'Great' spirit covers conference


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

Members of the Mississippi Annual Conference affirmed their belief in living in God’s light – and did it in record time.

The 18th session of the Mississippi Annual Conference was held June 11-14 at Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson. The event featured three-plus days of celebrating ministry, conducting business and worship. The conference finished at noon on June 14, some three hours earlier than planned.

“The spirit was great,” said Bishop Hope Morgan Ward after presiding over her second annual conference. “Methodist conferences historically were about polity, community and revival. We made decisions, but more and more it became less about what we decide than about living in the light.”

Most of those attending the conference would attribute that attitude to Ward.

“She practices what she teaches me about being a non-anxious presence,” said the Rev. Vicki Sizemore Tandy, superintendent of the Senatobia District. “That’s why things were so smooth – she is a non-anxious presence.”

Tandy also attributed the cordial conference to Ward’s communication skills. “I appreciate the open communication. That’s why we don’t have the questions and confrontations.”

Lay member Charles Thomas of Mount Herman UMC near Ackerman said Ward’s inclusiveness also contributed to a smooth gathering. “Bishop Ward has pulled the races together,” Thomas said.

The Rev. John Moore, director of Connectional Ministries, attributed the spirit of the conference and the early finish to preparation.

“We streamlined the agenda where instead of having a lot of short reports, we made sure the five initiatives got center stage,” said Moore. “The conference needed to hear where we are.”

At the 2005 Annual Conference five initiatives for ministry were adopted – mission, racial reconciliation, health and wellness, congregational development and small membership church development.

One topic that has generated much discussion over the past several conferences has been the conference insurance program. Moore credited conference Treasurer David Stotts and the Board of Medical Benefits with providing detailed information to program participants before conference, reducing the amount of time spent debating the plan.

In addition to emphasis placed on the initiatives, members heard quite a bit about Hurricane Katrina and recovery efforts. The Aug. 29 storm has had a major impact on the conference. More than 200 people in Mississippi died in the storm, many churches were damaged and thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed.

The conference heard from Ed Blakeslee of Gulfport, coordinator of the United Methodist Hurricane Katrina Recovery team. He also led a workshop on recovery efforts.

Blakeslee continued to emphasize the connectional system as vital to recovery efforts. He said he hoped those present understood that “we still need prayers and we still need help.”

“I have much appreciation for what’s been done already,” said Blakeslee, a member of Trinity UMC in Gulfport. “Whatever we get done is because of (working with) the local church, the bishop, the Cabinet and the volunteers.”

Blakeslee said his big concern is that the flow of volunteers will dwindle. “I’m concerned about what might happen after the summer. I’m concerned whether volunteers will continue to come if we have a storm somewhere else.”

Chris Cumbest, in charge of church recovery for the conference, shared how as the churches work to recover, they are discovering strangers at their doors. Cumbest said the strangers are folks who had never visited those churches before, but have come seeking physical and spiritual help.

He also shared the story of Clermont Harbor UMC, which was left with only its front steps after Katrina roared through. A group from North Carolina formed a bond with Clermont Harbor members after getting lost on the coast and winding up at the church near Waveland. On June 10, the group from North Carolina began a project to rebuild the church in seven days. Crews worked through the night with a goal of having worship in the church on Father’s Day, June 18.

Also speaking was the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s Rev. Tom Hazelwood, who has been the main UMCOR contact since the storm hit Aug. 29.

“It is amazing the work that has taken place in your churches,” said Hazelwood. “I am continually amazed at the work done in the communities and by your pastors. I rejoice, and I know that all of heaven rejoices with you.”

Despite its many years of disaster experience, UMCOR learns from each storm, Hazelwood said. “We learned many things from this one,” he said.

Worship services

Worship at the conference was led by Marcia McFee of Truckee, Calif. Featured speakers included Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa of Zimbabwe, Bishop Tom Bickerton of Western Pennsylvania and state Superintendent of Education Dr. Hank Bounds.

The opening worship service on June 11 was highlighted by the formal signing of the “Chabadza Covenant” by Ward and Nhiwatiwa. The pact formalizes an on-going effort to build a ministry relationship between the conferences in Zimbabwe and Mississippi.

“Chabadza” is a Shona word meaning to join someone already at work. The offering taken at the service will support United Methodist work in Zimbabwe, including Africa University.

Using Luke 21 as his sermon text, Nhiwatiwa called for the preaching of Jesus Christ. Anything that doesn’t carry that message is just niceties, he said.

Luke 21 tells of how Jesus would teach during the day but go to a different place to pray in the evening. Nhiwatiwa encouraged the gathering of some 2,000 clergy and lay members and guests to find their own places for prayer.

“The Christian faith needs time for each other,” Nhiwatiwa said. “How on earth can we show the gospel if we’re just running up and down? We need to have time for each other. How can we share Jesus Christ if we don’t have time?”

That, he said, is the greatest need of the 21st century. “The 21st century needs to hear Jesus Christ preached,” he said.

Chabadza, he added, is part of the gospel. “Chabadza can take place anywhere,” he said. “There needs to be a place where people meet. As we meet, we encourage each other.”

On June 12, the traditional Memorial Service honoring clergy and family members who have died in the past year was held. That night, Bounds spoke during a service focused on Congregations for Children. Bounds, a member of the host church, called on Mississippians to respond to the needs of children with the same urgency shown following Katrina.

“Imagine what would happen if all the churches in this state said they’re going to move with the same sense of urgency to save kids,” Bounds said. “My prayer is that something big will start here, and we will all move with a sense of urgency.”

Bishop Ward echoed Bounds’ call, urging each of the state’s 1,147 UM churches to save one child – or two. “Wouldn’t it be great if when people see United Methodists they say, ‘those are people who care about children,’” she said.

During 2006, the United Methodist Church is celebrating the 50th anniversary of granting full clergy rights for women. The Mississippi Conference held a special worship service on June 13. All clergywomen were invited to sit together for the service featuring a sketch portraying the Samaritan woman at the well and several clergywomen sharing the words and concerns of their foremothers.

Among those participating in the service was the Rev. Ruth Wood, who in 1959 became the first Methodist clergywoman in Mississippi.

The Rev. Emma L. McNair, a chaplain, said the service strengthened the sisterhood of clergywomen. “This is the body,” she said. “We are affirmed as being part of the body (of Christ).”

McNair said she believes the service could also encourage young women to enter the ministry. “This could help them free themselves and affirm their calling as we did. We didn’t have the support, but they have a group of women to mentor them.”

That night in the Service of Ordination, Ward called on the conference’s newest deacons and elders to be people of the heart.

“You don’t come down this aisle without being something of a heart dweller,” Ward said.

Using the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus as her text, Ward talked about how God’s actions are a mystery much like the wind. “We feel it wash over us and we hear it, but we can’t know from where it came,” she said.

The call to ministry is similar. Answering God’s call to ministry is not a decision made with the head but with the heart, Ward said.

“We stand windswept by this mystery of God. It moves us along and it surprises us,” she said. “How glad we are that God has swept over your lives.”


Among business items approved at the conference was an $18.6 million budget, the same total adopted in 2005. The Council on Finance and Administration recommended the zero-growth budget following Katrina.

The conference medical benefits package was approved with minimal discussion. Changes allow for the creation of a plan with a medical savings account and high-deductible. Optional vision and dental plans were approved. In addition, projected rates as of May 31 were presented with the option to adjust rates Oct. 1 if medical costs or utilization of the plan warrants a reduction. New rates will go into effect Jan. 1.

One resolution prompted a lengthy discussion. The original measure called for no future events promoting homosexuality to be held at Lake Junaluska Assembly. The measure came in response to a Labor Day seminar at Lake Junaluska sponsored by Reconciling Ministries Network.

The conference Resolutions Committee recommended concurrence with an amended version of the resolution. However, members became confused over the recommended new wording of the resolution, and it was tabled overnight so printed copies could be distributed.

The next day, the amended resolution was presented. The measure was amended back to the original wording, with the addition of one paragraph, and approved.

Resolutions adopted with little or no discussion included:

  • A resolution urging daily prayer for the United Methodist Church in Mississippi.
  • A measure calling for naming the Mississippi Conference endowed scholarship at Africa University “The Henry C. Clay-Merlin D. Conoway-Wendell Taylor Scholarship.”
  • A resolution to transfer the property of the former East End UMC in Biloxi to Seashore Mission UMC. East End was closed in 1990 and the property was conveyed to the Seashore District Board of Missions. However, the deed of conveyance was never recorded. Seashore Mission was destroyed by Katrina in August. The transfer would provide Seashore Mission UMC with property to continue its ministry.
  • A resolution calling for Gov. Haley Barbour to issue an apology and a pardon for Clyde Kennard, who attempted to become the first African-American student at the University of Southern Mississippi. Before he could enroll, Kennard was convicted of robbery. He died of cancer after serving time in prison. However, recently the key witness against Kennard admitted that he lied under pressure from state officials. Over the past several months, many people in the state have called for Kennard to be pardoned.
  • A call to observe Pastoral Care Week the last full week of October each year. The week would honor those who serve in chaplain ministry.
  • A resolution calling on the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits to revoke a 2003 action that affected the pensions of clergy in a certain group. The petitioners contend the plan reduces their pension benefits and called for the Board of Pensions to restore those lost earnings.
  • A resolution calling for the conference to adopt policies and procedures to protect children, youth and vulnerable adults from abuse and staff from unwarranted allegations of abuse.
  • A resolution on communication by e-mail and fax was referred to the conference Communications Commission.

Other Events

Two new events were part of the Annual Conference this year. On June 10, the first Circuit Ride was held along the Natchez Trace. About 25 people took part in the bike ride along the route that was once used by Methodist circuit riders.

Conference youth ministry was the focus of the first Celebration of Youth Ministry banquet held June 12 at Madison UMC. Nhiwatiwa was the guest speaker.

Workshops pertaining to a variety of ministries were held the morning of June 13. The workshops included:

  • The Rhythms of Liturgy and Life: Worship Dynamics and Spiritual Formation led by McFee.
  • The Leading Cause of Life led by Gary Gunderson, senior vice president for Health and Welfare Ministries at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis and director or the Interfaith Health Program, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University.
  • Society of St. Andrew: Next Steps led by Bob Fritchey, director of the Mississippi Gleaning Network and regional office of the Society of St. Andrew.
  • Spiritual Leadership led by Bickerton.
  • Katrina Recovery led by Blakeslee.
  • A Journey to Health led by Elaine Dye of the conference Health and Wellness Initiative.
  • Zimbabwe Partnership led by Nhiwatiwa.
  • Sharehouse led by Ray Buchanan, president of Stop Hunger Now, an international relief organization based in Raleigh, N.C.
  • Local Churches as Light Partner led by Heather Hensarling of the conference Commission on Religion and Race.

Faye Barham of Flowood attended the Sharehouse workshop and came away impressed. “I was very interested in our responding to the needs of our brothers and sisters around the world,” she said. “We might think we don’t have much in Mississippi, but we don’t know what hunger is in comparison to starving children.”

Barham said she learned how easy it is to provide food for the hungry. Buchanan showed those who attended how to put together a fortified rice-soy meal that can provide six servings at a cost of $1.20.

Tracy Peters of Foxworth attended the Zimbabwe workshop because she said she wants her church’s youth group to find ways to help others. She said she was impressed by the large number of United Methodists in Zimbabwe.