We all laughed but we were well aware of the truth behind his words. Annual Conference was where we came together to worship, attend to the business of the Church, set policy, and debate theological and social issues. The Bishop, with the help of the District Superintendents, would appoint pastors to the churches for the following year. Yes, there would be politics in the Conference, for that was the way things got done. This was Montgomery, Alabama—June, 1957. The temperature was over 100 degrees every day and racial tension was the highest since Reconstruction. The world was holding its breath, waiting to see if violence would erupt. Politics, in the city, was at its worst.
Inside the auditorium, we set the agenda, gave reports, argued, and compromised as we tried to move the church to relevance in the world outside. Inspiring sermons, prayers, and hymns punctuated our worship—Methodists do love to sing! For the most part, we kept our tempers and were respectful of each other as we struggled to be faithful in the decisions we made. We didn't hold hands and sing “Kum Ba Ya,” but on more than one occasion, I saw that when a heated argument was ended by a call for a vote, the principals left the floor of the conference to go share a cup of coffee with one another.
One morning, Brother Emmet Wilson, a retired minister in his eighties who was filling in as pastor to a small congregation, rose to address the delegates. He was aware of a dramatic demographic shift on the horizon in the southern part of the state and wanted to position the church to serve the new community. He approached the Conference Mission Committee with his request for funding. It was denied. Not to be outdone, he took his cause to the floor of the entire conference. He spoke passionately but with humor. Everyone knew that whenever Brother Wilson spoke to the conference, he presented a gift—a challenge, always wrapped in stories. But some of his stories tended to go on for awhile. This day, after the old minister had been holding forth for quite some time, the bishop wrapped his gavel and called for a point of order, hoping to end Brother Wilson's story. The old minister reached up, took a hearing aid out of each ear, said, “They sure are out of order, Bishop,” and kept talking. He finally ended by saying, “I talked to the Lord last night. And I told the Lord that I wasn't going to eat or drink until the conference approved this mission.” He paused, glanced at the bishop with a smile, and said, “but the Lord told me I could smoke my pipe!” (This was in reference to a long-standing and sometime ignored rule that Methodist ministers must refrain from smoking).
We were still laughing when Joel McDavid, Chairman of the Missions Committee, stood and said he was reconvening the Committee and he felt sure they could find a way to grant the request. Everyone applauded. Brother Wilson thanked his good friend, Joel and sat down. The old preacher's stories could go on forever, but this time he knew when to stop. It was politics at its best.
The Reverend Emmet Wilson never sought positions of power or prestige within the Annual Conference. All his ministry, he served small struggling congregations at subsistence level salaries. As far as I know, he never published anything and was not in demand as an evangelistic preacher. But that one day, in an overheated college auditorium, he raised the bar and gave us all a glimpse of what politics, when practiced with integrity and humor, was all about.
A sometime Storyteller, Pastor Max Hale has served over half a century in ministry in various settings, including the military, the campus, and the local church. You may follow him on his blog: www.avirtualfrontporch.com