|Annual conferences see youth, diversity as priorities|
Children from the Florida United Methodist Children's Home sing and dance for the 2008 Florida Annual (regional) Conference. Reaching out to more young people was among topics discussed by United Methodists at numerous U.S. conferences.
A UMNS photo by Caryl Kelley.
A UMNS Report
By Jennifer Lind*
July 14, 2008
The need to reach out to a broader demographic was a central theme for the shrinking United Methodist Church in the United States as 63 U.S. annual (regional) conferences met this May and June.
In the words of the Rev. Lovett Weems, a denominational researcher and speaker who addressed the Mississippi Annual Conference, "Can the church change to reach more people, younger people and more diverse people?"
The church answered affirmatively as conferences celebrated new churches, planned future church plants and worked to improve existing faith communities.
Bishop Alfred L. Norris Jr. lays hands on candidates for ministry during the North Texas commissioning service.
A UMNS photo by Joan LaBarr.
The vast majority of conferences reported membership losses for another year. Out of 50 conferences submitting reports to United Methodist News Service as of July 14, only seven reported an increase in membership. Six are in the Southeastern Jurisdiction and one in the South Central Jurisdiction. They are Central Texas, Alabama-West Florida, Holston, Kentucky, North Carolina, North Georgia, Redbird and Central Texas.
Total U.S. membership is 7.9 million, down eight-tenths of a percent from the previous year, according to the latest statistics released by the denomination in March. While The United Methodist Church is growing in Africa and the Philippines, U.S. membership has dwindled for decades.
"We have only two choices before us. We can continue to do things the way we’ve always done them, or we can seek better ways to address the complicated mission of making disciples in our changing world. We must choose the latter," said Bishop Robert E. Hayes in his Episcopal Address to the Oklahoma gathering.
Once a year, lay and clergy delegates from each conference meet to worship together, approve a regional budget, take up special offerings, celebrate successes and identify areas of need as they consider ways to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
This year, they took up the additional task of endorsing candidates for bishop, in advance of jurisdictional conferences meeting this week to elect bishops and assign them for the next four years.
Church growth remained a major focus.
Northwest Texas pledged $3 million to build new churches and renovate existing ones. Virginia approved its "All Things New" plan, planting seeds for 250 new faith communities in the next 30 years and revitalizing existing churches. West Ohio outlined procedures for healthy churches to remove the costs of launching new churches from its apportionments contribution.
The Foundation for Evangelism presented 94 Harry Denman evangelism awards in 46 annual conferences representing all five U.S. jurisdictions. Celebrated for outstanding leadership in evangelism, the recipients included five youth, one youth team, 45 laity and 43 clergy.
Youth and minorities
Research indicates that, based on the U.S. population, young people and people of color are underrepresented in The United Methodist United Church.
The Florida Conference Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry set a goal to reach more than a quarter of a million college students in South Florida, envisioning a regional campus ministry there. The conference currently sponsors a campus ministry at the University of Miami and six others in the area.
Members heard about the Children’s Advocacy and Ministry Coalition's work to end hunger in Florida. The coalition provides children with a healthy breakfast, along with after-school and summer meal programs.
Western Pennsylvania members cast a vote. A UMNS photo by Carrie Moore.
Wisconsin created a United Methodist Youth Sunday and a task force for young adult ministries.
The need to reach racial minorities was a ubiquitous topic.
Florida heard that $750,000 will be used to launch Hispanic, Haitian, Korean and Chinese congregations. Seventeen new non-Anglo churches and missions have been active in Florida since 2005. The conference approved funding to support African-American churches and also donated to Justice for Our Neighbors, which helps local congregations respond to the needs of immigrants.
California-Nevada formed a Committee on Hmong Ministry and commissioned a Philippines Solidarity Group.
Oregon-Idaho recognized the Rev. Ron Whitlach as the newly hired director of the Hispanic Ministries Training Institute. His charge is to strengthen Hispanic ministries in the conference.
West Virginia celebrated churches in Moorefield that helped undocumented immigrants following enforcement action by U.S. authorities that left many families homeless.
West Michigan called on United Methodists to urge legislators to implement comprehensive immigration reform that provides "earned pathways to citizenship for all immigrants."
North Texas recognized an anti-racism team and a Hispanic/Latino ministry task force. The conference also approved a resolution designed to raise awareness of the U.S. environment for Hispanic/Latino Americans and other immigrant groups and recommended that 20 percent of clergy leadership be literate in conversational Spanish by 2020.
Homosexuality, a perennial hot-button issue for decades at the church's top legislative meeting, also was a frequent subject of debate on the annual conference level.
In California, where the state Supreme Court legalized same-gender marriage in May, two conferences passed legislation in support of the court ruling. California-Pacific approved three measures, including one that "encourages both congregations and pastors to welcome, embrace and provide spiritual nurture and pastoral care for these families." California-Nevada approved a measure commending 67 retired United Methodist clergy who have offered to conduct same-gender marriage ceremonies.
The United Methodist Church, while affirming all people as persons "of sacred worth," considers the practice of homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching." Its policy book, called the Book of Discipline, prohibits its pastors and churches from conducting ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions.
The Ohana Dance Group performs at the California-Nevada meeting.
A UMNS photo by Paul "Spud" Hilton.
Wyoming established a bishop’s task force to study the issue of homosexuality. Baltimore-Washington continued to support dialogue teams exploring the possibility of full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people within the life of the church. Holston voted down a resolution calling for the study and discussion of homosexuality.
West Ohio discouraged its pastors from judging homosexual people and practices, encouraging them to study materials provided by Cokesbury on heterosexism and homophobia.
Troy urged the U.S. Congress to cease funding the Iraq war. North Indiana approved a resolution creating a task force on steps to end the war. East Ohio and Central Texas went on the record opposing the Council of Bishops’ resolution calling for the war’s end.
Virginia featured "Eyes Wide Open," an exhibit displaying combat boots, each pair symbolizing a Virginia soldier lost in the conflict. Members unanimously called for ministries of caring and "sorrow-bearing" for families of soldiers killed or injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Arkansas and Southern Pennsylvania called for moratoriums on the use of the death penalty in their states.
Greater New Jersey celebrated the state's ban on the death penalty and endorsed similar bans in Pennsylvania, New York and Texas.
Giving and missions
Detroit donated $2 million to the Central Conference Pension Initiative to support retired United Methodist pastors and their families in conferences outside of the United States. Western Pennsylvania contributed $500,000, and West Ohio donated $400,000 and pledged to do the same for the next four years.
North Texas donated $500,000 to build a new student health center at Africa University, and pledged to give another $500,000 to the United Methodist university in Zimbabwe.
Illinois Great Rivers members lift up covenant cards during worship.
A UMNS photo by Paul Black.
Iowa donated $210,000 to the Nothing but Nets anti-malaria campaign. Greater New Jersey gave $118,250, and Arkansas contributed $90,000.
Rocky Mountain donated $50,000 to the Global AIDS Fund, while West Virginia donated $24,000 and Central Pennsylvania, $21,803.
Western Pennsylvania donated more than $20,000 to aid survivors of recent flooding in Iowa.
Louisiana recognized conference work to rebuild devastated communities, providing financial help and lifting up in prayer those affected by the disasters. Six Louisiana churches stricken by hurricanes Katrina and Rita have closed, and six have merged with other area churches.
Healthy bodies, healthy earth
At the Oklahoma conference, Bishop Robert Hayes led 300 participants in a "walk for wellness." The conference also prohibited the use of tobacco in parsonages.
Arkansas emphasized "holy healthy" living habits, drawing more than 200 participants in its first 5K run/walk event through the hills of Hot Springs. Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare hosted a health fair, offering to screen members for cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure.
Troy approved a resolution to educate congregations about energy production, encourage energy audits and improve churches and congregants’ homes. The measure promotes the use of renewable energy by purchasing "green power" and supports "green" public policies.
Oklahoma promoted a recycling project to boost youth ministry. All members received compact fluorescent light bulbs and bare-root trees.
Four conferences––North Central New York, Troy, Western New York and Wyoming––voted to merge and reduce the number of bishops in the jurisdiction from 10 to nine.
South Indiana and North Indiana approved a plan to merge and rearrange boundaries, reducing their number of districts from 18 to 10.
Both changes require jurisdictional approval.
Annual conferences in Africa, Europe and Asia meet at different times throughout the year.
*Lind is an intern for United Methodist News Service and a senior in religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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