GROWING IN GRACE BEN GOSDEN
Last month we completed the 2012 South Georgia Annual Conference. The week promised some interesting material and potential for debate sprinkled within the annual slog through reports and business sessions. Like many, I went expecting a typical sort of gathering filled with seeing old friends, making new ones, worshipping, and being sent forth into ministry for another year. What I didn’t expect was to be surprised by grace during those 72 hours.
One of the major pieces of legislation before our annual conference dealt with the idea of reducing the number of districts in South Georgia. We currently have nine districts, and during last year’s annual conference a proposal was made to study the feasibility of reducing that number by two or three. After a year of study and number crunching, the Conference was split on what to do. The task force charged with studying the finances said it would be feasible to cut two or three districts. The Bishop and Cabinet said that, due to the number of unanswered questions, we should simply retain the current number of districts.
Let the debate begin...
An amendment was brought to the floor as a compromise. The amendment essentially said we'd keep our current number of districts but work another year to answer the questions left unanswered by the previous year's study.
It helps to know that the author of the amendment is the pastor of a larger church and has a reputation in the conference for representing what many consider to be more liberal views. He stood and spoke of compromise and he spoke boldly.
One by one, persons stood at microphones voicing their opinions. The debate was tense but it never got ugly. Folks representing small rural churches, larger urban churches, theological liberals and conservatives, and different races all spoke together on this important issue. Some agreed and others disagreed. I was struck both by the diversity of those who agreed with each other and the civility with which persons chose to respond. Even in disagreement no one lost their temper.
I happened to be sitting by the amendment's author and my experience was capped off when our conversation was interrupted by another pastor who shared very little with the amendment’s author. These two men represent opposite ends of the political spectrum and everyone in the room knew that. I was waiting for the dividing line to be drawn and I was surprised by grace to hear the two men chat and find they supported one another on this particular issue. As this other man rose to get behind a microphone, he looked at the amendment's author – a man who supported many views opposite his own – laughed, and said, "Let's see if this annual conference is ready for us to agree on something."
Note to self: Grace can take a surprising shape sometimes...
In a society that seems to thrive off bitterly disagreeing with others, I saw a glimpse of a different sort of reality. After a General Conference that seemed to bring out the absolute worst in everyone – people on both sides of the political/theological divide – I saw brief glimpses of unity in my annual conference and I had hope. We're not a perfect annual conference by any means. Lord knows we have our issues. And we've got a lot of work yet to do together. But as a young clergy person still learning the ropes of Annual Conference, I was filled with the hope that maybe, just maybe, we might actually learn to talk with each other and even listen – a witness our society desperately needs to see.
Yes, despite all of the grind and stress that comes with Annual Conference I left hopeful. I would even dare to say my heart might have even felt strangely warm.
The Rev. Ben Gosden is an associate pastor at Mulberry Street United Methodist Church in Macon. He can be reached at email@example.com.