The Holiday Inn Executive Center will nearly burst at the seams this weekend as ministers and laypeople from more than 900 churches convene for the Missouri Annual Conference Session of the United Methodist Church.
“Basically, the conference is where we do our year’s business,” said Karen Gordy-Panhorst, communications director for the Methodists.
The conference marks the second time that the former West and East conferences have met as one. About 1,600 people are expected, Gordy-Panhorst said.
“It’s kind of like a family reunion for the pastors,” she said. “It’s like their church service.”
Attendees will recognize church achievements, hear Bishop João Somane Machado from Mozambique preach and consecrate land for their new conference center in Columbia.
Petitions from several churches will be discussed, on issues ranging from camping fees to marriage, Gordy-Panhorst said.
The Rev. Mike Will, United Methodist campus minister in Columbia, said most of the controversial issues were dealt with at the general conference, which met in Pittsburgh last month.
“Once general conference is over, we tend to get a reprieve from controversial issues,” Will said. “I’m not anticipating that we’re going to be wrestling with controversial issues because we just met, and everybody had their say.”
The Rev. Jim Bryan, senior pastor at the Missouri United Methodist Church, said that divisiveness in the church is one of the most disturbing issues today.
“I believe it’s taking us away from what we’re really to be about as a church, and that’s serving people,” Bryan said. “We spend way too much time and energy debating or in conflict over issues rather than how to be a better church.”
Will said the imminent departure of Bishop Ann Brookshire Sherer is weighing most heavily on his mind. “Whoever follows her has some pretty big shoes to fill,” he said. “She is just an outstanding preacher, theologian and diplomat. She does it all with such grace.”
Sherer, who has been bishop of the Missouri Conference since 1992, will be reassigned in July, Gordy-Panhorst said. It is common for bishops to serve no more than two or three four-year terms in an area, she said.
“I think we’re all kind of praying about who that next bishop for Missouri will be,” Will said.
Bryan said he is most looking forward to seeing old friends and drawing encouragement from the gathering. “We come together and get tremendous support (from each other),” he said. “It’s the best part of the conference.”