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2008 Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference

June 12-15, 2008, Grove City, Pa.

Western Pennsylvania United Methodists focused on their core value of love at the 2008 annual conference session at Grove CityCollege. Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton chose the theme "Building on a Foundation of Love," and more than 450 volunteers from local churches demonstrated it by building a United Methodist Habitat for Humanity house in nearby Mercer, Pa., during the week of annual conference.

Video feeds kept members updated on progress of the home for a mother and her two teenage children. Because so many volunteers offered to help, crews were sent to 12 other sites to build handicap ramps, paint, make repairs and do other work. Love was also demonstrated through the collection of 11,000 kits and flood buckets for the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

The Rev. Grace Imathiu, a native of Kenya and pastor of BrownDeerUnitedMethodistChurch, outside Milwaukee, Wis., was Bible study leader. She focused on Luke 15:11-32, known as the parable of the prodigal son - a misnomer, according to Imathiu, who emphasized it was given no title by Jesus. It's actually a story about a family, she noted, and it reveals the extraordinary love of God for his children.

In another session, Imathiu used John 11: 1-43, the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, and other events that occurred in Bethany, to show how Jesus refused to allow anything, even death, to dictate boundaries for his ministry.

Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the Council of Bishops, was guest preacher. He spoke on Ministry Night and at a Moravian Love Feast, challenging members to be shaped and characterized by the love of God. Conference members contributed more than $20,000 to aid survivors of flooding in Iowa, where Bishop Palmer serves.

The cabinet report and address by Conference Lay Leader Harry Barbus focused on making disciples. Both urged laity and clergy to focus on love and building relationships and to get out of their churches into the community to demonstrate Christian love.

On Ministry Night, 22 new certified lay ministers were recognized, and 18 retiring clergy were honored for their service. A memorial service celebrated the ministries of clergy and lay members who died during the past year.

Conference members nominated the Rev. Eric S. Park, pastor of CentralHighlandsCommunityUnitedMethodistChurch, as an episcopal candidate.

The Rev. Larry Homitsky received the Denman Award for evangelism, in part for his work with the Igniting Ministry campaign, and an award from the Conference Youth Ministry Team. Homitsky, who moves to a new urban ministry in Pittsburgh after 12 years as director of connectional ministries, and the Rev. William Mock, a retired elder who is stepping down after serving eight years as assistant to the bishop, were lauded for their service. The Rev. Robert Higginbotham, dean of the cabinet, will be the new assistant to the bishop.

In legislative action, members called for a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania; agreed to advocate for meaningful health care reform in Pennsylvania and the United States; approved a $10.08 million Mission Share budget; approved a new conference structure using names consistent with the Book of Discipline; and adopted a conference disaster response plan.

The conference voted to give $500,000 to the Central Conference Pension Initiative.

Clergy members affirmed new procedures developed by the bishop and a clergy study team to ensure that clergy leaders are "faithful, fruitful and effective." Included are new requirements for continuing education requirements, a new evaluation process, and exit and transition procedures.

Bishop Bickerton ordained six new elders and two deacons, and commissioned 11 probationary elders. Two clergy received from other denominations were granted full membership, and another was received as an associate member.

Membership stands at 187,441, down 1,738 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 64,900, down 2,552. Church school attendance stands at 23,576, down 821.

--Jackie Campbell