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2014 Arkansas Annual Conference

 

June 19-22, 2014 in Rogers, Arkansas

The principles of living for God, loving as Christ, and leading with excellence shaped the 12th session of the Arkansas Annual Conference, which took place June 19-22, 2014 in Rogers at the John Q. Hammons Convention Center. Bishop Gary E. Mueller presided.

In his episcopal address, Mueller called the United Methodists of Arkansas to four actions: get real, be different, move into the community and experience revival now.

United Methodists must face some realities, he said: It’s tough in our world and tough to be part of a mainline denomination in decline. However, he listed far more positives that the people of the church need to get real about: our Wesleyan heritage, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, a biblically grounded mission, the great clergy and laity of the conference and God’s plan for the future.

“Remember, Jesus is leading us,” he said. “And when Jesus is leading us, we don’t need to know where he’s taking us. We don’t have to be comfortable. And we don’t have to agree with everything he does. We just have to do it. More than anything, let’s get real about Jesus and the real difference he makes in our lives.”

In his call to be different, he spoke about the controversy and differences of opinion and belief surrounding same-gender marriages.

“I’ve got news for you: Sex is not the only thing we talk about in the United Methodist Church,” he said, prompting applause from the floor of the conference. “We begin with Jesus. We continue with Jesus. And it’s in the spirit of Jesus that we deal with real-life issues in real-live ways. We’re not going to divide just because we disagree. … We’re not going to let identities of left or right, red or blue and progressive or traditional determine what we do. We’re not going to have winners and losers.”

As Mueller urged congregations to get involved in their communities, he pointed out the danger of churches and their leaders, lay and clergy alike, becoming too self-absorbed instead of following Jesus into actions that show love to their neighbors.

“Whether you’re lay or clergy, being a Christian is a privilege, being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a privilege and being in ministry is a privilege. And we need to start acting like it,” he said. “We need to spend far less time on ourselves and far more time moving into the community to share Jesus.”

The importance of experiencing revival forms the basis for Mueller’s 10-step mission plan, which he and lay leader Karon Mann began introducing at last year’s annual conference, and debuted in its full form last September (see arumc.org/missionplan for details). In his address, he reminded those gathered that getting self out of the way allows room for the Holy Spirit to work.

“I know whose you are. I know who you are. I know what’s in your heart. I know your dreams,” he said. “And I know the incredible faith in what you are going to do when you get back home. You’re going to choose to move full speed ahead.”

The gathering also featured two guest speakers: The Rev. Jorge Acevedo of Grace Church, a multi-campus United Methodist congregation in southwest Florida, and the Rev. Adam Hamilton of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. Both speakers addressed the conference’s theme, “Live for God, Love as Christ, Lead with Excellence.”

Acevedo on love, faithfulness

Acevedo preached the Thursday and Friday evening worship services. Using the parable of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10 on his Thursday night service, Acevedo shared three ways congregations can love as Christ loves: by giving immediate aid (“Around our church we call it ‘stopping the bleeding,’” he said), showing a lasting commitment to people, and advocating for the powerless and marginalized.

His stories from Grace Church reinforced each of these points. They have served 40,000 neighbors through their community center; prayed with more than 3,000 of them; and seen 110 of them say “yes” to Jesus. Yet, this work wasn’t done by pastors — Acevedo says people were led to Jesus by “T-shirt wearing lay folk who love the Lord.”

Any church can show a lasting commitment to people by developing a ministry that helps those who need ways to improve their lives, whether through helping them get a GED, job training, a job, or some other life-changing opportunity. “There isn’t the smallest church in this annual conference that can’t do something,” he said.

He encouraged churches to think of what they can do to give a voice to the voiceless, hope to the addicted, or empowerment the powerless.

“Every church that stands alongside the poor has God standing with them,” he said.

He also posed a difficult question: whether most United Methodist churches are failing “simply because we aren’t loving our neighbors?”

In his Friday night sermon, he named the church’s need for fruitfulness, saying we must be faithful to God before we can produce fruit as Christ’s disciples.

“We don’t have time to sit around and play church,” he said. “Our job is to change the world, even create a different world in Jesus’ name.”

Teaching by Hamilton

Hamilton led three teaching sessions, focusing on effective leadership; preaching and worship; and the importance of outreach.

Effective leadership doesn’t have to be complicated, he said. However, it does require diligence in both planning and living out our mission. Hamilton also encouraged leaders not to give up, regardless of the obstacles they face.

“It may very well be that God is calling you to do what Jesus did and press through,” he said.

As a resource for further learning, each conference attendee received a copy of Hamilton’s book, “Leading Beyond the Walls: Developing Congregations with a Heart for the Unchurched.”

In addition to the plenary sessions, Hamilton met Friday night with the young clergy of the Arkansas Conference.

“He called us to dream ‘God-sized’ dreams for the conference and our local places of service,” said the Rev. Dane Womack, who was commissioned as a provisional elder at this year’s annual conference. “He also challenged us to be one another’s biggest supporters. We briefly touched on pressing denominational issues, mostly sharing ideas and concerns. He sought to be supportive and encouraging, stressing the impact of our leadership over the next 20 to 40 years.”

“Adam spoke to us the most about the importance of sexual integrity, and how to keep yourself from making stupid choices that can ruin your life, your family and your ministry,” said the Rev. Heath Bradley. “I was very impressed and thankful for his willingness to share so transparently and honestly about this issue.”

Actions of the conference

Conference business included approving a significant change to health benefits for retirees, and a potential change for all those insured through the active clergy plan.

The conference approved a proposal from its Board of Pension and Health Benefits to remove retired Medicare-eligible clergy from the conference plan by the end of 2014. By enrolling retirees in Medicare Plan F and providing a premium gift, the conference — and, by extension, local churches — will save about $400,000 in premium liabilities next year, while retirees will receive similar coverage at a lower cost.

“We consider this a win-win-win for all involved,” said the Rev. Dennis Spence, board chair. “Medicare Plan F is ideal as a supplement for the medical portion of Medicare Part A and B.”

The conference also approved plans for the board to explore eliminating the conference insurance plan altogether at the end of 2015, because comparable and more reasonable coverage options are becoming available through the state’s new health insurance exchange.

All four resolutions that came before the body received approval. Resolution 1, prompted by recent events in other conferences, encourages bishops and other involved parties to pursue a process of just resolution before calling for church trials. Resolution 2 encourages the state legislature to continue funding the Medicaid expansion known as the “private option” to provide health care for disabled and economically disadvantaged Arkansans.

With Resolution 3, the body gave its encouragement to the youth of the Arkansas Conference regarding legislation they will present at the Global Young People’s Convocation and Legislative Assembly. While the conference did not by its action endorse making any changes to church law or the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, the legislative item the youth will carry to the Convocation does propose striking the sentence that declares the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching” from Paragraph 161F of the Discipline.

The approval of Resolution 4 gave the go-ahead to a three-year conference-wide initiative to combat childhood hunger in Arkansas. The effort will engage every United Methodist church in the Arkansas Conference with both immediate hunger relief and long-term comprehensive efforts. It will build on congregations’ existing involvement in feeding programs, community gardens and support for local hunger relief agencies to do even more good in a state where one in five children experiences food insecurity. Speeches in support of the resolution highlighted the need for the church to address complicating factors that contribute to child hunger, such as addiction problems within families.

Arkansas’ ongoing Imagine No Malaria initiative has nearly reached its three-year goal at the two-year mark. United Methodists of Arkansas have raised more than $890,000 toward their target of $1 million, positioning them to surpass it. The Rev. David Freeman, chair of the Imagine No Malaria task force, reminded the members of the conference that “our goal is not a dollar amount. Our goal is to eradicate malaria.”

Celebrations

Sunday’s ordination and commissioning service welcomed eight new provisional members of the Arkansas Conference: one deacon and seven elders, with an average age of 38. Bishop Mueller ordained three deacons and three elders, with a combined average age of 48. Nine newly licensed local pastors, with an average age of 50, were recognized earlier in the conference.

Twenty-seven pastors retired at the 2014 annual conference, representing a combined total of more than 570 years of service in ministry.

The annual conference memorial service remembered more than 45 clergy and clergy spouses who have died within the past year.

Saturday night included a different kind of celebration: Arkansas United Methodist Church Night at the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, a minor-league baseball game that featured a United Methodist pastor throwing out the first pitch, a United Methodist laywoman singing the national anthem, costumed clergy racing around the infield between innings and plenty of fun and fellowship for everyone who attended. Night at the Naturals was a celebration of the progress toward the conference’s Imagine No Malaria goal.

Amy Forbus, editor of the Arkansas United Methodist for the Arkansas Conference. The Rev. Eric Van Meter contributed to this report.