How the Brethren Annual Conference Developed

n the early period of the Brethren immigrations to America, there was no formal conference or body of representatives to interpret issues of doctrine or practice. Denominationalism as we understand it today, in an institutional sense, was completely foreign to them. Alexander Mack preferred the word Gemeinde (community) in his personal writings. It was fellowship through a mutual faith that best describes these early relationships. Congregations tended to be small and autonomous with infrequent visitations by Elders that helped to preserve harmony and unity. Because of this infrastructure of small dispersed congregations and the absence of elements precipitating controversy, there existed no compelling reason for the Brethren to meet in a large delegated body for purposes of deciding policy. This was about to change with the arrival of the Moravian leader Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf from Czech/Bohemia in 1741. He was especially desirous of uniting all German sects under one parent organization, and convened synods to homogenize individual characteristics among the different groups and layout an institutional framework to impliment his vision.Brethren attended these conferences, but came away with fears of losing their unique identity, especially upon observing several converts being baptized through sprinkling. Reminded of the cost of their Anabaptist heritage by immersion, they perceived Zinzendorf's effort as a stratagem to return the spiritually naive to infant-baptism, under the very ecclesiastical order from which they had previously fled. From this experience, several Brethren leaders saw the need for a denominational meeting of their own, in order to maintain a uniform observance of their beliefs.

In 1742, Martin Urner and George Adam Martin convened the first such meeting at Coventry (Urner was pastor of this congregation), to reaffirm the Brethren observance of adult baptism by trine immersion. This experience was a reaction to outward forces rather than a response to an inner congregational need. It was not convened on an annual schedule for another thirty years. When the conference began meeting regularly, it was held over the observance of Pentecost each year, as a manifest spiritual invitation for the Holy Spirit to once again come down upon the hearts and minds of this decision making body, hopefully to inspire each person to think, speak, and vote under the influence of Divine guidance. Other matters would affect the Brethren style of life as they expanded geographically and socially. In their earliest period, Brethren were mostly farmers or connected in some way to agriculture which allowed them to be more insulated from other cultures, especially urban influences. Living in the country and speaking mostly German, they did not experience the progressive ideas or mechanization of urban life. Not until the middle of the Nineteenth Century were rural Brethren genuinely affected by innovations: travel by locomotive, dependency on manufacturing processes, and the quiet supplanting of other languages by English. The Industrial Revolution of the Nineteenth Century would dramatically alter the identity of the Brethren. They were slowly forced to confront a world outside of the farm. What proved to complicate matters is the fact that many urban Brethren had already embraced innovations which they considered to be progress. Annual Conference would later become the forum where cultural and theological lines would be drawn between conservatives who wanted to retain and progressives who wanted to innovate.

Parliamentary Procedure

by David Wine, 1997 Annual Conference Moderator

nnual Conference is the highest level of authority in the Church of the Brethren. The delegates are a legislative body with authority to set denominational policy, rules for discipline, and hear grievances from districts and congregations. Delegates are term elected to represent either congregations or districts. Each local congregation will elect delegates which make up the largest percentage of the voting body, and each district will elect delegates to represent the district. The latter are members of the Standing Committee (always in service as opposed to a sitting committee whose commission will expire after a deadline). During business sessions, everyone in attendance may speak in discussion periods, but only delegates may vote on the item of business. There are three organizations that report directly to Annual Conference and carry various responsibilities in the life of our denomination: The General Board, Bethany Seminary, and The Brethren Benefit Trust (BBT), who also has the responsibility of managing the Brethren Foundation, Association of Brethren Caregivers, and On Earth Peace Assembly.

Standing Committee

District representatives compose Standing Committee which has four very important Annual Conference functions:

  1. Nominating - serves as the official Annual Conference nominating committee
  2. Legislative - studies all queries and items of new business and recommends answers to the delegate body
  3. Judicial - decisions on discipline and controversy
  4. Envisioning - sharing new ideas, dreams and visions for God's church

Annual Conference Business

The most unique component of Church of the Brethren structure is the way we are organized to allow for individuals and congregations to have the major influence on the life of our church. Business can come to Annual Conference through District Conferences, the Standing Committee, the General Board, the Brethren Benefit Trust, Bethany Seminary, and other boards and committees constituted by Annual Conference. Let us share more details about how this process works. Every member of the Church of the Brethren has the privilege to take concerns to Annual Conference. The most common way this occurs is for this to come in the form of a query (or question). A query generally relates to questions and concerns that relate to the Christian life or to the mission work of the church. When such questions arise, counsel should be sought from congregational, district, or national sources to see if the questions have already been addressed. If, after using these channels, no answer can be found, or if the existing answer is inadequate, a query may be written. The query process includes passage by the local congregation and the District Conference after which it is referred to Annual Conference.

Brethren may also share a concern directly with the General board, Brethren Benefit Trust, or Bethany Seminary using them to consider taking an item of business to Annual Conference. If one of the Boards would agree and approve the concerns, it would be referred to Annual Conference as an item of new business.

All items of new business are presented first to Standing Committee. As part of their legislative function, Standing committee formulates for the delegate body a recommendation for how each item of business might be handled. The delegate body can either accept the recommendation from Standing Committee, modify it in some way, or reject it and adopt a different direction.

Members of the Church of the Brethren may also make appeals directly to Standing Committee. Standing Committee normally requires that all other methods have been exhausted before agreeing to "hear" such an appeal. Appeals are presented to the Officers of Annual Conference who guide them through the Standing Committee process. Appeals are rare and are normally used to review questions or ordination, behavior or church polity concerns.

Our National Boards

It wasn't long ago (1946) that the concept of a one-board structure was introduced and the General Brotherhood Board was established (changed to simply the General Board in 1968). Many Brethren still forget that since that time the other two entities (BBT and Bethany) have also been assigned direct reportability functions and responsibilities to Annual Conference and have their own boards. (The forerunner of BBT was the Pension Board which has always been a separate entity although they shared the same board members as General board until 1984.)

It's important to remember, then, that even as the General Board redesigns itself, our other two boards reportable to Annual Conference are currently in a period of stability and even expanding ministries. At other times in the church's life, the General Board has been a stabilizing force as the other boards either redesigned (eg. Seminary's relocation) or established themselves (eg. the Brethren Foundation).

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the General Board is that we tend to use the same term for both the board that is elected by Annual Conference and the staff which are hired by that board and become the program administrators. The elected board has the authority to direct, hire and terminate its staff.


Another structural component in the life of our denomination are our districts. Districts were formed to enable groups of congregations to do together what they could not do separately. Today, our districts provide wide and varied ministries including employment of professional staff, pastoral placement and calling, discipleship and reconciliation, and program support to name a few.

District professional staff have organized into a network called the Council of District Executives (CODE). This organizational network has begun to carry out quite a number of responsibilities in recent years including giving feedback and counsel to the General Board in its planning, sharing leadership development, and electing its members to serve on various boards and committees in the denomination. Conference has at times assigned to CODE specific recommendations of action even though CODE has no formal relationship with Annual Conference.

Districts have their own boards and conferences in addition to their employed staff. Together, all three components (conference, board, employed staff) make up district life. Ultimately, these structures are accountable to the Annual Conference through Standing Committee. Districts do not report directly to the Annual Conference floor.

- David Wine, 1997 Annual Conference Moderator

“They determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain other of them,
should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders (about this question).”
Acts 15:2