Shearer: Missing Annual Conference the way it used to be

Shearer: Missing Annual Conference the way it used to be

Lake Junaluska (photo by John Shearer)

In June 2019, my wife, the Rev. Laura Shearer, and I wearily drove out of Lake Junaluska during the early evening on the last day of Holston Annual Conference following the marathon voting for delegates to General Conference and Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference.

I was ready to get home then, and I had no idea it would be at least three years before I could return for the summer gathering of worship, meetings and fellowship in this place that is out of the boundaries of Holston Conference but still feels like home.

 I knew, of course, that division was building in The United Methodist Church in 2019 regarding the LGBTQ issues, but no one realized a world health upheaval was to take place within a year as well with the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the outbreak and shutdown began throughout Holston Conference in mid-March 2020, I naively assumed early on that the situation would soon improve, and we would all still gather at Lake Junaluska that June. But we met virtually instead, and I was not overly disappointed, thinking everyone needs an occasional break from the same routine.

And then this January, when the pandemic was raging more than ever as vaccinations were just beginning, conference officials announced that Annual Conference would again not be held at Lake Junaluska due to state of North Carolina restrictions on large gatherings.

I don’t know about some of you who also attend, but about late May this year, as life in Holston Conference was mostly returning to normal, I started feeling downright sad knowing we would not gather by the lake for the second year in a row. 

Part of my reason for the melancholy is that a visit to Lake Junaluska for me has generally been relaxing, refreshing and spiritually uplifting. Although I have been honored to be a district-at-large lay member in recent years, a position I sought in part to feel connected with others by also having an official nametag, I have no basic responsibilities other than to show up.

As a result, I get to enjoy four relaxing days of generally inspiring messages and music, some fellowship and food, and even the entertainment of listening to spirited discussion over a vote or petition.

Of course, there is also the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains and the pretty, historic buildings and homes of Lake
Junaluska. I can be standing outside Stuart Auditorium amid hundreds of people by the lake, and the setting is still peaceful to me.

I realize that for some attendees holding various positions within the conference, being at Lake Junaluska is probably more work than pleasure, even if they still find time to enjoy some fellowship and the aesthetics. I can especially tell that for bishops, the happiest time seems to be when they get to bang the gavel ending or adjourning Annual Conference.

Trying to put my own twist or thoughts into the inspiration behind the old classic James Taylor song, “Carolina in My Mind,” I started thinking about what all I have missed regarding not getting to be at this North Carolina retreat and meeting place again this year.

I, of course, miss seeing all the old friends I have made, many of whom I might still be able to see at the one-day gathering in late August in Kingsport. As a spouse to a clergy member, I don’t know nearly as many people as some of the other attendees do, but it is always enjoyable running into an old acquaintance from Laura’s stops in Cleveland, Knoxville and Chattanooga. Sometimes I don’t run into everyone I know, or someone I want to speak to always seems to be talking with someone else when I see him or her.

I also have missed the great live music while sitting in Stuart Auditorium. While I, like most people, enjoy some of the styles better than others, it is quite uplifting when I hear a favorite song. I especially like hearing the Lake Junaluska Singers. Is it too late to get them up to Kingsport for our Aug. 28 session?

I have also enjoyed the special gatherings such as the old Board of Higher Education and Ministry lunches at the Horton home by the lake, or the Candler School of Theology alumni lunch – even if I have to occasionally tell people my wife, and not I, attended there.

I also miss the morning jogs by the lake, including the annual 5K on Tuesday morning, even if some of those more serious runners like the Rev. Wil Cantrell are already turning for home when I am just getting over the dam.

All that exercise – and sitting through long gatherings – made me enjoy something else I also miss: eating at the restaurants in downtown Waynesville or Maggie Valley. I must admit that I am often not being the best Christian example when I sprint out of my car to get ahead of fellow conference attendees and secure that last available table when I am hungry.

I even miss the lunch buffet at the Terrace and its sweet tea!.

 I must also confess that after eating all that food, I am usually a little helpless during the 1 to 3 p.m. sessions in Stuart Auditorium and am unable to keep from dozing off. Listening and observing for long periods of time are not all those cushiony auditorium chairs are good for!

I should add that I never fell asleep listening to Bishop James Swanson’s fiery sermons and messages. I would love to hear him stomp his foot on the stage of Stuart Auditorium one more time. I also like Bishop Dindy Taylor’s formal messages and how some anecdote or incident from her long career fits in perfectly with the theme or Bible passage.

I also never fell asleep inside the auditorium watching those thunderstorms move across the lake nearly every afternoon like clockwork – while also knowing the rain was likely not appearing in my backyard back home.

I also miss the comedic messages of the Rev. Charles Maynard and the Rev. Catherine Clark Nance. Yes, Holston Conference has a sense of humor.

I also am grateful for the visiting speakers to Stuart Auditorium since I started attending in 2003, including the well-known Rev. Adam Hamilton of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas.

I also miss the satisfaction of getting an appointment book and learning that a likable pastor got a good and deserved appointment that I had previously not heard about through the grapevine. At those times, I am pleasantly pleased for him or her.

Finally, I miss special events like that evening a few years ago when I was on the phone outside Stuart Auditorium, and I could hear the roar of the crowd inside as I had never heard it after the announcement that Imagine No Malaria campaign had reached its goal. Believe me, it sounded as wonderful outside as it likely did inside.

I certainly hope we can gather at Lake Junaluska again soon, even though I know uncertainty remains over the future look of the United Methodist Church due to the LGBTQ debate. What I am sure about is that I have been blessed and touched by all the experiences I have enjoyed there over nearly the last 20 years.


John Shearer

 John Shearer is a United Methodist and a reporter for The Chattanoogan.

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