Hear the call


Annual Conference
alters order for ministry;
OKs direct billing

 By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

Changes to the structure of the Mississippi Annual Conference and how it funds ministry will take effect right away.

Members of the Annual Conference voted to change the organization its ministry. In addition the members approved a financial plan that supporters say will make more money available for ministry. Beginning in 2009, the conference will use a four-phase plan to remove clergy pensions and insurance payments from apportionments and directly bill churches for those costs. Some churches will see a significant reduction of apportionments, while others will see an increase.

Some 2,000 clergy and lay members of the conference gathered June 8-10 at Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson. The theme for this year’s conference was “Arise! Shine! Magnify!” based on 2nd Corinthians 4:6-8. Tentative dates for the 2009 conference are June 12-14 at Christ UMC.

The Rev. Steve Casteel said the change in structure will begin during the summer, while the financial changes will take effect in January and are reflected in the nearly $20 million budget approved at the conference.

 “There was a lot of discussion and energy around (direct billing) and now we have the challenge of living into this phase,” Casteel said. “Hopefully we will be able to provide information, leadership and training to help local churches interpret and live into this. Our conference Council on Finance and Administration has already begun work on this.”

The direct-bill issue was easily the most debated issue at the conference. Some saw the issue as pitting small membership churches against larger churches, despite the Council on Finance and Administration’s insistence that the plan is about fairness. While the debate was cordial, the passion of those on each side of the issue was clear.

The Rev. Warren Black of Oxford-University United Methodist Church pointed out that church’s apportionments have gone up $70,000 recently and could go up another $50,000.

"It is possible to kill the golden goose,” said Black, who grew up in small-membership churches served by his father. “It’s impossible to sustain those kinds of increases.”

The Rev. Mike Childs of Louisville First UMC contends that the plan doesn’t save any money and that small-membership churches can’t afford the added costs. “If small churches are struggling to pay their apportionments, how are they going to pay pension and insurance?

“Churches are going to pay the pensions and insurance first and not pay their full apportionments. That means we will lose money to do ministry,” Childs said.

The Rev. Bryan Collier of The Orchard in Tupelo said his church has fit in every category from small to large. He said at times his church has had to delay some good ministry plans because of funding.

“Unfortunately, some small churches might have to have a discussion about whether it can have a full-time pastor if it can’t pay the pensions and insurance,” he said. “This is a reasonable solution, but not a fun one.”

Others saw things differently. “Shifting costs and dividing our church between small and large is not a reasonable solution,” said the Rev. Dwain Whitehurst of the Carolina-Pisgah Charge in the New Albany District.

The measure was approved 578-499.

“If we do what the Bible says, there will be no problem raising money,” said outgoing CF&A Chair Delmar Robinson following the vote.

Self nominations
One of the first steps in the new order will be seeking those who are called to serve in a particular area.
“The change in order will begin this summer with a re-opening of self nomination through the (conference) web site and snail mail,” said the Rev. Steve Casteel, director of connectional ministries. “In July we will invite people to share their calls around the five core values. At the same time we will gather our conveners and begin to train for and continue to design this process with their leadership.
“We will build the calendar for this process and then help communicate this information to the local church so we can effectively resource them. There is a lot involved here, but the genius of this is that it will involve a much larger number of people. We invite everyone to be in prayer as we launch this wonderful adventure.”
The change in ministry structure seeks to build on the denomination’s mission.
“As we move to focus on our mission of ‘making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,’ we are going to organize around and resource this vision,” Casteel said. “We will concentrate on the five core value tables in our ministry. Opening the process and moving to an ‘open space,’ call process will bring us so many opportunities we never expected. I have had so many people come up and say, ‘I have always wanted to…’
“What will it look like? We will discover it together. That doesn’t mean we will be disorganized. There will be process and accountability. I cannot wait to live into this.”
The key change will be in how the leadership of the conference works. A group of 25 people will be primarily responsible for keeping the denomination’s mission before the annual conference. That mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Coupled with the Connectional Leadership Team, as the 25-member group would be called, are five “tables” — spiritual leadership, reconciliation, mission, stewardship and young people. Each table’s purpose will be to gather people who have a passion for those areas of ministry. The Connectional Leadership Team will be convened by new conference Lay Leader Tim Crisler, while each table would also have a convener.
Casteel said committees required by the Book of Discipline will still stand, but committees won’t be seated for the sake of having a committee.
Budget approved
The 2009 budget was set at $19,980,251. With the approval of direct billing, the budget is a decrease of $684,321 from 2008.
To help raise those funds, the Council on Finance and Administration distributed Connectional Giving Toolkits that contain resources to help explain where contributions go, both at the conference and general church levels.
In addition, CF&A announced a plan for specialty license plates. Those who wish my purchase a tag for $31 for their vehicle showing support for the Mississippi Conference. Of the $31 fee, $24 will be returned to the conference. CF&A has chosen the 10 conference-related community centers to receive the funds, but will review recipients each year. A minimum 300 tags must be ordered and paid for before they will be sent out.
Meanwhile, a total of $106,166 was collected for missions. Those funds will go to support the Global AIDS Fund of the denomination. Another $7,288 was collected on June 8 for the Ministerial Education Fund.
Speakers stand out
While direct billing and structure highlighted plenary sessions, the guest speakers also created a buzz. Bishop William Hutchinson of the Louisiana Conference drew praise for his morning worship services on Monday and Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a college professor and a seminary student, ironically from the same institution, had folks talking, thinking and praising God.
On Monday morning, the Rev. Dr. Lovett Weems (left) advised the Mississippi Conference to seek new ways to include young people in the church. That night, Theon Johnson III of Canton and other young people showed how that challenge might be met.
Many in the church talk about being more inviting to young people and diverse people, but their actions often say the opposite, said Weems, a Mississippi native who now serves as distinguished professor of church leadership and executive director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. Last fall he penned the “10 Provocative Questions” in a report for the Council of Bishops. His talk at Annual Conference centered on the eighth question: Can the church change to reach more people, younger people and more diverse people?
 “Our rhetoric goes on about wanting more, younger people, but our actions don’t match that. Research shows that laity wants more young people, but they aren’t willing to change their worship or budgets,” Weems said to applause of the full sanctuary.
Weems said part of the problem is attracting younger members is a reluctance for churches to change internally as they reach out. He said churches need to change inside an amount equal to the effort placed on attracting new members.
Churches that aren’t growing, Weems said, often make the argument that it shouldn’t be just about numbers. He said the opposite is true. He said numbers do matter because those who benefit most are those within the “numbers.” As an example, he used the Bible story of the lost sheep. While 99 sheep waited, the shepherd went looking for the one lost sheep. That sheep benefitted from the shepherd needing one more sheep.
Another concern, Weems said, is the growing racial diversity in the U.S. population. The percentage of racially ethnic groups in the U.S. population is growing, yet “no mainline denomination has demonstrated it can reach any group of people at the same rate as white people.” While United Methodists have done well in become more diverse in some areas, Weems said professions of faith from African-Americans lags well behind.
Another area of diversity pertains to marital status. He said many churches don’t recognize that married couples are now in the minority in the U.S. while the number of single parents, singles or couples without children is growing.
Weems said one of the keys to growing churches is to connect with the community. “I encourage you to go back to your communities and get in touch with the community,” he said. “The longer a church is in existence, the more it loses touch with the community. Go back and fall in love with your community again.
“Vital churches connect people with God by connecting with the community. It’s not easy, but it is possible with the power of God,” he said.
Chester Clark of Mount Hermon United Methodist Church in Ackerman praised Weems. He agreed that older members tend to get set in their ways and are reluctant to change. “I suggest that the older generation take in the younger generation and train them. Then as they move on, the younger people can take their place,” he said.
Hillary Glover, 15, of lay member of the conference from Wheeler UMC, said even young people get hard-headed sometimes about having their way. “He had a lot of wise words about how people aren’t willing to change their services,” she said.
That night, Johnson (right), who just completed his first year at Wesley Theological Seminary, compared the passing of the Olympic torch from country to county to how God has called his people to be the light of the world. However, at the end of the Olympics, the torch is extinguished.
“The torchbearers go home; the light does not shine again for that particular set of games for four years. Is this the light we carry into the world? I say no,” Johnson said.
He then traced the passing of the light from the beginning when God said let there be light through Old Testament times to the birth, ministry, death and resurrections of Jesus. He traced it through the disciples to today’s Christians.
“The light passes to those who love God and strive to live according to its mandates,” he said. “Creation still groans for the fulfillment and the Spirit of God is still calling people to work for the fulfillment of creation.
“We are witnesses to the workings of the Holy Spirit and disciples of Jesus Christ. Thus, we are called to carry God’s light into the world.
The service also included praise band music, an a’cappella choir and a dramatic presentation, all of which drew standing ovations.
Ordination and retirement
The conference opened Sunday with the ordination service.
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward welcomed 21 new clergy to the point where darkness meets light on the opening night of the 20th session of the Mississippi Annual Conference.
“God has drawn a circle in the water at the boundary between darkness and light,” Ward said. “Our call is to live in that place. Tonight you come to live deeper in that place where people hold hell and hope in the palm of their hands,” said Ward.
While the boundary between light and dark can be a treacherous place, it’s also the place where God tends to work, Ward said. “The edge is an exciting place to be.”
New elder in full connection the Rev. Ever Jean Burt of Greenwood Wesley UMC said the service was a time for her to praise God for reaching the goal she had sought for five or six years. “I now have a greater desire to do my share of the world’s ministry,” she said.
Burt said Ward’s discussion of the space between light and dark meant a lot to her. “Hatred and love go hand-in-hand. It’s been that way since the fall of man,” she said.
“Ministry can be a very frightening call, can be a somewhat dangerous call, but it is a rewarding call,” Burt said.
The Rev. Ben Barlow said he knew well the space between hell and hope. “Nine months after I got out of seminary, I went to Long Beach (First UMC) and went through (Hurricane Katrina). The words she spoke were real to me.”
Barlow said the whole service was special. “I realized it was a celebration of an affirmation of the whole church putting a stamp on what God has called me to do.”
On June 9, the conference celebrated the ministry of 23 retiring clergy and their spouses.