|Annual conferences focus on starting new churches|
The Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church dance team enlivens opening worship for the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference in Philadelphia. Sixty-three U.S. conferences met during May and June to worship together and conduct regional church business. A UMNS photo courtesy of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.
A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*
July 10, 2007
Concerns over shrinking United Methodist membership in most of the church's regional U.S. jurisdictions—and strategies for reversing those overall trends—were pervasive as the denomination's annual conferences convened in 2007.
Teenagers praise God in worship during the Arkansas Annual Conference gathering on the campus of Arkansas Tech University. A UMNS photo by Jane Dennis.
Sixty-three U.S. conferences met during May and June as lay and clergy representatives from local churches gathered to approve regional budgets, speak on social issues, establish conference programs and address administrative and stewardship matters. They also elected most of the 992 clergy and lay delegates that will attend the 2008 General Conference, the top lawmaking body of The United Methodist Church that meets once every four years and will convene next spring in Fort Worth, Texas.
Sixty-six United Methodist conferences outside of the United States meet annually as well, but not always during May and June.
By early July, 59 of the 63 U.S. conferences had filed annual reports, along with 10 conferences outside the United States.
The issue of church growth was frequently addressed—consistent with the denomination's plan to make building and revitalizing congregations one of its four areas of emphasis at the dawn of the 21st century. The United Methodist Church has more than 8 million members in the United States and 11.5 million members worldwide.
"It is most imperative that we embrace the future with hope," Bishop Violet L. Fisher told the Western New York Annual Conference, where membership stood at 56,127 at the close of 2006, down 969 from the previous year. Like most U.S. annual conferences, Western New York also saw a drop in its worship and church school attendance.
In all, at least 32 annual conferences celebrated plans to start new churches and revitalize and redevelop existing ones. At least 13 began campaigns to support camping and campus ministry or received reports about campaigns and efforts under way.
United Methodists in Central Pennsylvania approved an $11.2 million plan to fund a ministry that includes an additional $100,000 for church revitalization and startup. Kansas West Conference initiated a $4.2 million campaign to develop new and existing congregations, camping and campus ministry infrastructures.
Celebrating new churches
The meetings also included celebrations of new church growth and updates on initiatives already in place. The Florida Annual Conference celebrated the launch of nine churches in 2006 and 10 new churches in 2007. The conference has a goal of 23 new church starts by the end of the year.
Since 1995, Florida has created 86 new churches—56 percent of which are congregations with racial, ethnic or language diversity. The conference also approved an African-American Comprehensive Plan to make churches in urban areas a higher priority and improve worship through better technology and training. The conference is considering developing an African-American Church Redevelopment office.
Bishop John R. Schol holds his daughter's pottery and preaches at the ordination service during the Baltimore Washington regional meeting. The conference theme was "In the Potter's Hand." A UMNS photo by Sarah Alsgaard.
Much United Methodist growth in recent years has been in Africa. The North Katanga Conference in the Democratic Republic of Congo reports starting 150 new congregations in the past year.
Five new church groups were registered during the East Russia and Central Asia Annual Conference session. Three were new church plants in Urals, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, one was a local church that reopened in Vladivostok and another was an independent congregation that applied to become part of The United Methodist Church. The Rev. Steve Johnson of the California-Nevada Annual Conference was appointed to oversee the development of these churches.
Indiana United Methodists chartered the first Hispanic congregation in Indiana as the Christian Getsemani United Methodist Church in Fort Wayne, and the South German Annual Conference gave the green light to found a special church for young people in 2008 in Karlsruhe.
Among the four new churches planned by the Arkansas Conference is a Vietnamese congregation in Fort Smith. A Korean congregation is slated to begin in North Georgia, while a Navaho congregation was constituted in the New Mexico Conference in the past year.
In addition to new church starts, 11 annual conferences celebrated growth in membership through profession of faith, baptism or transfer of membership, plans to grow members and efforts to stem the rate of membership loss.
New Mexico members "rejoiced" upon learning that the conference in 2006 experienced the smallest membership loss in more than 20 years. Central Texas celebrated its 33rd consecutive year of growth, and Alabama-West Florida celebrated 27 straight years of growth.
Members of the Florida Annual Conference celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Cuba-Florida Covenant, signed in June 1997. Members of more than 140 Florida churches have participated in the covenant, including traveling to Cuba to serve and worship there, connecting with about two-thirds of the approximately 230 Cuban Methodist churches.
Seven annual conferences called for continuation of the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino/a Ministries and also passed resolutions related to Hispanic ministries within their boundaries.
United Methodists in Florida vote for delegates to the 2008 General Conference. A UMNS photo by Caryl Kelley.
Eight annual conferences addressed immigration and immigration reform in the United States. East Ohio approved a petition urging the U.S. government and the Supreme Court to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to give a visa to an alien who was fathered by a U.S. citizen after 1950 in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea or Thailand.
A resolution calling for Comprehensive Immigration reform was passed by West Virginia United Methodists. The resolution called for reducing the obstacles "for all who want to settle here." South Carolina approved a resolution that calls "for a workable comprehensive immigration bill that is not harsh and retributive but seeks to meet the standard of effective public policy and biblical faithfulness."
Living healthy, living safe
Encouraging the physical health of clergy has been emphasized across the denomination in recent years, and the issue was revisited during many annual conference meetings.
The two conferences in North Carolina joined the Duke Endowment and the Duke Divinity School in a seven-year, $12 million plan to assess and improve the health of United Methodist clergy in the state.
In Wisconsin, conference members heard presentations on better health practices and had the opportunity to participate in identifying their own health risks through Procheck Health Screening, a blood draw that provides a comprehensive panel of tests. The North Georgia conference held a blood drive.
More than 100 walkers and runners participated in the third 5K run/walk of the Mississippi conference, and nearly 600 people enrolled in the conference’s Amazing Pace wellness program. The bishop and cabinet in Arkansas, to model clergy self care, pledged in 2006 to lose 100 pounds. Together, they shed 132 pounds over the past year.
At least 19 annual conferences addressed issues related to health insurance of current and retired clergy. Minnesota and West Michigan voted to provide benefits for domestic partners of eligible lay employees. The action of Minnesota was referred to the Judicial Council for the declaratory decision.
At least 10 annual conferences adopted resolutions or addressed Safe Sanctuaries— guidelines, policies and procedures designed to create an environment where children, youth and the adults who work with them have boundaries of safe space. In 1996, the denomination’s General Conference adopted a resolution aimed at reducing the risk of child sexual abuse in the church.
Resolutions and petitions
Much of the annual conference business was directing toward gearing up for next year's General Conference meeting. The nine-day session of the only body that officially speaks for the denomination will be April 23-May 2, 2008.
Throughout the annual conference sessions, members passed petitions and resolutions to send to the General Conference for consideration and action.
The Grace United Methodist Church praise team of Franklin, Ind., leads singing during a plenary session of the South Indiana Annual Conference. A UMNS photo courtesy of Indiana Conference Communications.
Memphis United Methodists voted unanimously to petition the General Conference to rescind the denomination's current pension plan and reinstate its predecessor plan, effective in 2009.
Twelve annual conferences adopted resolutions on the Iraq War, two approved legislation in opposition to conflict with Iran, two approved action on issues related Israel and Palestine, four conferences took action about the war and violence in Sudan and two approved positions about continuing to hold prisoners "hostage" at Guantanamo Bay. Ten annual conferences adopted petitions and resolutions on peacemaking.
Iowa conference members approved a resolution calling for "the United States to remove all troops as soon as logistically practical and to relinquish all military bases on Iraqi soil." A similar resolution from North Alabama calls on U.S. leaders "to use all of the diplomatic, economic and political resources available to assist the people of Iraq in restoring order and justice to their land."
Conference members in West Ohio supported a resolution to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq and pre-emptive military strikes and promoting the efforts of military chaplains, especially United Methodist clergy who minister to the military.
Western Pennsylvania defeated a resolution calling for a timetable for withdrawal of troops from Iraq. While North Carolina United Methodists defeated a resolution opposing the war in Iraq, the conference passed a motion to pray for peace and healing of all people affected by the conflict and to minister to the emotional and spiritual needs of soldiers, veterans and their families.
A resolution urging churches to study the Israel-Palestine conflict and to pray for peace in that region was defeated by West Virginia. Opponents described the measure as being too critical of Israel.
Peninsula-Delaware United Methodists approved Sept. 2 as a day of prayer for peace and for the armed forces, chaplains, advisors and support staff, including families who have lost loved ones in service.
Oklahoma United Methodists approved a resolution opposing torture and urging adherence to the principles of the Geneva Conventions, but they opposed a proposal seeking to establish a U.S. department of peace and nonviolence.
Support of a "roadmap for peace" in the Middle East was approved by Tennessee. The conference urged direct talks with all nations in the region to work toward a climate of "lasting peace, self-determination and recognition of human rights, free elections, freedom of (the) press, speech, religion and assembly for all people." The roadmap also "urges that a state of Israel is fully recognized to exist by all nations of the Middle East if not the world."
Focusing on Sudan and Israel, Oregon-Idaho is petitioning General Conference to "refrain and divest of companies that harm Palestinians and exacerbate the Sudan crisis."
Twenty-two annual U.S. conferences noted their support of or opposition to Judicial Council Decision 1032, which gave United Methodist pastors the authority to determine a person’s readiness for church membership. The 2005 ruling was prompted by a Virginia pastor's refusal to allow a homosexual man into church membership.
Twelve annual conferences passed resolutions regarding issues surrounding sexuality, homosexuality, same-sex and civil unions.
Western North Carolina sent legislation to prohibit United Methodist pastors from participating in ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions, while Troy advocated that clergy be permitted to bless whatever marriage arrangements are legal in their states
New York forwarded two resolutions to General Conference calling for equal rights for all people regardless of sexual orientation and that transfer of membership from another denomination is not subject to evaluation by the pastor but by an appropriate letter of transfer. Another resolution called for acceptance of the declaration of faith from any person seeking membership in The United Methodist Church. North Texas adopted a resolution challenging Judicial Council’s 1031 decision, declaring that "it misinterprets the authority of clergy in deciding who will be received into membership."
Pacific-Northwest approved an action urging U.S. lawmakers to oppose the appointment of James W. Holsinger as U.S. surgeon general. A United Methodist and medical doctor, Holsinger is president of the denomination's highest court. He has come under fire from gay rights groups for that court’s decisions regarding homosexuality and for a 1991 paper that he wrote that gay sex is unnatural and unhealthy.
Arkansas United Methodists adopted a resolution calling the denomination to "a renewed commitment to the Doctrinal Standards and Discipline" while urging General Conference to maintain current language regarding human sexuality, marriage and pastoral authority.
Baltimore-Washington United Methodists voted down proposals to petition General Conference to delete from the Book of Discipline the church’s position that "the United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching."
The Greater New Jersey Conference passed a resolution declaring itself an "abolitionist conference" in response to the "growing evil of global slavery." A petition to General Conference asks that the church declare itself an" abolitionist denomination" and calls on companies to certify themselves to be "slavery free."
United Methodists in the Wyoming Annual Conference—300 United Methodist congregations in parts of Northeastern Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York state—"acknowledged the history of our denomination that led to separation and splintering, as well as the treatment we have often visited upon pastors of color who have been assigned to serve our churches, and to people of color who have joined out congregations." The conference, in a service of repentance and reconciliation, also confessed and repented "of our sins corporately and personally."
Bishop Sally Dyck lays hands on new probationary clergy members during the commissioning service at the Minnesota Annual Conference session. A UMNS photo by Jill Shirley.
A resolution adopted by the Western Pennsylvania Conference requires all appointed clergy to attend conference-sponsored training to address racism and strategies for its eradications. During a service at "The Table of Restorative Justice," the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference "owned our history and proclaimed a new story" of repentance and reconciliation.
Spring and summer are the most common months for getting married, and United Methodist conferences got engaged or are moving toward unions. Thirteen annual conferences approved plans to reduce districts, increase districts, maintain districts, examine conference boundaries or reorganize in other ways.
The size of the East Africa Annual Conference compelled members to vote to divide into four annual conferences. The action was forwarded to the Africa Central Conference and General Conference for review.
Indiana United Methodists voted to combine their north and south regional conferences after a decade of discussion and debate. They will consider a plan of implementation at next year's annual conference sessions and could meet as a new unified conference as early as 2009.
Conversations among the Troy, New England, North Central New York, Western New York and Wyoming annual conferences are under way to explore jurisdictional boundaries. There is growing interest in the possibility of all or part of Vermont merging into the New England Conference. A special session of all four conferences will be convened Oct. 6 and linked electronically to act on the proposal and, if approved, the plan will be submitted to the 2008 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference.
Michael Pena (left) and his brother open a session of the California-Nevada Annual Conference with a Native American prayer. A UMNS photo by Paul "Spud" Hilton.
United Methodists in the two annual conferences in Michigan received an update from a transition team developing a plan for a new single annual conference in 2009, and the annual conferences in the Northeast passed petitions and resolutions to include Bermuda within the boundaries of the Northeast Jurisdiction.
Mergers of churches and decommissioning of churches in Louisiana are due to damage from Hurricane Katrina, paving the way for new emerging ministries.
Church members in Austria addressed ecumenical cooperation with regard to a common understanding of baptism between the Lutheran, Reformed and Methodist churches and the Alliance of Baptist congregations.
Included in the annual conference celebrations was the recognition of George S. Lightner of the Virginia Conference who has attended annual conference for 73 consecutive years. Also recognized was William T. Stephenson, who due to ill heath could not attend North Texas Annual Conference but answered roll call for the 63rd time from his home after conference members extended the boundaries of the conference. South Georgia celebrated the consecration of Sandi Hortman, the first deaconess from the conference in the last 44 years.
The year 2007 was the 300th anniversary of Charles Wesley's birth, and seven annual conferences acknowledged the occasion with special music and performances. The brother of Methodism’s founder John, Charles was a prolific songwriter who penned many of the hymns and songs of traditional Methodism.
The Desert Southwest Annual Conference endowed a chair of health sciences at Africa University and named it in honor of Joel Huffman, the conference treasurer who retired after more than 23 years of service. United Methodists in the Memphis Area contributed $10,640 to establish a "dream farm" at Africa University, buying animals and tools to help the farm serve as model of "sustainable agriculture" for Zimbabwe’s small farmers.
The Kentucky Annual Conference voted to settle a dispute with the former trustees of the Good Samaritan Foundation over control of its board of trustees and the foundation's $25 million in assets. Under the settlement, the conference and former trustees have named 15 members to a transitional board with the conference naming all members to the board by 2012.
Annual conferences also ordained clergy, licensed local pastors and commissioned others; conducted memorial services; presented awards to churches and individuals for outstanding service; awarded scholarships; commissioned missionaries; conducted Bible studies; and participated in service activities to help the poor and hungry.
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. This story was compiled from annual conference reports.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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