January 11, 2019
By Rev. Shannon Blosser
Rev. Gary Graves’ world was turned upside down in a matter of 24 hours in 2016.
One day, May 16 to be precise, he was elected by the 2016 General Conference to serve as the secretary of General Conference. The very next day the groundwork began to be laid for what would become February’s called General Conference discerning issues regarding human sexuality.
Graves never wavered from taking on the role. In fact, he believes he is right where God wants him to be in his ministry.
“There is a sense of being in the right place at the right time,” Graves, who lives in Lexington, said recently in a phone interview. Besides secretary of General Conference, he is part of the UM Connectional Table, a general body that works to articulate the vision of the church.
Graves’ work as secretary of General Conference puts him front and center of the called General Conference set for Feb. 23-26 at The America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis. The secretary of General Conference is responsible for coordinating the global assembly of delegates that comprise the only body that can speak officially on behalf of The United Methodist Church.
“There is a lot of planning and coordinating with the other bodies of the church,” Graves said in describing his work. “In that particular instance, with the Commission on a Way Forward moderators, as well, to make sure everything that needs to be cared for is cared for.”
Graves has been involved with General Conference, in some way, for more than 25 years. His first role came as a volunteer when Louisville served as host of General Conference in 1992. He then went on to serve as an interim petition secretary in 1996 and 2000 before taking on the role fully at the 2004 General Conference. He held that role until he was elected as the secretary of General Conference.
Those experiences, Graves said, helped to prepare him for taking on the leadership of General Conference, especially a called session.
“There are pieces of the job that you need someone to have experience before they can see all of the big picture,” Graves said. “All of that created the situation for you to have the experience you need with the challenges of a called session that is very different than a normal session.”
Getting ready for February’s General Conference has provided some challenges for Graves and his staff. A normal General Conference is 10 days, but the called session will be limited to three days. That creates obstacles on how to handle the normal processes and necessitates changes to the normal flow of the delegates’ work.
According to the United Methodist News Service, among the adaptations made for the called session is that all 864 members of General Conference will serve on the same legislative committee that will review petitions.
“Some people have had opinions on that,” Graves said about their work.
Beyond just preparing the logistics for General Conference, Graves and his staff had to make adjustments for Judicial Council decisions. This has required more travel for him than normal for his role. It has also required staying on top of things as events changed in the lead-up to General Conference.
That puts extra responsibilities upon staff members, who have to adjust for the changes and focus on what is in front of them, Graves said.
“The staff is very qualified and dedicated,” he said. “Those folks are a big part of why we continue to work on (General Conference).”
All of this while also preparing for the next regular General Conference in Minneapolis, which is scheduled for May 5-15, 2020.
“We have been able to use that situation to help us be better stewards in 2020,” Graves said about how the Commission on General Conference has handled planning two General Conference sessions at the same time. “You really have to keep everything side by side. Regardless, both are guided by the 2016 Book of Discipline.”
When the 2019 General Conference does gavel into session in St. Louis, Graves will be there to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible. As we approach General Conference, Graves remains optimistic about the future of The United Methodist Church and invites the people and churches of the Kentucky Annual Conference to pray for this process.
“My greatest hope is that The United Methodist Church continues to have the impact on the world that we have been called to have, that through our presence that the world will be able to see what God can do through The United Methodist Church.”
A hope solidified as Graves sees himself in the best place for his ministry at this time.
“I think it has strengthened my awareness of how this is really an expression of my call to ministry at this moment,” Graves said of what he has learned about himself through his work on General Conference. “The way in which you are able to live out the gifts God has given you. Many of those gifts have been called upon in this session. Going through that has been very affirming.”
Shannon Blosser, a former journalist, is the pastor of Ogden Memorial United Methodist Church in Princeton and serves on the Kentucky Annual Conference’s Communications Team. Gary Graves served as pastor at Ogden from 2012-2014.