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2017 Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference

 

“What troubles have we seen,” begins the third, ominous verse of Charles Wesley’s venerable hymn, “And Are We Yet Alive,” which heralds the beginning of every Eastern Pennsylvania annual conference.

What mighty conflicts past,
fightings without,
and fears within,
since we assembled last!

As over a thousand annual conference members sang those lines to begin their 231st annual session, June 15-17, many knew that the conflicts and fears of their denomination were not all past, but some very present as an uncertain future awaits. Such knowledge made the conference’s imperative theme, “Rise Up and Pray!” all the more timely and essential.

The conference, which returned to the Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, Pennsylvania, offered many high points. They included deeply spiritual, creative and prayerful worship services with compelling sermons, uplifting performances by church musicians, enjoyable fellowship encounters, the ordination and commissioning of young clergy, recognition of clergy retirees and a thought-provoking presentation on prayer.

Bishop Peggy Johnson, in her opening sermon, urged members to immerse themselves in fervent, faithful prayer to combat “discouragement,” “distractions” and the “seductive temptation” of excessive “self-determination” that turns our focus away from obediently pursuing our disciple-making, world-changing mission for Jesus Christ.

Rise Up and Lead!
With the subtheme “Rise Up and Lead!” Bishop Latrelle Miller Easterling of the Baltimore-Washington Conference preached a similar admonition to clergy about to be commissioned and ordained. Six new elders were ordained; three deacons and four elders were commissioned. Two pastors, both Korean-American, were welcomed into full conference membership by transfer. (And four licensed local pastors were earlier approved for full-time service.)

With the subtheme “Rise Up in Glory!” former Eastern Pennsylvania Conference Bishop Peter Weaver, now retired, preached the memorial service to honor deceased clergy and clergy spouses and to comfort and encourage surviving families in attendance. This time the memorial service also honored the past lives of four recently closed and deconsecrated churches.

The Rev. Tom Albin, dean of the Upper Room Chapel at United Methodist Discipleship Ministries in Nashville, taught a 90-minute session on prayer, offering insightful concepts, exercises and resources to deepen and expand one’s prayer life. “God takes the initiative in the relationship and communication we call prayer,” he emphasized. “Prayer begins in the heart of God, it comes to us, and we pray it back to God.”

Moreover, there were encouraging ministry and stewardship reports by the Cabinet and Trustees, the Council on Finance and Administration, Connectional Ministries, Camp and Retreat Ministries, and several lay ministry groups, including the Council on Youth Ministries. Not so encouraging were the trends of continued membership decline reported by Conference Statistician Gordon Yocum.

Many resolutions address church laws and state laws
But there were also 27 resolutions signifying the assembly’s important legislative role. Five ratified the closure of four churches and the transfer of one to our neighboring Susquehanna Conference. Of the 22 other resolutions, nearly half related to controversial church laws and state laws used to restrict rights and access for homosexual persons.

Some resolutions would maintain or overturn current restrictions to ordained ministry and same-sex weddings for lesbian and gay members in United Methodist churches. Others asked the conference to advocate for or against potential laws that would allow individuals and business owners to refuse to serve LGBT customers for same-sex weddings and other activities that offend their religious consciences.

Religious liberty versus equal access, the right for tax-exempt churches to endorse political candidates, full inclusion versus exclusion of LGBTQ persons from ordained ministry and marriage, and church unity versus disunion—resolutions supporting or opposing these aspirations were ripe for lengthy debates on the conference floor. But most of the expected debates were abridged or avoided by withdrawals of some resolutions and the tabling or postponement of others.

The reasons? Perhaps the several spontaneous prayers that were requested and offered during tense debates. But also, no doubt, the hopeful expectations among many that the 2019 Special General Conference will decide whether to maintain or change the church’s official views and laws on homosexuality and ministry. That decision will come when it votes on the Council of Bishops’ recommendations based on findings of the council’s Special Commission on a Way Forward.

In the meantime, the Rev. Gil Rendell reported to the annual conference on the general purpose and progress of the Way Forward commission, which he serves as a consultant. And Bishop Johnson invited conference members to hold their own discussions and to sign up for the study commission she is organizing that is mandated to “discern a path by which the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference can maintain unity, amid deep and abiding disagreements over sexuality and marriage.”

Other resolutions
A handful of remaining issue-oriented resolutions also elicited little or no debate before approval. One called for “fair, humane immigration policies and practices.” Three others affirmed and urged continuation of efforts to foster racial understanding, justice and healing, along with viable ministries and leadership among racial-ethnic members, churches and communities.

In addition, members approved a new process for determining future conference endorsement of episcopal candidates; and they called for a Citizens Commission for Legislative and Congressional Redistricting to reform the state’s practice of gerrymandering that redraws voting districts for political advantage.

Approved by consent calendar were Equitable Compensation recommendations for 2018, rental and housing allowances for retired or disabled clergy, changes in the Clergy Retirement Security Program, and the funding of benefit obligations for next year. Meanwhile, CFA withdrew for further study a resolution to enact significant fiscal policy changes, including forgiving some past-due “historic balances” of churches in arrears.

Special offerings were received to support the conference’s scholarship fund, Board of Ordained Ministry scholarships for seminary students and Methodist Services (formerly the Methodist Home for Children).

Memorable quotes by speakers:

Bishop Peggy Johnson, Opening Worship Service Sermon: 

"We engage in systemic racism, sexism and classism.  We do this when we debate without end about who is "in" and who is "out" and whose interpretation of the Bible is the right one. While all that is going on, the mission of the church is left undone and the world looks on at us and our endless debates and shakes their heads.  Jesus says "rise up and pray."  EPA Conference pray fervently that we get back on track and find peace with one another."

Rev. Tom Albin, Dean of Upper Room Chapel, Teaching Session on Prayer

  •        “If we don’t find the power to forgive others, we will surely divide. For decades General Conference delegates stood up and said ‘Don’t cut the baby in half.’ But now, some want to cut the baby in half.”
  •        “We win or lose the battle of spiritual life based on prayer….Prayer is so simple that a little child can pray and so challenging that mature adults still struggle to do it.”
  •        “Prayer is oxygen for the soul. Put your oxygen mask on first, not last. Commit your time to pray first before committing to help others.”
  •        “I am convinced that every Christian leader—whether clergy, lay person or Sunday school teacher—needs a spiritual director and a prayer team.”  

Bishop Latrelle Miller Easterling, Service of Ordination

“If you need your ego stroked while you serve, this is not the right call for you. If you need titles bestowed on you and read from lofty places, then you chose the wrong door. If power is what turns you on, then right now, let us turn you off because you won’t be serving anybody but yourself.”

Conference statistics:
Number of people retired: 19 clergy.

Membership stands at 99,930, down 2,898 from the previous year (102,828).

Worship attendance stands at 35,218, down 1,772 from the previous year (36,990).

Church school attendance stands at 9,880, down 645 from the previous year (10,525).

Professions or reaffirmations of faith at 1,599 up 11 from 1,588 in 2015.
Adults and young adults in small groups for 2016: 34,811 down 888 from 2015 (35,699).

Worshippers engaged in mission for 2016: 475,571, down 8,513 from 2015 (484.084).

What did your annual conference do to reinforce the Four Areas of Focus, and what commitments has the conference made for the coming year: 

Creating New Places for New People
The conference presented Denman Awards (clergy, lay member and youth awards) for personal evangelism efforts, plus Discipleship Ministries’ One Matters Award for a rural church’s turnaround growth, and the Kim Jefferson Urban Ministry Award to an urban church whose restart transformation yielded turnaround growth from 6 to 79 members and numerous new ministries in just one year. Also, the Lifetree Cafes (four so far with more to come) welcome unchurched (and de-churched) people to local pubs and restaurants to join members for food, fellowship and comfortable, non-judgmental faith-related discourse, thus creating "new places for new people." And the conference has trained and deployed Latino church planters to develop new Hispanic/Latino faith communities in two cities with large, growing Latino populations.

Nurturing Principled Leaders
The conference affirmed and pledged to continue mandatory anti-racism training for all ministry leaders, and held several multicultural youth retreats (including one for girls by our UMW). Conference Youth and Young Adult Ministry leaders gave encouraging reports about their youth rallies over the past year, and one of four campus ministries (at Drexel University) is attracting several interfaith (and a few no-faith) students to its weekly worship and fellowship gatherings. Also, the four Camp & Retreat Ministry sites are nurturing young leaders and creating powerful learning and worship experiences in non-church camp settings. The conference raised funds for undergraduate and seminary scholarships from offerings at annual conference.

Ministry with the Poor
The conference approved resolutions calling for more humane government immigration policies and practices (that are greatly affecting many of our growing numbers of undocumented Latino church members). We heard from United Methodist Board of Church and Society staffer Susan Burton, who came to talk about the GOP’s recent Senate health care proposal and its likely impact on poor people. The conference also gave 16,000 pounds of gleaned potatoes away thanks to the United Methodist Men. United Methodist Witness in PA legislative advocate, the Rev. Dai Morgan, shared info about what's happening in state government around public education, Medicaid and other poverty-related issues. 

Abundant Health
Bishop Johnson recently spoke at and wrote about a church’s (Quakertown United Methodist) community anti-drug abuse rally that focused especially on the growing opiate drug crisis in our communities. Also, the "10,000 Churches Abundant Health" campaign’s kick-off video was shown and there was a display table where many signed up. Conference members watched a video report from the Congo Partnership missionaries of the United Methodist Global Ministries from the Democratic Republic of Congo, featuring the new pediatric care and eye care clinics for which Eastern Pennsylvania districts raised and donated funds.

See photos from annual conference.

—John W. Coleman Jr., director of Communications