United Methodist Churches in the United States are organized into 56 regional bodies called "Annual Conferences."
Each of these conferences conducts its business in a yearly meeting that stretches over three or four days. Our Annual Conference is called the
"Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference"
and it covers most of the state of Illinois (excluding the areas north of Interstate 80.) I just got back yesterday from that annual meeting (held in Peoria.)
Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference
is made up of 800 churches, 330 full time pastors, 100 part-time pastors, and approximately 125,000 church members. It is served by a paid staff of over 50 people (including the bishop, 10 district superintendents, ministry consultants, communications experts, and office personnel.) It is primarily responsible for two things: 1) helping various churches coordinate their ministries and missions so they will have a greater impact than any one church can achieve alone, and 2) recruiting, examining, and deploying pastors to churches.
We had 31 pastors retire this past year. We ordained and commissioned 18 new pastors. We passed a budget that includes funding for over 60 mission projects throughout Illinois (hunger and food pantry projects, domestic violence shelter homes, campus ministries, homes for children and the elderly, camping for youth and children, supplemental programs for underprivileged school children, counseling programs for poor communities, refugee projects, new church starts, aid to seminary students, etc.) We also help fund Black Colleges throughout the United States, Africa University, Disaster Response teams, leadership development workshops, etc., etc. throughout the U.S. and the world.
Only half a dozen active pastors in our conference have more longevity than me, making me one of the best sources around for "institutional memory." Some of my memory comes from being there, but much of it also comes from historical research and from listening to people through the years.
I wasn't there for the start of it, but Methodism began in Illinois before it was even a state. When George Washington was president, Joseph Ogle was appointed to be the area's first lay leader (south of Belleville.) Historical documents note that, "He was good material for the sub-pastorate, being scrupulously honest, punctual, and strict..." I'm not sure what a "sub-pastorate" is, but it sounds like a good topic for speculation when I get bored some day.
The first actual congregation in what would become Illinois was formed by a pastor who was passing through, Joseph Lillard, "a good man, and truly pious, though somewhat eccentric."
Benjamin Young was first Methodist pastor to be assigned an areas in Illinois: he was given 5 churches and had to travel (by horse) the 100 mile loop to get to all of them. On one occasion his horse got stolen. But it was said of him that "he was equal to the demand...in confronting prevalent wickedness among the godless pioneers."
The second pastor was Jesse Walker, "a Virginian, a man of deep conviction, a student of the Bible and human nature, who could go for days without food, who could sleep in the forests, who could travel without roads..." (The quality of Methodist pastors has evidently being going downhill since Jesse Walker...)
Another early pastor was Abraham Amos, "a large, muscular man, vehement in voice and gesture...who while preaching sometimes brought his fist down with such violence as to split the book-board, if there happened to be one."
By 1811, there were 763 Methodists in the Illinois territory. One pastor, reflecting in later years of this time, wrote, "The people, many of them were rude and vicious...gambling, counterfeiting, and horse-stealing being the most common sins...the roads were ungraded pathways through forests and swamps, the streams unbridged and in many places unfordable, the prairies overgrown...harboring stinging insects that feasted on the pastors horse, to the point of its injury or death."
In 1805 the first Methodist building, consisting of split logs, was erected in present day Glen Carbon. It hosted the first annual conference ever held in Illinois in 1817. The conference that year, however, was cut short because of the rain and the leaky building.
my first Annual Conference in 1964, when I was ten years old and my dad was being ordained. Only two memories stick in my mind from that event: it was really hot...and the hymn singing was
The highlight of every Annual Conference (for me) is when the new pastors are ordained. It is a touching and traditional ceremony that combines pageantry and poetry and grandeur and nostalgia and optimism.
The group this year of 18 who were commissioned and ordained have been in quest of ordination for years.
(I wrote about the requirements each one of them had to meet in an earlier Sunday letter.) Because of my position on the Board of Ordained Ministry, I have had the privilege of deep emotional and intellectual conversations with most of these men and women during past three years.
So, as I sat in the front row yesterday morning and watched the bishop place hands on each of them and send them into fields of service, my tears started to flow. They were tears of joy: it was a steep road for all of them, and the goal of ordination not certain for any of them until the very end, and there was intense rejoicing that they successfully met all the tests.
There were tears of pride...they are our sons and daughters in this clergy family.
There were tears of nostalgia, remembering my own journey that began 45 years ago this year...as I hearkened back to many dear friends and colleagues no longer with us.
And there were tears of sadness, knowing that the pains and travails these new ordinands will face will be even harder than those I have had to navigate. Our new pastors, of course, will work with the same kinds of people and churches as me...but
, they will also be required to steer an uncertain denomination and a struggling conference into a future that is looking more bizarre and dangerous by the year.
The newly ordained and commissioned sat there with their visions in that ordination service. I, on the other hand, sat there with my stories. Yet we all felt the same power of both THE Holy Spirit and irrepressible human spirits.
May God bless our new class of ordained and commissioned pastors. And thanks be to God for calling each of them to this service. --Mike
There are another 75 United Methodist Annual Conferences throughout the Philippines, Africa, and Europe.
I spent the first 25 years of my ministry working on conference boards that were involved in church growth, social justice, starting new churches, and ministries to the poor. I have spent the last 20 years of my ministry working to mentor pastors, set up systems of pastoral care for pastors and their families, and raise standards of effectiveness for new and current pastors.