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2017 Virginia Annual Conference


The theme for the 2017 Virginia Annual Conference, held June 16-18 at the Hampton Roads Convention Center in Hampton, Va., was “A New Thing.” The conference theme was based on Isaiah 43:19, “Behold I will do a new thing, now it shall spring forth; Shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

Bishop Sharma D. Lewis presided over her first annual conference, a spirit-filled event with unscripted altar calls and powerful preaching.

Episcopal Address

Bishop Lewis shared what she had learned in her nine months of being bishop in the Virginia Conference. She stated that her vision was formed through her visits to the 16 districts for listening sessions called “Chat and Chews.” At these sessions, she met with clergy for one session and laity for a second session, adding up to a total of 32 listening sessions and 7,823 miles since Sept. 2016.

“How many of you would agree with me that it’s time to be intentional about creating a culture of disciple-making? How many of you would agree with me that it’s time for us to identify, equip and deploy “emergent” leaders sitting on pews by fostering a culture of call?” she asked.

Lewis said she knew God wanted to do a new thing in Virginia and that in order to do this, first the conference must change their focus, then clarify the focus and finally commit to God’s plan.

Lewis said that in order to capture this new thing in the conference then the focus must change and not look backwards. She took this time to also apologize.

“As I listened and engaged with several clergy groups and received letters from laity, some of you have been hurt by clergy, by laity, by the system or just disappointed in The United Methodist Church.  I stand before you as your bishop to apologize for the hurt and pain that some of you have endured and to challenge us together re-write some “new narratives” in the Virginia Conference,” she said. “We are covenant brothers and sisters in ministry, laity will be valued, that women are called to lead large churches, that young clergy will have a denomination to serve, that small churches can grow and we will respond to human suffering.”

Lewis shared that she would share her vision for the conference during her Sunday closing worship sermon.

Lewis ended by talking about the commitment that this new thing would require.

“The overall question for us this afternoon – have we committed ourselves to the work of the Kingdom? Not your church, not your district.  Have we committed to love our brothers and sisters – no matter what color, race gender or sexual orientation?  Have we committed as United Methodist to practice scriptural holiness?” said Lewis.

Bible Study

Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, who leads the Birmingham Episcopal Area, led Bible Study on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Service of Remembrance and Holy Communion

The Rev. Tom Joyce, assistant to the bishop, preached for the Service of Remembrance and Holy Communion in which 35 conference clergy and laity who died since the last Annual Conference were remembered.

One Matters Award and Harry Denman Awards

The One Matters award was given to Bethel United Methodist Church, Elizabeth River District. Representing the church was Pastor Barbara J. St. Jean, church council chair Frances Dixon and member Sarah Seeley.            

The clergy Denman award went to the Rev. Reggie Tuck, senior pastor of Messiah Bethel United Methodist Church, Alexandria District. Laity award went to Johnnie Morris, member of Journey Bethel United Methodist Church, Farmville District. Youth award went to Nicole Kent, member of Cunningham Bethel United Methodist Church, Charlottesville District.

Conference Business

Seven churches were discontinued in five districts. Five new faith communities and their pastors were introduced including two online campuses.

The body discussed two of five resolutions and passed a resolution on Hydraulic Fracturing Oil and Gas and another on Holy Land travel.

Fredericksburg District Superintendent Ted Smith announced the district’s name change to Rappahannock River District effective July 1.

The body voted to keep the 2016 delegates for the special 2019 General Conference.

Conference Treasurer David Dommisse shared that membership is down but giving is up. The conference reserves have risen from a negative to a positive.

Glory Sightings video series

Bishop Lewis introduced a new feature to Annual Conference this year. Called “Glory Sightings,” this video series was shown throughout conference to highlight mission and ministry throughout the Virginia Conference. In her meetings around the state, a common theme she heard from both clergy and laity was not knowing enough about what was happening in the conference in mission. These videos included a school-church partnership, a drumline ministry with youth and women’s ministry in Cambodia.

A Service for the Ordering of Ministry

Fifteen men and women were ordained elders, one was ordained deacon, 15 were commissioned as provisional members, one recognition of associate member and 40 were licensed as local pastors in the Saturday evening Ordering of Ministry service.

Mississippi Area Bishop James E. Swanson Sr. delivered the sermon, preaching about the Holy Spirit.

"The Holy Spirit is anxious today to fall on people. It's anxious to transform people who will transform the world," he said. Addressing those especially who are preparing for ministry, "If the Holy Spirit is not working through you, it's not because the Holy Spirit doesn't want to. It will only work when you allow the Holy Spirit to do its work."

Swanson talked about his mother being born in segregated Mississippi. She left Mississippi and met Swanson's father. Her father was an itinerant local preacher in the local church. Bishop Swanson didn't know this until he went to Mississippi to serve as bishop because his grandfather died the year the bishop was born. His grandfather held him at 6 months old and didn't know he was holding a future bishop in that segregated Mississippi.

He called on the body to listen for the word of God.

“It is God's word that sets people free, that liberates the oppressed, that liberates you to preach in a hostile church, and heals the church and raises the dead. It is the word of God. Don't be duped into abandoning God's word," he said.

Swanson then said, "I know I'm out of order," and invited Bishop Lewis to stand beside him and issued an altar call to any who felt God calling them. After a time of people coming forward to answer that call, the service continued with Bishop Lewis conducting the Licensing of Local Pastors, the Commissioning of Provisional Members and the Ordination of a Deacon and Elders.

Closing Worship

Lewis reflected on how God has chosen her to lead the Virginia Conference and how humbled she was to be in this position.

She clarified her vision for the conference over the next four years:  For the Virginia Annual Conference to be Disciples of Jesus Christ who are lifelong learners who influence others to serve.

Lewis emphasized that every person in the conference, whether clergy or laity, has a circle of influence, and the ability to keep learning in which to attain this vision.

"Wouldn't it be powerful if all of Virginia is on the same page with our intentional discipleship making?" she asked. "Where's your circle of influence? Golf course, nail salon, friends, church?”

She said a person of influence enlarges people, navigates for other people, connects with people, empowers people and reproduces other influences.

Walking among the people, then standing on a chair, the bishop said, "I need you. Young adults, I need you. Older adults, I need you. You don't always learn what to do. You learn what not to do."

“I know it's not prim and proper to be standing on a chair, but I'm going for broke," she said. "I'm going to let you in on a secret. Many of you are saying you don't see it. That's okay. I'm going to be here four years and I'm going to help you see it!" 

"Jesus is my thing. Discipleship is my thing," she stated.

Wrap-up stats

Annual Conference members brought 47,012 disaster relief kits for the United Methodist Committee on Relief to Annual Conference. Those included 26,599 health kits; 12,987 school kits; 4,479 birthing kits; 1,397 layette kits; 366 cleaning kits; 390 bedding kits, 540 sewing kits and 254 miscellaneous kits.

Attendees of conference contributed 7,025 pounds of canned goods and boxed dry foods as part of the "4 Cans 4 Conference" drive. In addition, 5,090 pounds of produce was directed toward the Peninsula Food Bank.

Members approved a 2018 budget of $31,800,000, down from the 2017 budget.

As of the end of 2016, membership stood at 325,099, down 0.22 percent. Worship attendance stood at 98,938. Reaffirmations of faith were at 3,840.

A conference offering was collected of over $118,000. The offering was divided between the following: $50,000 Cambodia, $25,000 Brazil, $25,000 Mozambique, $50,000 Virginia Long Term Disaster Recovery, $25,000 Ethnic Minority Missional Ministries, $25,000 Virginia Volunteers in Mission.

—Madeline Pillow, Virginia Conference director of communications.