On June 20-23 clergy and lay delegates were gathered at Lake Junaluska for our 2019 Annual Conference (AC). Since the earliest days of Methodism, the connectional work we do at Annual Conferences has been done by an equal representation of clergy and lay members of local churches. First Murphy belongs to the Western North Carolina Conference of The UMC (WNCC), which stretches from the western most part of the state to about Greensboro. From there to the east is the North Carolina Conference. There are Annual Conferences, designated by regional boundaries, all throughout the United States, and each has an annual meeting the same as ours.
This may be old hat to you—and if so, you can skip ahead to the next heading—but if not, here’s a word about Annual Conferences. ACs are more than just a yearly meeting. Our United Methodist Book of Discipline calls ACs the basic body in the church, organized to help equip local churches for ministry and provide a connection for ministry beyond the local church (¶601 BoD). Practically that looks like our congregation sharing in opportunities for mission and service (e.g., supporting UMAR), resources for faith formation (e.g. retreats at Lake Junaluska), and ministry support (e.g. guiding the process of a new building or providing grant money for ministry). The AC is overseen by a bishop (ours is Bishop Paul Leeland), and its boundaries typically reflect the region to which a clergy person “belongs” and may be appointed.
So AC is more than a meeting. It is a larger expression of the local church. Think of how Sunday school classes or small groups are smaller parts of the bigger church. It’s kind of like that. We are connected with every other UMC in WNC, and because of that connection we have some amazing resources and opportunities available to us.
Here is a link to our Conference’s website. Check it out, and I’ll bet you can find something informative, helpful, and inspiring in no time at all.
Reports and Ministry Opportunities
Each year we hear several reports from various agencies and entities within our AC, including reports related to Pensions and Health Benefits for clergy and a report from our Council on Finance and Administration. This year we approved an AC budget of $16 million. Among other things that budget reflects commitments to empower and revitalize existing churches and ministries, and to expand our witness by starting new ones.
Lots of people groan when it comes to reports at AC, but, honestly, some of the reports were really inspiring! Like the reports related to churches that are doing innovative ministries that are reaching new people for Christ. Over the last few years, we’ve heard a good bit about Fresh Expressions, a movement that looks at “doing church” in new ways. Dinner Church is one form of a Fresh Expression that has really taken off in our conference. The basic idea is people gather around a table (or lots of tables) for a meal, Christian teaching and conversation, and genuine fellowship.
I wonder what sorts of ways God is leading First Murphy to reach out and go out to new people for Christ? What fresh expressions of ministry is God leading us into?
Esther Manchester, our lay delegate, and I went to a meeting of Rural Ministry Advocates and learned about one church that opened their parking lot as a flea market (no charge for a booth), They were intentional about getting to know the vendors, started sharing a regular breakfast and devotional time together, and found that something started to emerge that looked like church…only in their parking lot.
I wonder what sorts of ways God is leading First Murphy to reach out and go out to new people for Christ? I wonder how we can go deeper in the relationships we already have? (Remember the connection of an AC? We also heard about how there is financial support available to churches who are starting new ministries that intentionally reach out to new people.)
In addition to Reports, we also voted on several petitions. I’ll summarize those actions below, and you can follow this linkto a more complete report:
- Approved petition 17 regarding Gender Discrimination in Appointments, which request the Bishop and cabinet work with Staff-Parish Committees to promote, affirm, and practice our open itinerancy regardless of gender.
- Approved petition 18 which forms a Child Advocacy Coalition that will promote equity, opportunities, and well-being for children in WNC, and educate, resource, and equip the church in response and advocacy for children.
- Approved petition 19 which will adopt a procedure allowing clergy to self-nominate for elections to attend General Conference in 2024.
- Approved petition 20 which means our Annual Conference recommends to General Conference 2020 a Jurisdictional Conference Plan as a potential approach to the current divisions within the UMC.
- Approved petition 21 which means our Annual Conference recommends to General Conference 2020 a petition that would remove language in the Discipline referring to the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
- Approved a substitute petition (to 22) which says our Annual Conference rejects the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 and aspires to lead the UMC to be a more inclusive body.
Let me say this about the last three petitions mentioned here… Each of these is related the Traditional Plan’s passing at the special Called Session of General Conference in 2019 and our Judicial Council’s ruling in April that some parts of the Plan are constitutional and others not. Each vote included vigorous debate and disagreement. There was a 200-vote margin of separation in each, showing that while each petition speaks for the majority of the Annual Conference, it doesn’t speak for the whole. Most U.S. Conferences passed similar petitions rejecting or otherwise stating disapproval of the Traditional Plan.
There’s no way around it: we are a divided denomination. There are several different groups actively working to chart a path forward for The UMC. Some, like the moderate-progressives of UMNext and Uniting Methodists are working to consider ways to hold together a diverse, global denomination who disagree but whose witness is stronger together. Others, like the more conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association, are looking to expand and strengthen the traditional legislation of General Conference 2019 and urge those who disagree to exit the UMC.
One of the songs we always sing at Opening Worship of AC talks about “fightings without, and fears within.” I regret that so much of our denominational conversation and posturing and doesn’t look at all like how Christ would have us make every effort to maintain the Spirit of unity in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).
There are challenges ahead and in the imminent future of The UMC. We’ll be having more conversation about that as a congregation, but if you have any questions about this or want to talk about your own hopes or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me by phone or email.
General Conference 2020
Petitions 20 and 21 turned our attention toward General Conference 2020, which will take place May 5-15 in Minneapolis, MN. Each of these petitions will go to General Conference with the endorsement of our Annual Conference.
Part of our work this year was electing delegates—and equal number of clergy and lay members—from our AC to represent us both at General Conference (GC) and Jurisdictional Conference (JC). Here is a complete list of delegateswho were elected.
GC is the only body that can speak for the United Methodist Church. We don’t just have 1 person, like a pope; we have around 800! In 2020, GC will most certainly take up a number of pieces of legislation that will deal with a future for the UMC given our reality of diversity and disagreement.
We belong to the Southeast Jurisdiction. The meeting of that JC is most especially responsible for the nomination, election, and appointment of bishops. If GC votes to change to Jurisdictional powers and privileges, some of their work might change as well. This Sunday, 6/30, one of our ACs delegates to JC, Rev. Julia Trantham Heckert, will be our guest preacher!
Please be in prayer for these delegates and the important work they have been elected to do.
If you made it all the way here, bless you! That’s a lot of information to handle and process. Maybe it’s kind of like drinking from a fire hydrant. Here’s what I hope you take away though in the end: God has given us important ministry to do—around the world and in our backyards—and God’s Spirit will guide and empower us to do it. We’ll keep talking, while we keep walking…walking in the light of Christ.