Section 7.1 of the Bylaws of the United Church of God, an International Association, simply states: "A general conference meeting shall be held annually at such time and place as the Council may determine, with appropriate notice given to all elders enrolled in the corporate record."
At face value, I've got to admit that just reading the previous sentence sounds pretty dry and, well, "corporate." But I would like to take a few minutes of your time to offer some life and breath to Article 7.1. Why? Because the dedicated work of this legislated body of elders has far-reaching implications in molding the daily church life of all of us brethren; and towards shaping and molding a spiritually rich church environment for our future membership.
As we go back just a brief span of years, I think you will find it fascinating to understand the importance of the annual meeting of the General Conference of Elders (GCE).
But first, just what is the responsibility of the GCE? The Constitution offers a powerfully definitive answer as we break into the thoughts of Section 126.96.36.199, which says, "God has established the office of elder to provide care and oversight to the congregations. Thus, the General Conference of Elders is responsible to God to ensure that His people are served and their needs attended to."
What an awesome responsibility to be personally accountable before God concerning the general welfare of His people! To serve God, and to serve His people, is simply profound in its fullest ramifications. It is also incredibly humbling to the men who serve in this role.
Lest We Forget
But how did this all begin? If we don't "start at the beginning," we can simply run out of steam because we lack the will and drive to maintain something very special. As God's Word clearly reminds us in Proverbs 29:18 Proverbs 29:18Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keeps the law, happy is he.
American King James Version×(King James Version), "Where there is no vision, the people perish."
In early 1995, a number of ministers and members had come to a common conclusion that they were no longer free to worship or teach in a manner they felt was "God-breathed." God would have to provide a new way.
Ministers and members, arm in arm, prayer in prayer and heart in heart, sought God's will as to what to do. Together, as God's saints, we fasted and prayed that God would show what we might do, if anything. At last, the answer became apparent: A group of elders would gather together in Indianapolis, Indiana. There we would beseech God as to whether we might continue in a collective and unified effort to serve Him, preach the gospel and care for His faithful servants—the brethren who were being cast out of their congregations for believing the Word of God.
Many of you brethren encouraged your ministers to go on your behalf and seek God's answer. Some elders paid their own way, others were sent by their congregations in the spirit of Acts 15:2-3 Acts 15:2-3  When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question.
 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy to all the brothers.
American King James Version×, which recounts, "Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church . . ."
As in the book of Acts, a bond of joint purpose was sown between members and ministry that had never before been present to this degree. We all truly needed God and one another.
Seeking God's Will
Upon arrival, we all truly felt thrust into the atmosphere of the book of Acts. There was no human leader or distinguishable organization. But there was a keen and humble desire to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ wherever He would lead. We had to simply take on faith and establish the practice expounded in Hebrews 3:1 Hebrews 3:1Why, holy brothers, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus;
American King James Version×: "Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus."
In seeking God's will, we came to more fully understand and embrace the admonition of Proverbs 11:14 Proverbs 11:14Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.
American King James Version×: "Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety." In seeking God's will, we established the practice of balloting to determine the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It was not a vote to determine simple majority, but rather a tangible means by which a body of believers could establish the clear intent of the Holy Spirit's guidance.
We talked a lot. We listened a lot. We all prayed a lot, in fact, more than ever in our public meetings. We knew we couldn't do this alone. We also knew our brethren, who we represented, were praying and fasting back home. Prayer is the glue that sticks people together to serve God's purpose, not theirs. Christ had promised in John 14:18 John 14:18I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.
American King James Version×, "I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you." The early Church took Christ at His word, and at Indianapolis, in a dark hour, we claimed that same promise in solidifying prayer.
So many lessons were learned and new determinations were made. We came to a new bond of working and loving unity between salaried elders, non-salaried elders and faithful brethren. We came to a burgeoning awakening that we needed to respect the workings of God's Holy Spirit in every Christian and validate each one's involvement in the work of God.
We came to understand the importance of "consensus." This term denotes more than the final numbers supporting a ballot, but a Spirit-led approach towards accepting results that we feel the Holy Spirit has led the General Conference of Elders to accept. Does that mean we will agree with every decision? No, it doesn't. And sometimes, humanly, that's tough. You know it, and I know it. But, as members of the GCE, we must be sincerely dedicated to the principle of supporting the decision of the whole for the sake of a unified and harmonious effort.
The annual General Conference gives ministry and members alike a yearly crash course in experiencing the joy defined in Philippians 2:2-3 Philippians 2:2-3  Fulfill you my joy, that you be like minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.
 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
American King James Version×: "Fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others."
Challenges Ahead, Looming Larger Than Ever
That first meeting in Indianapolis was not the "end-all" of all conferences. It was simply the beginning of the rest of the story of our maturing growth as a people set apart by God to fulfill our part in His plan of "Preaching the Gospel and Preparing a People." Much of what was experienced in Indianapolis was codified in documents and ratified at the first official General Conference of Elders meeting in Cincinnati in 1995.
God was extremely merciful and generous to us in those first few years as we processed our way through our hurts, wounds and hopes. He ultimately galvanized us once again to "preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God in all the world, make disciples in all nations and care for those disciples." That mission statement continues to be the active and living trust of the General Conference of Elders as stated in Section 188.8.131.52.
Now eight years down the line, and now almost nine conferences removed from that first little meeting of humble origin in Indianapolis, I would pose a question, please.
Are we any less in need of God's immediate guidance and direction than in 1995? Sure, we have a home office building and an established Ambassador Bible Center and an increasingly growing multimedia presentation of God's message to this world. But even as we have coalesced and strengthened as an organization, the challenges over the horizon—and, yes, those in plain view—loom ever larger.
Why I Attend
So why do I, as one member of the General Conference of Elders, continue to attend this yearly gathering? I recognize that a picture is worth a thousand words. Seeing the conference in person and hearing about the conference are two different things. Touring the home office and meeting the fresh faces of our ABC students, or just reading about it, are two different things.
Sometimes in the course of the year our passions and personal hopes for our Church can seem to outweigh our need to "esteem others better than ourselves." When the elders come to the General Conference and meet one another and just talk to one another (rather than about one another), we realize we have much more in common than we have in differences.
I go to the General Conference to maintain old friendships and make new ones. I go to "network" in the hallways, sharing ideas and learning from others' new ways of doing things. I go to show support for the work of the Church and its leaders, even when I have questions and concerns. I go to make sure I am serving God and at the same time representing the brethren He has placed in my charge.
An Investment of Time and Money
I realize this takes time and money on the part of our elders and their families. The question is, can you see the great value of it? I realize many of our elders faithfully come every year, and others strive to come as often as they can. The purpose of my letter is to encourage you to recognize that this is not simply a meeting, but an opportunity to meet our responsibilities.
Brethren, I encourage you to encourage your elders to go on your behalf, just as biblically demonstrated in the book of Acts. Ask them! Tell them of your desires to be represented. It doesn't come cheaply for some, especially for those living at a distance. Many of our pastors, elders and their wives have paid "year in and year out" from their own funds, and willingly so, for you—the brethren.
What Is in Store for this Year's Conference?
This year's conference is for the first time being guided by the input placed before the Council of Elders by a task force composed of salaried and non-salaried elders. The specific goal has been to create an environment of learning and bonding that will draw elders and their wives to Cincinnati for the events of May 3, 4 and 5.
The approved theme is "Maximizing Your Ministry." Many ideas have been discussed for bringing everyone together in warm and constructive fellowship. Plans include providing a time and place to allow the General Conference to directly discuss issues with the Council of Elders. We hope to have a memorial session honoring those men and women who have died over the past eight years in the service of their God, His abiding truth and their brethren.
Beyond this, in response to the input of fellow conference members, the goal is to have a variety of dynamic workshop sessions (some possibly leading towards on-site certification) that will be practical in nature to the very real needs confronting us on a daily basis.
Psalms 133:1 Psalms 133:1Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!
American King James Version×refreshes the reader with the godly insight, "How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" Unity is not an event, but an action and a series of actions taken one step at a time. If we take unity for granted, we can take it for granted that we will not have unity for long.
Over the course of these meetings going back to Indianapolis on, I have never ceased to be amazed how these meetings "tie the knot of unity." As the General Conference of Elders 2003 approaches, let me conclude by asking both our ministry and members a simple question, for each of us has our role. Is this just a meeting, or is this about meeting our responsibilities? UN