2017 Western Pennsylvania Conference
Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, presiding at her first Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference session June 8-11 at Grove City College, told the more than 1.400 clergy and laity to put aside their anxiety, fear and disagreements and declared the campus “A Love Zone.” The annual conference theme was “WPA Chic: Dressed in Love,” taken from Colossians 3:12-17.
“If we are going to do the work that God has called us to do…we have to be dressed in love. It is our love that is going to give us the power we need to work in harmony with one another… the wisdom that we need to discern God’s will.
On June 10, Bishop Moore-Koikoi literally took a leap of faith.
She climbed over a balcony and dropped on a rope onto the plenary room floor. It was a dramatic prelude to a presentation and her announcement of a four-year initiative to raise $5 million for camping and retreat ministries.
The announcement brought people to their feet and many spontaneously walked forward to drop gifts on the stage at her feet. The total given was $9,251. The following day a previously announced offering for camping and retreat ministries brought in an additional $9,171 for a total of $18,422. Gifts from youth at a pizza party with the bishop added $1,985 to the total. At least two clergy members took to Facebook to offer matching gift challenges to their friends.
The camping and retreat ministries address the denomination’s Four Areas of Focus by encouraging Abundant Health through opportunities for physical and spiritual development and Developing Principled Christian leaders through reaching young people and allowing them to hear the call to ministry, as well as through the counselor-in-training and summer camp staff development. Engaging in Ministry With the Poor is done through camp scholarships, programs for at-risk children and youth and taking day camp programs into communities. Developing New Places for New People is accomplished through At the Lake Ministries for people with disabilities aboard a boat on Lake Erie and a partnership with the Healthy Village Learning Institute in McKeesport, as well as the day camping program. These and other intentional efforts are also aimed at addressing an additional conference area of focus aimed at Dismantling Racism.
Conference members celebrated the ordination of eight new elders, with an average age of 39. Two pastors received as associate members were Sheila Rae Auer and Samuel J. Wagner.
Eight new provisional members, with an average age of 37, were commissioned.
The conference honored 28 retiring clergy members with a combined total of 665 years of service. During a memorial service for clergy and lay members of the annual conference who passed away in the past year, Bishop Moore-Koikoi’s message was entitled “What More Can I Say?”
During the report from the Cabinet, a liturgy was offered recognizing the ministries provided by 13 churches that closed over the past year: Taylortown United Methodist Church; Tidioute First United Methodist Church; Strangford United Methodist Church; Castle Shannon United Methodist Church; Johnstown Trinity-Asbury United Methodist Church; Grandview United Methodist Church; Bear Lake United Methodist Church; Listonburg United Methodist Church; Hooversville United Methodist Church; Jeannette First United Methodist Church; Wallaceville United Methodist Church; Penn’s Woods United Methodist Church and East McKeesport First United Methodist Church.
State of the Church
In her State of the Church address, Bishop Moore-Koikoi said that in visits to the conference’s 10 districts since she arrived last Sept. 1, she was continually drawn to the lyrics of “How Great Thou Art” and “We Are Blessed.” She commented on the beauty of mountains and streams, the vital ministries and mission agencies that are making a difference in people lives, the stories of miracles that have taken place at the three conference camps, and interaction with young people through events like SPARK and confirmation tours of the Conference Center.
“So here is the truth,” she said. “While we have truly been blessed, there are yet and still ways in which God can bless us. There are yet and still opportunities for God to perform miracles among us.”
She said she heard a need for greater transparency in how the conference operates, and a need to better communicate what the conference staff can do to resource and support local churches. To address concerns about ineffective or mediocre pastors, for example, the Rev. Susan Moudry, is responsible for “providing opportunities and support for clergy so that they can be the pastors they dreamed they would be when God called them.” The bishop said she has asked Moudry to work with Conference Lay Leader Sharon Gregory to help equip laity for their leadership roles.
“Many clergy and laity asked for help in making disciples,” Bishop Moore-Koikoi said. “The way we used to make disciples isn't working any more. Most people I have talked with have expressed a desire to do things differently, but they just don’t know what to do.” Conference staff members are available to help with that, she said.
Later, wearing red T-shirts labeled STAFF, offered “There's a Staff for That,” a presentation to let local church leaders know the many ways that staff members can assist local churches in such things as discipleship, mission involvement, reaching out to their communities, and discussing racism and implicit bias.
Bishop Moore-Koikoi said many people expressed concerns about racism and sexism and wanted to find ways to address it. “This is going to take hard, uncomfortable, even painful work....We are going to have to have some hard conversations about what true hospitality looks like. Having a black bishop is not going to end racism and lead to greater racial diversity in this annual conference. Having a female bishop is not going to end sexism in this annual conference. It is going to take all of us making a decision that we are going to open ourselves up to examination by God and to act on what God reveals to us.”
Addressing divisions in the denomination in a separate presentation about the work of the Council of Bishops’ Commission on The Way Forward, Bishop Moore-Koikoi outlined her vision for the Annual Conference Order of Elders facilitating conversations among the diverse voices represented in Western Pennsylvania and ensuring that those views are being heard by the Commission. She shared her optimism that God has already worked out a way forward. God is simply waiting for us to follow the plan.
The Rev. Dawn Chesser, Discipleship Ministries, lead the Conference in Bible study, focusing on the first three chapters of Colossians. In keeping with the theme of being “Dressed in Love, she told about her grandmother, a woman who “wore her faith like a beautiful garment.” She noted that “we are living in a time when division seems easier and connections more fragile” and that as Christians we have responsibilities to God and our communities.
President Pastor Ruben Zeledon of the Methodist Evangelical Conference of Nicaragua and his wife Maryjory, were welcomed to the annual conference. Pastor Ruben, with Rebecca Clapp translating, expressed his hope for the future of the church in Nicaragua. He was introduced by Richard Schall of the conference’s Nicaragua Partnership and the Rev. David Stains, whose support of the church in Nicaragua has such a long history that his colleagues claimed “there is a picture of him hanging every church there.”
In legislative action, conference members approved a $9.74 million connectional apportionment budget for ministry in 2018 with little debate. A presentation on budgetary changes, as well as a narrative budget and listing of grants received by local churches and agencies for transformative ministries, were distributed. Several special Sundays with offerings were approved, as well as legislation calling for support of legislation mandating recording of juvenile interrogations in Pennsylvania. The Rev. Christine Rogan was approved as a full-time General Evangelist, the Rev. John Zimmerman was approved as a General Evangelist and Luella Kreiger was approved as a Conference Evangelist.
Bishop Moore-Koikoi ruled two petitions out of order: P 307— “A Limitation on Conference and District Boards of Ordained Ministry Policies”— called for the Western PA Annual Conference to express its opinion to boards of ordained ministry in other annual conferences on matters related to evaluating fitness for ministry; and P 611— A Petition Against Actions of Non-Conformity—seeking to have the Western Pennsylania Annual Conference register its disagreement with legislation approved by the 2016 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference encouraging its member annual conferences not to conform to sections of the Book of Discipline viewed as discriminatory against LGBQT persons.
The bishop said that she could have ruled both petitions out of order before they went to the legislative section, but instead invited the petitioners into conversation to see if there might be a way to achieve their goals that would be within the confines of the role of the annual conference. The petitions were discussed in legislative sections, and “while they were not able to work out differences, the conversations were done in love. I want to thank you for that…Praise God! At the end of the day, I ruled them out of order,” the bishop said. The petitioners asked that the actions be appealed to the Judicial Council and the bishop said that will happen automatically. “This is what we do as United Methodists and we do it in love. God’s spirit is in this process,” she explained.
Members of the annual conference also voted on five amendments to the denomination’s constitution that were approved by the 2016 General Conference. All must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the total number of those voting in all annual conferences. Results of voting in each annual conference will not be released until all voting is completed.
Before the opening worship a new Laity Session was held, with a focus on disciple-making through the H.O.P.E. process of engaging the community and reaching new people. It also included a segment on the legislative process and responsibilities of serving as a voting member.
As the annual conference got underway, people brought UMCOR kits and used shoes from their local churches to support mission work. Katie Peterson, a deaconess and director of the Eastbrook Mission Barn reported that 75 groups delivered 1350 UMCOR kits to the Barn’s collection station. Meanwhile, All God’s Children Ministries and the Erie United Methodist Alliance packed a large truck-trailer with gently used donated shoes to support their ministries and fuel micro enterprise in developing nations.
A variety of awards were announced during annual conference:
- The Rev. Pam Gardner and Wesley United Methodist Church in Erie, Pennsylvania, received the One Matters Discipleship Award from United Methodist Church Discipleship Ministries and the conference for making significant progress in increasing professions of faith and baptisms by “creating an atmosphere of reproducible discipleship through hospitality, intentionality and love.”
- The Rev. Don Bloomster, a retired elder, received the Friend of United Methodist Women award for his work as board chair of the Ruth M. Smith Center, a national mission institution owned by the UMW.
- Calvary United Methodist Church in Somerset received the Ecumenical Achievement Award from the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.
- Matt Coyne of New Stanton United Methodist Church received the Conference professional Youth Worker of the Year award.
- Owen Raygor of Somerset Grace United Methodist Church received the Timothy Award for exemplifying the qualities in I Timothy 4: 11-12.
- Conference Lay Leader Sharon Gregory was presented with the Pineapple Award by members of the Conference Youth Ministry Team during the Laity Session of AC2017. It goes to someone who has supported and advocated for youth.
Membership stands at 161,578 down 3,565 from the previous year. Average worship attendance stands at 50,296, down 1,697 from the previous year. Church school attendance was 13,783, down 692. Professions of faith were up by 150 to 1,820. Adults in small groups increased by 1,176 to 22,011, while young adults in small groups dropped by 21 to 2,298. Mission engagement increased by 1,939 to 14,758.
—Jackie Campbell, Western Pennsylvania Conference communications director