Inspired pastor issues
challenge after Conference
By Woody Woodrick
You have been to Annual Conference and felt God moving you to do something.
What do you do? How to do you do it?
The Rev. Rick Wells of the Hopewell-Indian Springs Charge in the New Albany District found a way to turn the inspiration he received at the 2009 session of the Mississippi Annual Conference into action.
“Bishop (Hope Morgan Ward) has raised our awareness of the many doors that need to be knocked on,” Wells wrote in a letter to district clergy made available to the Advocate. “At first, 10,000 doors seems so large a number — until you do the math. If each church in the conference would seriously, and with the intent of winning souls for the Master, knock on just nine doors we would reach our goal. Nine doors; even the smallest of the small churches can do that. Guess what? We can do that every single week.”
The theme of the 2009 Annual Conference — Shining Light, Open Doors — coincides with the change in the “Open hearts” advertising and welcoming ministry recently launched by United Methodist Communications called Rethink Church. It stems from one key question – What if we Rethink Church? It continues the “Open hearts, Open doors, Open minds” message that to engage in ministry with people who currently have few (or no) connections to the church requires a new way of doing and being the church.
As part of the theme, churches were asked to decorate doors to demonstrate their church identity or key missions. More than 200 doors ringed the Jackson Convention Complex, where the conference was held June 12-14.
“The churches were wonderfully inventive – doors of all sizes and types decorated with color and creativity,” Ward said. “We all went around and round, up and down, receiving the message on the doors. It was rich and colorful and wonderful. Together we heard the call of God to knock and to open, to welcome Christ and others in, to go forth in confidence and love.”
Most of those attending Annual Conference left with good impressions considering the 2009 session incorporated some changes. The venue was moved from Jackson Christ United Methodist Church to the downtown Convention Complex, and the conference was held over a weekend for the first time.
“Overall, I was very impressed with this year’s annual conference,” said Amy Higginbotham of Fannin UMC. “I really like the Convention Complex because it is so spacious and there was plenty of room for the large group sessions as well as small group workshops or meetings and the various information booths. Parking was not bad at all either, and all of the Convention Complex staff that I met were very friendly and helpful.”
“The conference was outstanding in my opinion. This was my first time, and I learned much about the Methodist Conference and was most impressed by what I saw and experienced,” said Melba Watkins of Wesleyanna UMC in Star. “The conference center is really an ideal place to hold such meetings. The space is more than adequate and the luncheon at which I was a guest showcased the convention staff’s ability to prepare and serve a lovely meal that even children would find enjoyable. I know that because I had a 5-year old dine next to me, and he was quite happy with the menu choice.”
Others weren’t quite as enthusiastic.
“I had a mixed impression of the conference complex. I was disappointed in the price, the variety and the quantity (ran out) of food at the conference center. I was also disappointed in the parking. The overall atmosphere and space was nice,” said Veronica Pritchard.
Frances Gail Jones of Meridian said she simply prefers meeting in a church. “The overall Annual Conference was great. I feel Annual Conference should be held at a church. But, I also know that our annual conference has to be held in a place to include everyone,” she said.
Another new aspect of Annual Conference was the closing service, Ordering of Ministry. It was designed to honor all in ministry, clergy and laity. All clergy were asked to wear robes and process in together. In addition, the service included recognition of those licensed to preach, those being commissioned and the ordination service.
Ward praised the gathering, highlighted by Sunday’s Ordering of Ministry service. “I was humbled and deeply moved in the Ordering of Ministry Service: The host of vested clergy, the large number of laity and prayers for those licensed, welcomed, commissioned and ordained. It was a powerful sending forth,” she said.
“Many gave of themselves to create a wonderful conference. The agenda was full but there was space for consideration of important matters. We welcomed one another, gave one another space for witness, listened to one another, honored one another. “
Prior to Annual Conference, leaders offered ideas on how churches might make June 14 a special Sunday while their pastors were at the gathering. Many relied on lay speakers, and few expressed concern over meeting during the weekend.
Although he disliked having to meet on Sunday, the Rev. Brian Scott also praised the work of his laity.
“I hated having Conference on Sunday morning. I felt ashamed as I rode on the elevator with a family headed for Sunday worship as I, a pastor, headed to a brief worship service encompassed by business sessions,” he said.
“I left my lay people in charge of the service that I was required to miss on account of Annual Conference. As I listened to the service Tuesday morning (June 16), I nearly burst with pride. It seems I have worked myself out of a job. They did a wonderful job in my absence and the lay person, Beth, who preached is a far better preacher than I will ever be.”
Meanwhile, the conference handled the usual business items and held worship. Among business was voting on 32 proposed amendments to the constitution of the United Methodist Church, voting on a direct-bill plan for clergy insurance benefits and pension payments and approval of the 2010 budget.
Of the 32 proposed amendments, only five got positive votes from the Mississippi Conference. The majority of the proposed amendments, which passed the 2008 General Conference, dealt with changing the structure of the denomination to create regional conferences that would vote on matters particular to those regions. All of the amendments related to that issue received mostly “no” votes from the Mississippi Conference.
Vote totals on each amendment will be added to those of the other 135 conferences worldwide to determine the outcome. Proposed changes must receive “yes” votes from two-third of all voters to be ratified.
The most debated issue of the Annual Conference was the proposed plan from the conference Board of Pensions and the Commission on Finance and Administration to move forward to full direct-billing for clergy insurance and pensions.
The 2008 Annual Conference approved a plan to begin directly billing churches for full-time pastors’ insurance premiums. The action removed those funds from the conference apportioned budget. The plan called for a graduated move toward direct billing. However, the report presented to Annual Conference called for moving to the full plan.
Many contend that small churches can’t pay the costs.
“As a pastor who has endured much to promote renewal of small membership churches and unity, I feel hope and trust have been dashed against the wall,” Whitehurst said. “The encouragement of the conference staff for direct billing shows the true purpose and attitude of leadership toward the 60 percent of our churches who are rural and small membership."
Conference Treasurer David Stotts acknowledged the concern some have of the direct-bill plan.
“There is definitely some concern on the part of the churches,” Stotts said. “The conference Board of Pensions will have to monitor collections very closely and work with the local churches to see that the funds come in. I believe the Cabinet will also be working very closely with the Board of Pensions on that.
“I believe that the current payment of the bill for clergy comprehensive protection plan will continue to out-perform the payment of apportionments. Pastors are loved, appreciated and supported by the church they serve. I believe the lay people of the local churches will continue to see that the salary and benefits of their pastor is paid.”
Stotts projects that direct-bill payments will outperform apportionments by 2 percent. “Given the history of the apportionments in the past four years, pension apportionments at year end will be at about 96 percent and the direct bill is currently being paid at 98 percent,” he said. “Of course the 96 percent and the 98 percent must move to 100 percent as I want the checks that I write and sign to be good."
Others point out that funds must either be paid by direct bill or as part of apportionments. Even though the churches paid 83 percent of apportioned funds in 2008, insurance and pensions must be paid in full. Supporters of direct bill say this reduces the amount of funds available for mission. They also contend that putting on others the burden of paying insurance and pensions is unfair.
Three attempts to amend the CF&A report to not move to Phase 3 failed on narrow votes, and the report was eventually adopted.
The conference adopted an apportioned budget of $15,669,109 for 2010 and a direct-bill amount of $5,002,884 for a total funding plan of $20,671,993. That total is down from the $20,880,251 funding plan for 2009.
“Of course the economic conditions will affect the conference budget,” Stotts said. “I believe that the local churches will have to discern the ministry they believe that God is calling their church. I trust they will then look at the conference ministry and find the similarities. Once they have done this, they will need to pay those apportioned items so that the local church can be a part of doing ministry in a way much larger than themselves with the other churches of Mississippi — truly what the connection is about.”
Stotts pointed out that some items in the budget must be paid 100 percent.
“While the dollars that come in to a ministry and goes out to a ministry are about 70 percent of the 2010 budget, the remaining 30 percent will have to be fully paid,” he said. “Those funds going out are for the Wesley Foundation salaries and program funds, new church and revitalization grants, ministerial education, district superintendent and conference staff salaries, insurance and the similar kind of costs.
“The 2010 budget was cut to exactly what CFA expects the spending to be. If these funds come in at less than 100 percent, we will be spending reserves. The salary funds for the conference staff were cut 25 percent. We will see reorganization of the staff and streamlining of what the smaller staff will physically be able to do.”
In addition to the Ordering of Ministry service held June 14, worship included a mission service held June 12 and a youth-led service on June 13.
From the spirited processional down the center aisle of the worship space and a spirited opening concert by the Hope for Africa Children’s Choir, to the congregation joining gospel singer Brian Courtney Wilson in singing Alelu!...You’re Already Here! at the end, the Friday evening worship service was a Spirit-filled celebration of the healing touch of God on the lives of people and on the church.
Preaching on the text John 5:1-9, the Rev. Rudy Rasmus of Houston, Texas, kept reminding the congregation that Jesus asked the man waiting beside the pool to enter the waters and be healed, “Do you really want to be healed ... what are you waiting for?”
Rasmus said that there is a difference between waiting for something to happen and being “stuck.” Waiting is a decision, but inability to act is being stuck. “Sometimes,” Rasmus added, “we are stuck into inactivity by our fears, or our prejudices or by what others say about us. And even churches can be stuck by those same attitudes.”
In the biblical story, the man beside the pool answered Jesus’ question by saying that he was waiting for someone to put him in the healing waters. He was waiting, according to Rudy, for opportunity to knock. “But opportunity does not knock - you have to knock ‘hell’ out of opportunity, or you’re gonna stay stuck!”
“The sick man didn’t realize that he didn’t need the pool,” according to Rasmus. “All he needed was already present … .Jesus!” Jesus healed him when he touched his life.
“Do you really want to be healed (church)? All you really need is already present, Jesus. What are you waiting for?”
That message that the loving touch of Jesus through believers and the church is healing was testified to by witnesses presented to the congregation by worship leader the Rev. Keith Tonkel. Jennifer Parker told how her life is good through discovering in a series of foster families and a local church how God can heal “through people who open their hearts.” Carol and Ray McNulty, a biracial couple, and partners Renee Sappington and Connie Campbell, all testified to the healing which comes through churches which open doors by following the example of Jesus, and surround persons with love.
Sappington and Campbell’s participation in the service has sparked some controversy. The Book of Discipline states that the United Methodist Church believes that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
“I think the incident on Friday night’s worship service set the divisive nature of the conference,” said the Rev. Barry Robinson of Adaton UMC. “Many of us felt it was a slap in the face to those who hold to more traditional beliefs. It set the tone for me that some in the planning and leadership cared more about an agenda than worship or unity.”
The Rev. Dwain Whitehurst of Carolina-Pisgah in the New Albany District also took exception to the speakers.
“The ‘presentation’ on Friday night showed what the true purpose of the Open Door theme was,” he said. “Our membership feels betrayed and deceived by our leadership which says one thing and does another. As a pastor, I must face the brunt of their mistrust. I have to face the people and the community who will say that we promote same sex marriage and the sinful life style of homosexuality.”
However, Angie McLeod, a member of Parkway Hills UMC, praised the courage of the women.
“I did not attend the Friday night worship service but viewed it online. Let me confess up front that I am blessed to attend church and Sunday school with the two women who so bravely shared their story during the service on Friday night, and I consider them to be dear friends,” she said. “The issue of homosexuality and the church has for too long been a one-sided debate that has largely ignored the teachings of Christ. I am guilty of letting others control the conversation without trying to make my own voice heard. But no more. The lives and testimonies of these two women convict me to speak out.
“I learned in church as a young child that scripture says ‘whosoever believeth shall have eternal life.’ Who so ever. I also learned in church as a young child that the church was God’s house. I still believe today that God’s love is for everyone and that God’s door is always open – to everyone. After all, I learned that in church.
“On the question of two gay people speaking as part of a worship service at Annual Conference on their experience as gay people in the church, I say, ‘It’s about time!’”
High energy and an outpouring of love through gifts in a mission offering highlighted the June 13 service, led by youth. Dance Revolution, an all student dance troupe from Delta State University, filled the stage to open worship with dancing and singing. The Junior High Praise Band from Christ United Methodist Church provided musical leadership throughout worship.
Utilizing several biblical texts, Chris Lahr, director of Atlanta-based Mission Year, focused on the need that all have to be in relationship with one another. Living in a community focused on relational living, Lahr and his family focus their time and efforts in relational care and ministry with the homeless in the inner city. His experiences in Calcutta, India; Philadelphia, Pa.; Wilmore, Ky., and Atlanta have taught him much about living as a community.
Preaching on the story of the rich man and Lazarus, he emphasized that it is not enough to give our stuff to a neighbor. Christians must constantly seek to be in relationship and get to know their neighbor.
In speaking about his experiences and ministry with the homeless in the inner city, Lahr reminded all that “God provides for us. It is amazing to see the work of God. We all have something to give. We all have ourselves to give. We have the presence and reality of God to give.”
The Rev. Rayford Woodrick and the Rev. Michelle Foster contributed to this report.
2009 Annual Conference Offerings
Ministerial Education $6,672
Hope for Africa Children’s Choir $3,258
Nothing But Nets $8,130
Totals are as of June 29