What if Oklahoma cancelled #UMC Annual Conference for Tornado Relief?


This coming Monday, Oklahoma has their Annual Conference, a gathering of about 1,000 United Methodist clergy and laity in Oklahoma City. Only once a year is a concentrated group of United Methodists gathered together on this scale in Oklahoma City. While many come from areas affected by tornado activity the past week, the majority come from areas not affected by the tornadoes.

The theme is Mission:Possible for the week with a thumbprint through the “im” part of “im-possible.” Clearly a reflection on the can-do attitude of United Methodism in Oklahoma that we are known for in our mission, ministry, and work together. I’m a member of the Oklahoma conference (serving in Portland, Oregon), so I’ll be in attendance and I’m looking forward to a great few days to be in fellowship and be inspired on our mission together.

But on reflection to that term “mission” my musing today is this:

Wouldn’t it be truly missional
to cancel Annual Conference entirely for one day
and send the delegates out to do relief efforts?

I’m quite serious about this. A week after the storms, we will have just under 1,000 people sitting less than 15 miles away from Moore, the site of much devastation this past week. Such a ready base of helpful and hospitable Methodists is too good an opportunity to pass up!

And the amazing thing? We are already halfway there!

OK has mission opportunities for the afternoon on Wednesday on the schedule to visit a dozen sites and do mission work in the Oklahoma City area. So really all I’m asking is for Wednesday all day to be dedicated toward relief efforts (and we can gather for the Ordination service that night as evening light fades).

I’ve thought of some limitations to this idea and here’s some responses to those concerns:

  1. Disaster Response is for professionals: While everyone wants to drop everything and self-deploy themselves with a hammer to a disaster situation, the truth is that fewer trained professionals can do more work safer. This applies to the first 72 hours of a relief effort. However, after that time window and avenues of support have been created, then untrained volunteers can do the grunt work of cleaning, clearing, and hauling debris away. For the able-bodied delegates, being told where to go and clean up is a reasonable effort.
  2. Physical Abilities: Annual Conference delegates tend to be senior adults. While there’s good numbers of young adults chosen as delegates (from my own church, our delegates for 2 outta 3 years were both under 30), some senior adults may not have the physical abilities to do recovery work. However they can line the street leading into Moore and pray. Or wander the depot sites praying with folks.
  3. Pre-registrations: The Annual Conference had planned to spread out and visit almost a dozen sites on Wednesday afternoon. Certainly those ministries would be disappointed if the Methodists didn’t come. However, everyone is in adapting mode right now and it would be my guess that the help needs to be funneled towards the Tornado victims.

I will readily admit that those three limitations fall far short of the biggest one: People love to give presentations. That Wednesday morning session is dedicated to hearing reports from the various ministry areas, many of which I love to hear from (CJAMM!!!).

But wouldn’t it be great–leading the church–if some of the more administrative areas might elect to do theirs as a video or written report instead of taking up conference time? Giving up their podium so that we might serve others? Giving up the moment in the limelight–and I’ve twice stood in front of OK Annual Conference at that podium, I know how it feels–is a hard choice to make, but one I’m confident if given the opportunity that the space would be made.

Keep in mind: I am one of those hapless people that loves Annual Conference. I love connectionalism (and promote it fiercely on this blog) and these times together are rare and precious indeed. But I worry that if we are simply talking the talk and not walking the walk that it will leave many Methodists (and many outsiders) with a question as to whether we can walk and talk at the same time.


Feel free to pass onto the Annual Conference leadership and be in prayer for them as they seek to address this disaster situation in faithful ways.

Further action:

  • Visit UMCOR for ways to volunteer and support.
  • Text ‘RESPONSE’ to 80888 to give $10 to the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
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  1. says

    Well, there is just one major problem with this idea (as great as it is), it is too soon. After the May 3 tornado in 1999 there were well-meaning people who wanted to help and entered the area only to create the disaster after the disaster. I doubt seriously it will be cleared enough for volunteers to go into the damaged areas with hammer and saws, it would be dangerous and irresponsible for the conference to encourage it. However, perhaps part of the mission work could turn to other ways to help.

    We are already preparing UMCOR kits for school supplies and layettes. Perhaps we could also have people who are bringing water, preparing sandwiches, etc. We have a few trained disaster response personnel in the conference and they could make sure it got where it needed to go.

    Whenever disaster strikes, people want to tangible help. They want to feed people, and clothe people, but what they need to really do is to meet together and pray. They need to give financially to the great agencies who meet these needs well. They need to wait for instructions rather than pushing in where they are more hindrance than help. I would say that offering disaster response training instead of reports would be helpful. An impromptu training session would enable more people to take advantage of the training and therefore be ready when disaster strikes. Just a thought.

    Oh, and second guessing first responders, school districts, community planners, etc., isn’t helpful either. Just a two cent piece thrown in at the end.

  2. Kristin Terrell-Wilkes says

    Jeremy, thanks for your thoughts! And as the person who has been coordinating our mission sites for Wednesday I can tell you that I have had a similar thought. I’m sure that once things settle down a little we will consider if some if our projects need to be added to or changed. That being said, the projects we are currently committed to need our help and it is hard to walk away from them. Also, it is hard to know if the Moore area will be ready to receive volunteers by next Wednesday.
    We will keep you posted! FYI, I noticed you are not registered for a mission project : ) less than half of our delegates are : (

  3. Kevin Nelson says

    Jeremy, they can’t cancel Annual Conference. There are legal requirements and disciplinary requirements and even Judicial Council Decisions that prevent it. There are business matters that you just can’t skip for a year.

    It would mean the conference’s budget expiring and not having a budget to continue operating under. No agreement on what the budget would be and how it would be funded, which then would affect not only the administration of the conference, but ministries too, including the very kind of ministry you are advocating for. Sure, you don’t truly just stop doing ministry because no budget was adopted this year, but the Annual Conference can also get sued for how it expends the funds because there is nothing to say the staff are doing so consistent with the directives of their oversight body. Or maybe they do decide to do something different than the Annual Conference would have approved, because they can, and because they think they have a better idea of how that money can be used (which may be true sometimes, but at others will be grossly incorrect).

    From another angle, no ordinations would take place, and the clergy voting on the conference relations of its members wouldn’t take place. That actually is a REALLY serious matter. And it can’t take place via mail or some other remote means.

    Your idea is laudable but not practical, and there are a lot of consequences for it, consequences I’m not even fully exhausting, consequences that would have real impact on a lot of people, even including some of the people you are now talking about helping.

    I don’t think the answer is to try skipping Annual Conference, even if it were somehow possible to actually do that. The challenge is in figuring out how you balance accomplishing your mandatory business while also taking advantage of the missional opportunity dropped practically at your doorstep when you have such a great amount of people resources gathered together all at the same time.

    How do you do what you have to do at the Annual Conference sessions while still creating time and space to provide some greatly needed help? Help to the very people that the Church needs to be in ministry with.

    • John P. says

      You can cancel conference if you throw out the book of discipline and use the Bible as your guide. Why do Methodist make all so hard. Guess it’s all in the name. A better idea is to donate the funds put aside for conference, as it may be a bit early for rookie’s in disaster relief to participate.

  4. says

    I think to be truly missional goes beyond a one-day or one-weekend flash of concentrated service. The key is relationships. The OKAC needs to figure out how do we equip churches to sustain ministry over the long haul and develop relationships. My guess is, they already do a lot of that or are heading that direction. I don’t know. Probably the best they can do is re-designate special offerings for the immediate need in the local community. I know Missouri AC has mission projects to serve in the local community while we attend the conference. Sounds like others do the same. This is much better than “strictly business.”
    It seems like “cancelling” or “skipping” is more about making a bold statement and getting attention, and less about being missional or not. Just my two cents.

  5. eufemio agbayani iii says

    You don’t have to cancel a day of the Annual Conference to help. Extend it instead by a day, preferably before the actual start (since they need the help ASAP). Official business will not be squeezed in the remaining days while the extension can then be used to oblige delegates to participate in relief effort by making it part of the official business.

    I don’t know who can actually extend/contact the schedule. Maybe the bishop should read this.

  6. says

    One Day! Amen How about 2 or 3 days? Maybe then the “business” of the AC would only take up a a few hours and then the work of the church could begin outside the walls. With God, all things are possible! You don’t need everyone “on site” to make a difference.
    Prepare food and send it to Moore.
    Put together health/flood kits
    VIM trained teams could deploy where needed
    Provide other necessities deemed appropriate by UMCOR/VIM or VOAD.
    There are many gifted church leaders in Oklahoma ready to be let loose to help those in need. Being missional is a prepared readiness to respond every moment and every day to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I pray for the people of Oklahoma and thank Rev. Jeremy Smith for bold faith.

  7. Lisa Jo Bezner says

    For those clergy that are not as physically capable as they used to be, they could provide a pastoral/listening presence for those who are having to come to terms with the loss of their “stuff” or what seems like their entire life. Work through the disaster response system and let them deploy clergy to particular neighborhoods. All they need to do is be willing to listen to people without trying to provide answers and offer to pray for/with them.
    I did this following Tropical Storm Lee in Sidney, N.Y., and you would be surprised how willing people were to talk … and how much they needed it.
    Another thing to consider is carrying food and water to where people are working. They’re going to be so busy sorting through their stuff that they won’t go to wherever the donated food is. And they might not even know that churches have dropped off food somewhere.

  8. says

    Jeremy, your idea is a great seed for conversation (and, hopefully) action. Having planned the mission opportunities last year (they have a much better person on the case this year with Kristin), the logistics of this are difficult, especially given a shortened window of opportunity. Add to that a situation on the ground in flux (hard to know exactly what is needed this close to the crisis), coordinating an effective response can be difficult.

    And an effective response is important. Unfortunately, at this point, an ineffective response is easiest and will be common in the next few days/weeks. Sadly, I’ve witnessed this kind of response many times before. I’ve seen mountains of clothes piled up on street corners in Mississippi after Katrina and piles of clothes in a church basement in Sand Springs. At Restore Hope, we still have water that was donated in massive quantities to another organization in the wake of a disaster nearly a year ago. There have been numerous situations where qualified responders could not do their jobs because unqualified responders were in their way. And someone has to manage the volunteers, direct the traffic, organize the work. All these are reasons why it might be difficult to come up with a way to EFFECTIVELY organize a diverse group of folks (as you mention above) in a way that will make a positive difference in the lives of those hurting so deeply.

    That said, difficult is not impossible (pretty sure several scriptures apply here…mostly about mountains) and it is something we are called to pursue. It would be a great thing for us to come together for such tangible participation in God’s mission. Frankly, it’s still amazing to me that an idea hatched a little over a year and half ago is now a full half-day of annual conference. Seeds bear fruit. While the fruit produced by your idea may not be what you imagine above, I’m confident that we’ll find a way to respond in the best way possible. We have great people on the case in the Office of Mission and in the Conference Office. I’m hopeful we/they will come up with something. But, I guess offering hope is part of my job so I may be more optimistic than most. :-) Thanks for starting the conversation.

    • says

      The suggestion made on FB is to honor the afternoon commitments but free up the morning schedule so folks can serve in Moore then. Thus a full day of service.

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