Summertime family reunions are part of the fabric of black culture, and a gathering of family and friends around the table is a fitting image to represent the Annual Conference of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
Starting tomorrow, as they’ve done for 20 years, representatives from throughout the Northeast Mississippi Conference of the CME will meet in Tupelo for four days of worship, fellowship and business discussions.
“It’s a chance for all of us to unite, to evaluate how things are going and talk about the status of our local churches,” said the Rev. Clementine Mays, pastor of Poplar Springs CME Church in Shannon.
For the second consecutive year Poplar Springs will serve as the host parish for the conference.
Clergy and lay delegates from the districts of Aberdeen-Tupelo, Holly Springs-Oxford and Olive Branch-Sardis will converge at the BancorpSouth Arena, the location that served as the meeting venue for the conference for the first time last year.
Prior to then the conference was held at what is now the Summit Center, as well as at some of the larger CME churches around Lee County.
Among those congregations was Lane Chapel CME Church on North Madison Street.
Lane Chapel hosted the conference before the tenure of the Rev. Charles Penson and his wife, the Rev. Cheryl Penson, now co-pastors, began, but Charles understands well what it means for Tupelo to host the event.
“It’s great for the local economy because we book rooms in motels and patronize area restaurants,” said Penson, speaking on behalf of the members of the 119 churches that will converge in the All-American City.
Choosing Tupelo as the host location made sense, according to the Rev. Leo Wright, presiding elder of the Aberdeen-Tupelo District, because Lee County and its environs have long been home to several of the district’s larger churches, like Lane Chapel, Poplar Springs and Mt. Nebo CME Church in Baldwyn.
“Tupelo has been a hotbed of activity and growth for our church and the accommodations have always been nice,” said Wright.
Originally called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, the CME was founded in 1870 in Jackson, Tenn. The first members were free blacks who modeled their church’s structure and polity on the Methodist Episcopal Church, the denomination to which they converted while under the yoke of slavery and the predecessor to the current United Methodist Church.
Although the denomination replaced the word “colored” in its name with “Christian” in 1954, the similarities between the CME and the United Methodist Church are still noticeable.
“The connectional system, church governance and The Book of Discipline are all very similar,” said Wright, whose role as presiding elder is a lot like that of a district superintendent in the United Methodist Church.
On the closing night of the conference, another similarity between the CME and the United Methodist Church will be apparent. New clergy will be ordained and new appointments will be made for those already in office. The system is essentially the same one used by United Methodists.
Charles Penson has been serving alongside his wife at Lane Chapel for three years, although the recent convert is still in the process of becoming a full elder in the church.
First he was ordained as a local pastor, then, after getting some study and pastoral experience under his belt, he became a deacon. Pending the approval of the Most Rev. Thomas L. Brown Sr., bishop of the Fourth Episcopal District of the CME, which includes Mississippi and part of Louisiana, Penson will be ordained as an elder at this year’s conference. If all goes well, he’ll become a full elder in two years.
Wright estimated that five new pastors will be ordained in the Aberdeen-Tupelo district at the conference, and there’ll be some shifting of ministers among eight of the district’s 38 churches.
Wright has been gathering information from pastors and church committees in order to make the most informed recommendations possible to Bishop Brown about appointments.
“Overall, I don’t anticipate too much change,” said Wright, who also pastors Palmetto CME Church in Lee County. “Mandatory retirement age for pastors is 74, and we don’t have anybody retiring this year, so things are pretty stable.”
The CME, like the United Methodist Church, has grown into a global fellowship, and as an affirmation of it’s Afro-centric roots it’s building a growing presence in the developing world.
In addition to the 1.2 million members in more than 3,000 churches in the U.S., the CME has congregations in Haiti, Jamaica, and 10 African countries.
At its 37th General Conference, a meeting which convenes every four years and which concluded July 4 in Mobile, the CME elected five new bishops, including its first female bishop and an indigenous bishop for Africa.
According to Wright that emphasis on the bishop as a sign of unity and a shepherding presence in the community is a hallmark of the CME and where the third part of the denomination’s name, “Episcopal,” the Greek word for bishop, came from.
Members in the Aberdeen-Tupelo district speak of a kind of missionary enthusiasm that’s come out of the General Conference, and it’s carrying over to the annual meeting.
Over the four days of the conference there’ll be nuts and bolts discussions on matters like church membership, building and maintenance and finance, but the communal aspect of the meeting is what folks are most looking forward to.
Mays of Poplar Springs is excited about hosting again this year, and she has a small army of volunteers, including conference delegates, cooks and general utility players, poised to make sure things go smoothly.
“The music and worship are incredible, and the event is really guided and driven by prayer,” said Mays, whose congregation of 629 is the largest in the area.
As a delegate from Lane Chapel, Sam Bell has been attending annual conference since the 1970s, and he’s looking forward to another turn on the voting floor this year.
“I suppose I’m a pretty reasonable person. I don’t think I make foolish decisions and I try to meet regularly with other laity, especially during conference, to make sure we’re making sound decisions,” said the 74-year-old.
“Relationships is really what it’s about,” Bell added. “It’s always good to see everybody from the other districts, and to catch up with old friends and worship together.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal