On Thursday of this week our daughter, Carolyn, drove me 368 miles from the suburbs of Toronto to Coldwater, Michigan. We went to attend an ordination service during a session of the Southern Michigan Annual Conference of the Free Methodist Church-USA.
Eric Rose, a young minister who was to be ordained along with five others, invited us to come as his guest.
Eric had been in touch with me a number of times about different aspects of pastoral ministry, and we had become friends. I knew he was anticipating his ordination joyfully.
The ordaining body was an annual conference. This is a grouping of regional churches that work together under an elected superintendent. Annual conferences meet yearly to review achievements, establish shared accountability, and care for the staffing of the churches.
We arrived at the place of meeting. We discovered there an orderly gathering of ministers and lay delegates in equal numbers. The annual conference was hard at work hearing the reviews of one year’s ministries and anticipating challenges for the year ahead.
We saw instantly that the mood was bright. There were moments of laughter, but at the same time there was evidence of serious work being done.
Annual Conferences are a trademark of Methodism. They trace back to 1744. How did they come into being?
Recall that in 1738 both John Wesley and brother Charles were graduates of prestigious Oxford University and ordained ministers of the Church of England. After periods of spiritual uncertainty and distress they both experienced remarkable evangelical conversions in May of that year.
These conversions seemed to unleash a renewing movement of God’s Holy Spirit across the British Isles. This is referred to as the Methodist or Wesleyan Revival.
After 1738, six years of Spirit-anointed preaching by John and Charles and others had raised up great numbers of new converts. In this mighty movement of the Holy Spirit the revival had awakened the spiritually impoverished, the enslaved, and often the church’s castoffs. As well, many were converted from what today might be called people of the middle class for whom the established church had failed to deliver the bread of life.
John Wesley was the natural leader of this movement. He was faced with the problem of how to bring ordered living to the thousands of the spiritually awakened. Wesley’s administrative gifts brought forth the idea of an “annual conference.”
The first annual conference of 1744 had ten members – John and Charles, four other ordained clergymen, and four lay preachers, not ordained but authorized by John Wesley and his colleagues to preach the gospel.
On the day before the first annual conference convened there was a preaching service, a love feast, and the serving of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper to the whole of the London society of Methodists, which by that time numbered between two and three thousand.
The agenda for the day of the conference was limited to addressing three questions: what to teach; how to teach; and how to regulate doctrine, discipline and practice. This first annual conference was conducted in deep humility. Wesley and these good men agreed that every question raised was to be freely and openly debated, so “that every person may speak freely what is in his heart.”
This first annual conference in 1744 became a template for Methodism. More than 250 years later almost anywhere Methodism exists regional work is administered through annual conferences (though names may vary).
When I saw my friend Eric standing with five other ordinands before the congregation in Coldwater, Michigan, and all six responding affirmatively to the questions for ordination, I was reminded that annual conferences around the world continue to be the body responsible for the conduct of this holy service of ordination.
I myself have administered ordination vows at annual conferences in such locations as Canada, the United States, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brazil, Haiti, and others.
My visit in Coldwater was deeply satisfying. Thanks be to God that the spiritual roots of today’s church sink deep into the soil of Christian history. Fundamentals do not change. And special thanks to God for the declared dedication of six newly-ordained ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.