A Love Letter to the West Virginia Annual Conference

By Jane Ellen Nickell

Every June, I look forward to coming home—home to Buckhannon, WV, where I grew up and where my mom still lives. Home to WV Wesleyan College, which my whole family attended and my father worked for. And home to WV Annual Conference, where I feel a sense of belonging I have never felt in other conferences.

After a three-year appointment in WV, I answered a call to ministry in higher education that took me to two different conferences over the twenty years. From that vantage point and from my research on issues that divide our denomination, I can see what a gem my home conference is.

Like other conferences, we disagree over the inclusion of LGBTQ persons, which has brought the UMC to the breaking point. But while some conferences have become polarized by strife, we do not let our differences over one issue compromise our common ministry. 

This year, other conferences are struggling with how to provide equitable ways for congregations to exit and join the new Global Methodist Church. Our first mention of denominational division came in the closing minutes of business in Bishop Sandra’s State of the Church report. She explained that the GMC is a traditionalist denomination and that we will work with individuals and congregations that wish to join it. We will continue to serve side-by-side in ministry and mission.

Other conferences rejected candidates for ordination who had attended the “wrong” seminaries or failed to approve an entire class of candidates because some were gay. We enthusiastically welcomed six provisional elders and seven elders in full connection. Several are relatives of other clergy (which was joyously proclaimed in the clergy session!), but all of them are family.

The WV Annual Conference is family. We know each other. We know who will speak for traditionalists and who will speak for progressives. We know who will remind us of our rules. We know who will call for the question when debate has gone on long enough. 

When we gathered last week, we lamented the brokenness in the world and reclaimed hope. We celebrated glory sightings and recognized individuals and congregations that are bringing people to Jesus, and taking Jesus to the world. We prayed for specific members who were ill and grieved with those experiencing loss. We met a clergy couple’s six-month-old twins who many of us had been praying for throughout a difficult pregnancy and premature births. It was a family reunion!

Like all families, we disagreed on some things, but mostly over effective ministry. Some disagreed with reducing our conference to seven districts, fearing it would be a hardship on district superintendents. We approved an increase in minimum salaries for clergy, but some spoke to the struggle that may pose for small congregations. In discussing a resolution on gun violence, some argued the need to defend homes and schools, but many other gun-owning United Methodists spoke against the ready accessibility of assault weapons, and the resolution passed. 

The WV Annual Conference is not perfect, but it is loving. Our love for each other and for Jesus matters more than our disagreements. We meet in a sanctuary for both business and worship, reminding us that both should be grounded in God’s love. Other conferences sit at tables lined up in convention centers or gymnasiums, a setup designed for effective business sessions. 

As someone living outside the geographic bounds of the conference, I was especially grateful to see my brothers and sisters in Christ in person for the first time in three years. I greeted friends from my residency group, including one who is as conservative as I am liberal, but who makes me a better Christian. I may live outside the bounds of the WV Conference, but I am never outside our bonds of Christian love. 

In her State of the Church message, Bishop Sandra quoted Proverbs 11:12: “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” I am eternally grateful to belong to a conference that focuses more on love than on strife, and I will always look forward to coming home.