In a few hours I will be leaving to attend Annual Conference. For the non-Methodists, this is the annual gathering of clergy and laity (equal representation of each) from each of the churches in the conference, which in this case is New Mexico and southern west Texas.
In the past, annual conference had several main reasons for its existence. The first was that this was when appointments were announced. United Methodist clergy serve on perpetual one-year appointments, and so you would find out at annual conference if you were moving or not, and where you would be going. The second reason was to conduct the business of the annual conference, such as passing budgets, and voting on legislation, ordaining new clergy, etc. The third reason was that it was the only time of the year that most clergy ever got together, and so it was a time of fellowship and catching up and remembering those who had left the ministry in the past year either by leaving or dying.
The problem with annual conference now is that none of those reasons really exist anymore. Appointments are announced well in advance of annual conference. Except for ordination, all of the legislative work is either done differently than in the past, or could honestly be done online or in other forums. And because of social media and other technology, those clergy who want to be in touch with each other outside of annual conference can be. It's still nice to get together, but it does not serve the same purpose as it did in the past.
So that really leaves us going to gathering whose purpose has been eliminated with no new purpose having been put into place. We keep doing things the same because "it's how we have always done it" and the result is it's just a three-to-four-day committee meeting. I know of few people who actually look forward to attending Annual Conference, and the biggest reason is because it doesn't serve a purpose. It's rare that people actually take something home, or learn something, which they can use or apply in the local church.
It's time for the UMC to totally rethink annual conference (and general conference and jurisdictional conference for that matter) and to begin that conversation we have to start with answering the question, "what is the purpose of annual conference"? Once we answer that, then we can restructure everything and make it be something that is not only useful for churches, but that people would actually look forward to attending.