The 5Ws and 1H of Christian Conferencing

Hands in dialogue: sharing and listening. Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications
Hands in dialogue: sharing and listening. Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications

You may know the scenario. You’re participating in a church meeting, listening to someone share an idea or express an opinion with which another person disagrees. Suddenly, participants are choosing sides. Sometimes voices are raised, sometimes feelings are hurt. What’s next? Could it be possible to find grace in the midst of this scenario?

Many church leaders, including John Wesley, say “yes!”

Through a means of communication called Christian conferencing – or holy conferencing – participants are encouraged to discern the Holy Spirit in their decison-making process. This sacred form of communication, however, is not limited to difficult discussions. As Christians, United Methodists are urged to bring holy conferencing into all interactions.

The term “holy conferencing” reflects that, “in our speech and our actions and our relationships, we’re looking for a more excellent way in … how we treat each other,” writes Bishop Sally Dyck of the Northern Illinois Conference. Dyck, who authored a study guide titled “Eight Principles of Holy Conferencing,” adds that these principles are especially important when discussing controversial topics.

Christian conferencing dates back to Wesley’s times when the founder of the Methodist movement sought to engage members and clergy in small groups to encourage listening and learning from one another, with a focus on mutual understanding. With Wesley’s Christian conferencing, there were no winners or losers, only those who desired to discern God’s will.

Christian Conferencing and General Conference

The practice of Christian conferencing may have particular importance when delegates and thousands of others gather at General Conference to make decisions about the denomination’s future.

In order to move into this sacred communication space, Alsted suggests participants take a spiritual focus.

“Don’t think of yourself as being at General Conference to make decisions. Don’t think about being there because you won an election or you want to get your preferred petitions approved by the General Conference,” Alsted says. “Think of yourself as being at General Conference to grow in holiness and, together with Christian brothers and sisters from across the world, listen for God’s voice and God’s direction for the church.

“Yes, we are going to make decisions. Yes, we are going to vote. But our main purpose should be to grow together as brothers and sisters, as the church.”

Because holy conferencing works best when people have a chance to build relationships with one another in small group settings, General Conference’s challenge is the large number of people involved and the lack of time to build those relationships.

Alsted is confident the discipline can translate into larger settings, such as General Conference. It’s a tall order, Alsted admits, readily acknowledging there will be differing opinions and, perhaps, strong disagreements.

“We need delegates, bishops and everyone who participates in any way to come with an open heart and open mind.”

The practice of Christian conferencing may have particular importance as delegates and thousands of others gather at General Conference to make decisions about the future of the denomination. To gain a better understanding of this discipline, following are excerpts from a conversation with Bishop Christian Alsted (Nordic-Baltic Episcopal Area) that address the 5Ws and 1H of Christian conferencing:

Who?
Everyone can participate in Christian conferencing, especially “Christian brothers and sisters who are listening for God’s voice and God’s direction for the church,” shares Alsted.

What?
The conversation about what Christian conferencing is — and isn’t — has been happening for years. Arriving at an understanding, Alsted says, means being aware of the role God plays in our interactions and relationships with one another.

“Christian conferencing is a way for us to discern the will of God, to try to listen for God’s voice as we are in conversation with one another,” Alsted points out. “Christian conferencing is about growing together in holiness. It is not about doing, it is about being.

“Christian conferencing is a means of grace,” Alsted says. “Just like when we read the Bible or pray, God is always present. In that same way, God is always present when we practice Christian conferencing.”

What isn’t it?

“Christian conferencing is not a technique, not a particular process or a set of rules to regulate our conversation,” Alstead comments. “It’s a part of our theological DNA, like praying.”

When?
Christian conferencing is more than what happens at a specific date and time. In fact, according to Alsted, Christian conferencing should be occurring all of the time.

Where?
The short answer to the question of where Christian conferencing can take place: everywhere. Christian conferencing should not be relegated to meetings, Alsted says, adding that Christian conferencing should permeate all places where Christians are living out their faith.

In Wesley’s day, Christian conferencing most commonly occurred in in small communities of faith, where people knew and built trust with one another over time. The challenge of General Conference, Alsted shared, is the large number of people involved. Alsted encourages delegates to call on God to create a space where people are open “to allowing others to speak into their lives and where they have been given permission to speak into others’ lives.”

Why?
Christian conferencing is part of our heritage. When Methodism sprang up in America and conferences began developing, there were some adjustments from the original British conferences. The American version of Christian conferencing became a way to shape governance and discipline and encourage evangelistic outreach. “So the American version of Christian conferencing,” Alsted shares, “became polity, unity and revival.”

As Christian conferencing has evolved over the decades, Alsted suggests we strive to keep the three parts in balance.

How?
Although Wesley initially developed Christian conferencing to be used in small groups, Alsted is confident the discipline can translate into larger settings. While practicing holy conferencing, “the main purchase should be to grow together as brothers and sisters, as the church,” says Alsted. And when we disagree, “are we able to disagree in a way that still honors God?,” he asks, adding that participants should arrive to the discussion with open minds and open hearts.

*Crystal Caviness works for UMC.org. She can be contacted at 615-742-5318.