2015 North Alabama Conference
The North Alabama Conference gathered on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College on May 31- June 2, 2015. Designed to be a 48-hour worship experience during which participants heard reports, conducted business, experienced times of learning and shared testimonies of ministry, the mission-driven annual conference began with an Opening Celebration during which participants not only organized the conference, but, through prayer and worship, set the tone for a time of Christian conferencing under the theme of “Nurture: Growing in Christ.”
During the conference, presiding Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett led conference members and guests in a time of remembering their baptism and in Holy Communion. At the close of Conference she led a time of identifying a next steps commitment for ministry as participants were sent forth to their church and community.
Special guest Bishop B. Michael Watson, resident bishop of the North Georgia Episcopal Area, preached focusing on the conference mission of “Discover, Develop and Deploy Spiritual Leaders to make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” He told the conference, “Good news! You have got absolutely everything it takes to grow in Christ into the church God is calling you to be. … You’ve got a future. You’ve got what it takes. …You’ve got the power of the Holy Spirit. … Nurture it and grow in Christ.”
Bishop Watson also joined Bishop Wallace-Padgett each day for a time of “Conversations with the Bishops” during which they discussed spiritual leadership and answered questions from those gathered.
Each morning, the Rev. Paul W. Chilcote, academic dean, professor of historical theology and Wesleyan studies, and director of United Methodist Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ohio, led sessions titled “Leadership in the Wesleyan Tradition.” He focused the Monday teaching time on foundations focusing on what he called holistic spirituality of the Wesleyan tradition that includes both works of piety and works of mercy. He noted spiritual practices — such as prayer, silence, biblical engagement and Eucharist — and why they are important to United Methodist leaders. On Tuesday he focused on character asking and answering the question: “What is the character of the leader that is shaped by Wesleyan heritage?”
On Sunday evening, as clergy were gathered in the Clergy Executive Session, the laity heard from guest Craig W. Robertson, founding member and development partner of Spiritual Leadership Inc., who explained the L3: Loving, Learning and Leading process, which the North Alabama Conference is adopting in its ministry work.
Throughout the worshipful conference, leaders of local churches shared Glory Sightings of their congregation’s ministry. Emcee Chris Greene interviewed these leaders who shared stories of growth and professions of faith; reaching out to those in work release and drug court; partnering with a recovery ministry; and partnering with other churches to transform a food pantry into a food co-op bringing hope to the participants and community.
In alignment with the mission-driven annual conference, teams reported on the four conference priorities. The Church Health Operational Team, led by the Revs. Robin Scott and Nancy Cole, described resources the team is developing to help congregations of all sizes grow healthier. The Ethnic Ministries Operational Team, led by the Rev. Richard Stryker, shared highlights and stories from the team and introduced the Rev. Clinton Hubbard as the conference’s next director of ethnic ministries. The Rev. Dale Cohen presented the report of the New Church Operational Team. He introduced those who are helping to start six new faith communities. He also invited everyone in the conference to become a church planter and help the effort either through prayer, funding, inviting others to a new congregation or using their spiritual gifts to help start new ministries. Earlier in the conference, Bishop Wallace-Padgett introduced the incoming director of new church development the Rev. Richard Hunter. The Rev. Lewis Archer presented the report from the Ministry with the Poor Operational Team. He offered a vision of how congregations can work toward this Conference ministry priority. He noted, “People of means cannot practice Methodist Christianity without engaging with people with needs.”
On Monday afternoon, the conference gathered for the Memorial Service during which time the conference remembered those clergy and clergy spouses who died in the last year. The Rev. Andy Wolfe preached a sermon titled “Remember.” During the service, the conference also said a litany of thanksgiving for the nine churches that were closing.
On Monday evening, the conference gathered at Canterbury United Methodist Church for the Service of Ordination, Commissioning and Licensing. During the service, five elders were ordained (average age of 45); 10 provisional elders and one provisional deacon (average age of 34) were commissioned; and 11 local pastors received their license.
The annual conference adopted four Resolutions:
- A Resolution Calling for Prison Reform in Alabama
- A Resolution Concerning Healthcare for the Poor in Alabama
- A Resolution to Ban Capital Punishment
- A Resolution Supporting Harm Reduction for LGBTQ Teens — An amended version of this resolution was presented through a true act of Christian Conferencing. The Rev. Dave Barnhart, author of the original resolution, and the Rev. John Kearns spent several days in holy conversation and offered an amended version of the resolution changing the wording in several places. While presenting the amendment, they noted that most everyone in the room fit somewhere in the theological spectrum between Kearns and Barnhart, and if they could agree on the resolution they urged everyone to support it. The amended resolution was adopted by an almost unanimous voice vote. (See story: Working Together to Pass a Resolution)
In other business the Conference:
- welcomed incoming President of Birmingham-Southern College, Edward Leonard III.
- approved a recommendation of the Conference Budget Task Force to change the conference apportionment formula from a top-down asking of the conference to an upward flowing spiritual giving model from local churches with a goal of each church to modeling for their members the discipline of the tithe.
- passed the 2016 Conference budget of $10,155,717, a zero percent increase over the 2015 budget, noting that 33 percent of the conference budget was comprised of general church apportionments, which by the Book of Discipline must fully be a part of the conference budget.
- celebrated the North Alabama Conference reaching its goal to raise $1 million for Imagine No Malaria.
- introduced the Rev. Wade Langer as the new conference director of campus ministries.
- adopted the Board of Pension and Health Benefits proposal to move to the HealthFlex Exchange, which will offer participants a choice of five insurance plans.
- announced the recipients of the Denman Evangelism Awards. The lay recipient Neal Fuller Jr., is the Celebrate Recovery coordinator for the Southwest District who has helped begin nine Celebrate Recovery programs throughout the district. The clergy recipient, the Rev. Gresh Harbuck, is the pastor of ONEeighty United Methodist Church in Springville. During the month of April, ONEeighty celebrated more than 100 professions of faith.
- recognized the outgoing executive director of the Board of Ordained Ministry, the Rev. Don Neal and introduced incoming executive director, the Rev. Ron Schultz.
- thanked the 23 clergy who are retiring this annual conference.
- honored the living members of the 1965 Ordination Class.
- recognized the Rev. Wylheme Ragland as this year’s recipient of the Annie Ford and Glynn Wheeler Award for outstanding contributions in the field of church history and archives for his work documenting the history of the former Central Conference.
- experienced worship led by the Sylacauga First Youth Band, the winner of Battle of the Bands.
- presented the COSROW Louise Branscomb Barrier Breaker Award to Tajuan McCarty, founder of The Wellhouse, an organization that works to end sex trafficking of women who urged pastors and churches to not be silent on the issue of sexual slavery and to speak against issues such as pornography and strip clubs which are problems that add to the sexual victimization of women.
- heard from Sarah Smoot, a United Methodist Board of Global Ministries US-2 missionary, who spoke about her work and the mission opportunities the GBGM has for young adults.
- the Laity Report was presented by Conference Lay Leader Steve Lyles who encouraged churches to be in ministry outside their walls.
- adopted the Conference Nominations Report. After those leaders were elected, Bishop Wallace-Padgett led the Conference in a time of prayer to commission those elected, members of Conference Operational Teams and the General and Jurisdictional Conference Delegations (who were elected at the 2014 Annual Conference).
- heard a testimony of the ministry of the United Methodist Children’s Home from an alumna of UMCH who shared what the ministry had meant to her life.
- received the Statistician Report. Conference statistician, the Rev. Amy DeWitte, noted that although membership and worship attendance showed a decline, not only in 2014, but for a number of years, there are bright spots to be seen in North Alabama. She noted 25 percent of the churches in the conference are growing. Sixty-five percent of the congregations in decline are in what is categorized as low decline, which means there is hope for a turn toward growth. She also noted that payment of Conference apportionments as well as overall giving to ministries outside local church walls has increased.
Some notable statistics for 2014: membership was 133,695 (down 313); average worship attendance was 66,007 (down 269); Sunday school attendance was 30,835 (down 356); amount given to mission was $9,879,218 (up $784,754); 2533 people were received on profession of faith (up 477); 2087 people were baptized (up 151); 115 people were restored to membership by affirmation (up 3); the number of people engaged in mission was 33,329 (up 7,185).
— Danette Clifton, Director of Communication for the North Alabama Conference