SAINT SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. (Nov. 4, 2015) -- When I read the e-mail invitation from Bishop Dindy Taylor and the Rev. Sandra Johnson, Abingdon District superintendent, and learned that the 2015 SEJ Clergywomen Consultation would be held at Epworth by the Sea on St. Simons Island, Ga., I said out loud to my computer screen, "Hello! Sign me up."
Of course, as God would always have these things, the trip was much more than an excuse to get lost in the eternal ebb and flow of the ocean along the shoreline.
The journey to the ocean began early on the morning of Oct. 26 with the companionship of my very brave friend from college days, the Rev. Asa Majors, pastor of the Bethel/Vonore United Methodist Church. We packed snacks, suitcases, a cooler of drinks, and my two toddlers in their pajamas. To make the trip even more interesting, halfway through our trip I went from having some allergy upper-respiratory hoarseness to full-blown laryngitis. Did I mention the adorable toddlers? And now no voice?
We arrived at Epworth by the Sea and we were in awe of the beauty of the Spanish moss romantically draped from old knotted trees. The buildings faded into the natural scenery, which from the moment we pulled on the campus, seemed to slow everything down. We unpacked, took a leisurely walk, and dropped the toddlers off at the child care that was provided. (Note to the Design Team: Thank you! Child care made this trip possible for me.)
As we walked into the worship space in Strickland Auditorium, we were greeted by signs of pitchers filled with water and hues of blue and green. Because I had no voice and did not want to constantly explain myself, I found a seat and enjoyed one of my favorite pasttimes: people watching. Clergy gathered from all over the Southeastern Jurisdiction, from all ages, stages, and ethnicities. Seminary friends from different conferences embraced, and new introductions were made.
I waved at so many familiar Holston Conference faces -- I believe there 27 of us in total. I also enjoyed catching up with seminary friends and getting updates on others.
The primary speaker for the event was Rev. Sarah Heath, a 2005 Duke Divinity School graduate and pastor in the California-Pacific Annual Conference. Aptly chosen, the theme of the conference was "Come to the Well” with Jesus and the Samaritan woman from John 4. Rev. Heath was refreshingly honest in her delivery. The Holy Spirit was alive and well as it empowered each of us to lean into God's diverse and intentional calling in our lives.
As part of the Consultation, we gathered for about an hour into our home conference groups. There was no agenda for what we should discuss. We started by introducing ourselves, and for a while we kept the topics of our conversation safe and calculated. And then, just like tide encroaching on the shore, out came the pain that the media spends so much time covering and the church seems to address only under duress. Pastors around the room shared their worry about people in every place who are marginalized. There was consensus over the continued experience in Holston Conference and throughout the South of segregated congregations and pastors. There was concern around the hurtful conversations regarding sexuality and the lack of any seeming resolve.
In a room full of brilliant minds, prophetic words, and caring hearts, the conversation was only the beginning, but to the person with laryngitis who did a lot of listening, it sure felt like the tiniest foretaste of healing. It was most certainly a calling for the church to raise her voice to proclaim God's great hope for the world, no matter how uncomfortable the truth may be. It was a reminder of why God's calling is diverse and intentional.
I can only speak with certainty for myself, but overall I would say the trip was like a good sermon: moments for laughter, fun and rest; a graceful and challenging Word from God; and a conviction to walk in newness of life for the sake of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Varnell is pastor at St. Paul (Fountain City) United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.