The Annual Conference is an institution of the United Methodist Church which goes back 150 years in California. While I was a child attending Westchester Methodist Church, the first Annual Conference was held at the University of Redlands. My earliest impression of the event was of our pastor describing the sweltering, oppressive, hot weather that prevailed throughout the week. So it was with a certain amount of "fear and trembling" that I accepted Pastor Karl's invitation to represent Orangethorpe at the 2002 Annual Conference, the 54th to be held in Redlands. Much to my surprise, the weather wasn't all that bad. There were cool breezes in the mornings and the afternoons were, well, tolerable.
My first Annual Conference was an overwhelming experience. There seemed to be more events, more workshops, more issues to discuss, more handouts to read, than I could deal with. But there were plenty of moments of inspiration, too. Our Bishop is an inspiring preacher, patient presiding officer and enthusiastic participant in all of the many and varied events at which her position requires her to be present. And at our morning Bible studies, we were moved by the insights into familiar Bible stories and the preaching of Rev. Grace Imathiu, from Kenya via First United Methodist Church of Green Bay (WI).
It was a time for renewing acquaintances with many people whom I had known somewhere, some time in the past. I was even able to remember the names of most of them! One whom I wouldn't have recognized without an introduction was Rev. Eliud Elizondo, who had attended the same church as I did 40 years ago in Monterrey, México, and who was visiting our Annual Conference as the District Superintendant for the Tijuana area [Distrito Peninsular de la Conferencia Noroeste de la Iglesia Metodista de México]. Needless to say, we've both changed a lot.
Rev. Kimball Coburn sat down next to me for one of the plenary sessions. Kimball spoke out on the proposal to provide an assistant to the bishop -- "Our Bishop Mary Ann Swenson isn't a paper pusher, she's a people person. We need this assistant so she'll be able to do what she does best." I concur with Kimball's assessment. Our dynamic Bishop shouldn't be bogged down in the myriad of administrative details that come with her office. One of the duties of her assistant will be to handle relations with the press, which are more important than ever in this year of highly-publicized clergy scandals.
Our own pastors were very much in evidence. Pastor Karl played drums in the music group which was a part of worship at the daily plenary sessions. Pastora Teresa had a speaking part in a video, was invited to tell everybody about our local Latino ministry during a plenary session, and was a featured speaker at Friday's missionary luncheon. This underscores the importance of the Church's ministry to California's Latin American community, which now comprises about forty (40) per cent of the state's population.
We learned of a financial crisis which makes the Pacific Homes situation of a generation ago look trivial -- the dilemma of what to do about retired pastors' health care benefits. The cost of health care is increasing exponentially and is threatening to consume the entire conference budget in the very near future. Do we raise apportionments? Do we go back on promises made to pastors and their spouses when they retired from the ministry? There are no easy answers. You will hear more about this issue.
Sunday morning, after worship and the reading of pastoral appointments for the coming year, we were reminded of just why we were there when the Bishop adjourned the Annual Conference by repeating Christ's commission to "go therefore and make disciples of all nations..."