at which to be a delegate. As I mentioned earlier I went with some uneasy feelings. I left feeling relief that it was over, but also renewed and reminded of those long held feelings about Annual Conference. Thank you for sending me to represent this church.