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2017 Michigan Annual Conference (Detroit and West Michigan conferences)


New location. New bishop. New conference on the horizon. The Michigan Annual Conference promised to make history, and it did during its session in Acme, Michigan, June 1-4, 2017.

On June 1, Bishop David A. Bard presided over his first annual conference business session since his appointment to the Michigan Area last July in Peoria, Illinois.

As soon as the session was “organized,” the bishop welcomed the Rev. Marsha Woolley, Michigan Area Design Team co-chair, to the microphone. Her report began, “We have come to believe we are, indeed, better together.” She and colleague, the Rev. Glenn Wagner, summarized the vision, model and focus of the plan coming to the conference for approval. Then Woolley concluded, “At a time when it seems more comfortable to maintain the status quo, we choose to do a new thing.”

The Rev. Kenneth Bigham-Tsai commented during Saturday’s debate on the new Plan of Organization: “Let’s approve this today so that we have our new annual conference and can move on with all necessary details. The purpose of this plan is to get ministry off the top of the hierarchy into the grassroots.”

When votes were cast at 7:45 p.m. June 3, the commitment made two years ago to unite the Detroit and West Michigan conferences was sealed. A Plan of Organization, with no amendments, had been adopted that will enable leaders to take next steps toward union as the Michigan Conference come January 1, 2019.

Other major legislation also focused on implementation of design team proposals: 1) adoption of the nine-district recommendation (down from 12 districts); 2) approval for creation of a Legal and Financial Task Force to take next steps in implementation of the nine-district plan; and 3) adoption of a comprehensive pension and health benefits package for the new Michigan Conference.

Social-action items were few this year by request of conference planners. The Detroit Conference reaffirmed the biblical call to be peacemakers, including restriction of first-use of nuclear weapons. Two other Detroit Conference items, which called for clergy adherence to the Book of Discipline regarding matters of human sexuality, were defeated. There was a decision by both conferences to authorize the delegates to the 2016 General Conference as the delegates to the special 2019 called session of General Conference.

Significant time was spent on Saturday discussing and voting on five amendments to the Constitution of The United Methodist Church coming from the 2016 General Conference. Items were presented by the Rev. Charles Boayue (Detroit) and Nichea Ver Veer Guy (West Michigan), chairpersons of Michigan’s General Conference delegations. There was considerable discussion on amendments 1 (Gender Equality) and 2 (Inclusion in Membership) with no discussion on the other three amendments. Ballots will be canvassed by the Council of Bishops,  and the Detroit and West Michigan conference votes will be added to the tallies of every other United Methodist annual conference.

Spiritual grounding

The teaching segment of annual conference has become a precious and exciting time for many members. This year, the Rev. Susan Beaumont took her place in the list of guest lecturers. In her first session, “Leading in a Liminal Season,” she defined “liminality” as “an era which finds us neither here nor there, between a known past and a questionable future.” She noted that such a mood not only describes Michigan’s two annual conferences but the United Methodist denomination and the national and global arenas as well. She summarized the leadership style required for such a time as this: “Leading with presence requires three shifts in stance: from knowing to unknowing; from advocating to attending; and from striving to surrender.”

“Tending the Soul of the Institution” was the focus of Beaumont’s second session. Deepening discernment, shaping memory, clarifying vocation and engaging emergence were cited as ways to live through unsettled times. “In the gap between the old-world order and the emergence of the new-world order, we are freest to discover new direction. Innovation will occur if we allow and support the natural unfolding of emergence.”

Conference members also found spiritual grounding in daily worship. Conference preachers — Bishop David Bard and the Revs. Eric Mulanda and Zack Dunlap — offered insight and inspiration around a common theme … Christ’s feeding of the multitude. Dunlap, pastor of Berkley First, the new campus of Birmingham First United Methodist Church, said during his four-gospel approach to the theme of abundance: “Give God your best. Get creative. And work your butt off. Planting a church is hard. Growing with a church is hard. Leading people though change is hard. … It isn’t hard to be terrible. But I don’t think we were called out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light to be terrible. And make no mistake, clergy or lay, we’re all called. Give God something to work with.”

Vision keeping

“The Michigan Conference equips and connects through Christ-centered: Mission & Ministry; Bold & Effective Leaders; Vibrant Congregations.” While the new Michigan Conference is yet to be born, members got a foretaste of that vision statement on Friday afternoon.

Under the heading, “Bold & Effective Leaders,” the Rev. Karl Ziegler, retired Detroit Conference clergy, reported on the Michigan Area Haiti Task Force’s sponsorship of a Local Preachers Academy in Haiti. With the help of 15 elders from Michigan, 115 local preachers were accredited during the Feb. 4 bicentennial of The Methodist Church in Haiti celebrated in Port au Prince. “These 115 persons can now administer the sacraments alongside the 15 ordained elders who serve in Haiti.” Ziegler thanked the Area for $75,000 of support for the effort.

The spokesman for “Vibrant Congregations” was the Rev. Dirk Elliott, director of new-church development for the Michigan Area. “The 2016 General Conference announced an effort to make 1 million new disciples over the next four years,” Elliott reported. “Translating that to the Michigan Area, our goal is to start 13 new churches, 127 faith communities and 1,260 small groups during this quadrennium.” He lifted up several recent “adoption” stories — Potterville is now a Sycamore Creek campus; Bay City 1st and Bay City Christ are now Bay City Grace; South Wyoming is one of several multi-sites of Cornerstone Church. In 2016, the Marquette District launched its first church start since 1978, Marquette Hope. In 2017, a new church will be planted in the Grand Traverse by the Rev. Jerry Wicks.

On Sunday the Rev. Gary Step, area director of congregational excellence announced the 2016 recipients of Discipleship Ministries, One Matters Award: Manistee and Flint Calvary United Methodist churches.

“Bold and Effective Leaders” and “Vibrant Congregations” were at the center again on Sunday as the morning worship experience wrapped around the cabinet report shared by Dean Elbert Dulworth. “The 2012 General Conference declared that district superintendents are expected to be chief missional strategists for their district,” Dulworth said. “That task is not always easy. On some days it is easier to feel like a fire chief than a chief missional strategist.” He then added. “We must figure out what fires we just might have to let burn. New growth can be possible after a controlled burn.”

Conference Treasurer David Dobbs announced the names of two other bold and effective leaders earlier in the session. The John Buxton Award is given annually to recognize creative leadership. Detroit Conference Deacon Paul Perez was named for his service in his role as director of mission & justice engagement and leadership recruitment. The Rev. Faith Green Timmons, pastor of Flint: Bethel United Methodist Church was honored for “turning the church into a beacon” during the water crisis and recovery in the city.

On Sunday afternoon, Bishop David Bard ordained and commissioned new leaders, telling them, “You have answered the call not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” He offered words of encouragement: Take care of yourself … Know you are not alone … and, never forget your calling.

Numbers that matter

One person was commissioned for the work of a deacon; five for work of an elder. Four deacons and nine elders were ordained. One person was recognized as entering associate membership. Average age of those taking up the mantle for ministry is 40. Earlier in the week, 33 entered into retirement and were recognized for a combined 853 years of service.

In-gatherings totaled $66,762 for ministries in Liberia and Haiti and 20 large baskets overflowed with personal care goods for the local Safe Harbor homeless shelter. An additional $8,200 was received through snack sales and electronic giving for camping ministries.

Detroit Conference membership stands at 76,786, down 4,268
West Michigan Conference membership stands at 52,848, down 1,968

Detroit Conference worship attendance: 35,209, down 1,717
West Michigan worship attendance: 30,329, down 1,569

Detroit church school attendance: 8,705, down 841
West Michigan church school attendance: 7,120, down 645

Detroit professions or reaffirmations of faith: 1,540, down 522
West Michigan professions or reaffirmations of faith: 1,142, down 75

Detroit adults and young adults in small groups: 19,525, up 49
West Michigan adults and young adults in small groups: 17,220, down 887

Detroit Conference worshippers engaged in mission 19,795, up 1,018
West Michigan worshippers engaged in mission 15,513, up 2,844

— Kay DeMoss, senior editor, Michigan Area