2015 Annual Conference Summary


By Jackie Campbell

About 1500 United Methodist clergy and elected lay members gathered at Grove City College June 11-14 for the 2015 Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference session, which was focused on the theme Reaching Higher, both spiritually and as church leaders.

From Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton’s opening worship message emphasizing the need to lead from within, through celebrations of the ministry of 21 clergy who retired, to the commissioning of four younger clergy as provisional members and the ordination of four new elders, the emphasis was on excellence in leadership.

Four new elders were received into membership and ordained at a service of Reafffirmation of Baptism, Ordination, and Holy Communion. They are:  Alison M. Berkey, Gary L. Hilton, Anthony R.C. Hita, and Scott Shaffer. Recognized as an Associate Member was Wade S. Barto.

At the ordination service, Bishop Bickerton read some directions and advice for preachers from the 1840 Book of Discipline. While many would say conditions were different or difficult from today, the Bishop said, “This is not a whole new ballgame.  It’s the world’s latest version of the same story.  Life is hard.  Ministry is challenging.  Disciple-making is confusing and, for some, irrelevant and unbelievable.

“This business of transforming the world takes leaders that are not just leading from within but determined and focused on leading into the world with purpose,”  he said, offering three simple rules for today’s preachers:

  1. Care for others deeply. 
    "Your reality is a gospel  that is filled with tenderness, compassion, empathy and love even for those with whom you do not agree and, on significant occasions, do not like. And, as a result, you will be dancing on hot sand because you care and it pierces you and, at times, it hurts,” Bishop Bickerton said. “One of your greatest temptations will be to grow callous and hard and build up defenses that lessen the degree to which you love.  Care for others deeply!
  2. Be converted as often as you convert. 
    "There are colleagues and friends around you today who will testify to you that this is nothing short of an endurance test.  To get to the end of the road and still have faith in the midst of constant pressure and temptation to do otherwise is nothing short of a miracle. ..Miracles happen today.”
  3. Imitate Christ 
    "Strive for pure thoughts, kind words, controlled tempers.  Seek that which is good, pure, honest and true, and when you fail, seek forgiveness from the very one who offered you those gifts to begin with.  Imitate Christ.”

Four new provisional members –Jack L. Tickle III, Benjamin Phipps, John D. Mize, and Andrew Bell Jr.  were commissioned.  Bishop Jonathon Holston of South Carolina preached at the service, delivering a message based on Romans 12:9-21. Asking What’s Love Got to Do With It? he said, “We can become so heavenly bound that we are no earthly good. ” He reminded listeners that “love is more powerful than hate,” adding, “love has everything to do with it!”

Imagine No Malaria

At the opening worship Thursday afternoon, Conference members brought forward $91,059.53 in offerings from individuals and churches for the Imagine No Malaria (INM) campaign to end deaths from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.  Bishop Bickerton leads the denomination’s Imagine No Malaria effort, which has reached 88 percent of its $75 million fundraising goal. 

Mike McCurry, a faculty member at Wesley Theological Seminary and former Presidential press secretary who serves on the INM executive team, came to the service from Washington, D.C. He recognized the Bishop for his leadership and thanked the Conference for taking the lead in INM when it began and not only pledging $1.8 million, but raising $2.1 million for the effort. McCurry presented Bishop Bickerton with a plaque and a photo book illustrating the people affected and progress made against malaria.

State of the Church Report

In his State of the Church address, Bishop Bickerton outlined what he described as hills and valleys Western Pennsylvania United Methodist churches and people have been through over the past few years.
Assisted by the Rev. Greg Cox, director of connectional ministries, he highlighted the work of the Cabinet and Conference staff in evaluating the current situation using a book by Bishop Robert Schnase, then developing some short-term goals and creating a list to “Key Performance Indicators” or KPI’s to hold themselves accountable and make an impact on ministry with the Conference.
Among the examples:  
  • A robust plan for New Church Starts.  “Amy Wagner and our Parish & Community Development Committee is doing great work in our midst to lay a solid foundation for this transformation,” the Bishop said.
  • Making Clergy Peer Learning and Excellence in Ministry a priority.  Susan Moudry has joined the staff to develop opportunities for learning, engagement, and leadership development among those in ministry.
  • Congregational Intervention -- both intervention when there is a crisis and intervention to assist a church on the journey toward excellence.  The extended cabinet and others completed the Lombard Mediation Training around church conflict and are prepared to be inserted when needed to mediate conversations and solutions around conflict. 
  • Called & Sent – a collaborative effort between the Camping & Retreat Ministries and the Board of Ordained Ministry to improve the manner in which a life-changing camping experience might be transformed into a specific call from God to consider ministry as a life vocation.
“There is no doubt that …there are mountaintops and valleys in this journey of discovery,” the Bishop said. “But this is a group that has its hiking shoes on and is working together to “find our voice” as an Annual Conference.”

General/Jurisdictional Conference Elections

Throughout the Annual Conference, members cast ballots to elect clergy and lay delegates for the denomination’s 2016 General Conference and the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference.  Balloting continued until 24 delegates and 12 alternates were selected. See the delegate list.

Guest Preachers/Teachers

In a morning study session, Dr. Kevin Watson, assistant professor of Wesleyan and Methodist studies at Candler School of Theology and author of several books on Wesleyan practices, urged a return to Wesleyan class meetings and practice of holy conferencing. These practicies, he said, have significant potential to bring renewal to individual churches and to draw the United Methodist family closer together. 

He cautioned, however, that holy conferencing is not “polite conversation or being nice when we disagree.” It’s not “people who barely know each other dividing up into groups to talk about the most controversial issues in the church,” he said.

“Such conversations are divorced from the deep relationships that were found in Christian conferencing in early Methodism, and they are not focused on our relationships with God, which was the central focus of Christian conferencing in early Methodism,” he explained.

The class meeting and conferencing, he said, are “the distinctive way that Methodists gather together to talk about their relationship with God in order to grow in love for God and neighbor.”

Watson said that the gradual replacement of the class meeting by Sunday School resulted in a shift from “a transformation-driven approach to the Christian life to an information-driven approach to the Christian life. To put it bluntly,” he said, “Many United Methodists are addicted to curriculum.” He added that too much of the knowledge gained is never put into practice.

Watson said the essential practice of Wesleyan small groups can never be revived without the leadership of laity. “Your church needs every single one of you to be leading a group where you help people give voice to their experience of God, where you watch over one another in love, where you help people find deep and meaningful community with one another and deeper fellowship with God,” he declared.

Bishop Holston also preached during the Friday evening worship service focused on ministry of the laity.  Entitled An Offer You Cannot Refuse and based on Matthew 4:12-23 (the calling of the disciples), Bishop Holston said that Jesus came to bring light and call followers.  “A contemporary management consultant would cringe at Jesus’ methods and choices!” he said.  “He didn’t go to Jerusalem and pick the brightest new minds on the religious scene. . .No! He uses fishermen! He made them an offer they couldn’t refuse…I don’t know what their qualifications were…but they came aboard immediately.”

Jesus, the Bishop said, called folks from family relationships to new relationships. He proclaimed that no matter who you are, the ultimate call to reach higher is to reach toward Jesus Christ. Bishop Holston challenged the conference to fill our churches with people who are fully devoted, or willing to become fully devoted to discipleship. 

In a later study session, Scott Johnson, PhD, lay leader in the Upper New York Conference, used the call that Joshua received as an example for leaders in the church today. He urged the laity and clergy to: 
  • Focus on the God-given vision;
  • Remain a disciple while also being a leader,
  • Remember that faith is the key to meeting the challenges of leadership.

Conference Lay Leader Sharon Gregory reported that the Conference Board of Laity has achieved one of the three goals it is working toward in an effort to revitalize. Rather than meeting monthly for a few hours in person or on Conference calls, the board members representing each district now gathered for an overnight weekend event to build relationships by worshiping, praying, learning and planning together.  "The fruitfulness of this small, but significant shift in scheduling, and exercising our spiritual gifts is that... we are growing and developing a "we spirit" and raising ourselves to a higher level of cohesiveness."

The Board has cultivated a partnership with the cabinet and clergy to see that local church lay leaders have the resources and tools for leadership development and recruited youth representatives for the board. 


In legislative action, Conference members approved a Shared Ministry Budget of $9.7 million; increased the basic cash compensation for clergy by 3 percent  to $40,334 for elders serving full time; approved three general evangelists—Christine Rogan, John Zimmerman and Luella Krieger; and set policies and practices for Conference mission partnerships.

In addition, after debate, the Conference members approved forming a task force to research companies that may be contributing to the occupation of Palestine and whether divestment of these companies would be advisable. The task force would formulate recommendations to the 2016 annual conference regarding possible divestment from Conference portfolios.

Conference members also accepted a petition of Roulette: Riverside and Fishing Creek UMCs, in the Kane District, just east of Port Allegany, to become part of the Western PA Conference. Pastor Randy Headley of the Port Allegany Charge has been providing pastoral care and oversight of the two churches since July 2014 and both congregations voted by a two-thirds majority to join WPAUMC.

General Conference Petitions

Also approved was a petition to the General Conference to change the Book of Disciple to set term limits for Bishops in the UMC. The petition, approved on the consent calendar, would eliminate life terms for Bishops elected in U.S. Jurisdictions and replace it with an initial eight year terms with the possibility of re-election quadrennially. It would not apply to incumbent bishops.

Petitions growing out of recommendations made in Judicial Council rulings (Decision 1230) involving complaints and administrative actions brought against bishops were approved and will be sent to the General Conference. One notes that the appeal process in administrative matters is not clearly delineated and proposes several changes to the Book of Discipline to provide clarity by creating an administrative review process.

Another petition would change P.50 of the Constitution to give the Council of Bishops the authority to hold its individual members accountable for the work. In addition changes are proposed to Disciplinary paragraphs dealing with the episcopal complaint process that would “enhance the accountability of bishops and increase consistency by lodging the accountability function in the global church.” Some of the proposed changes are designed to ensure that complainants receive fair hearing in proceedings.

Other petitions to the General Conference that were approved, called for the denomination  to withdraw from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights; and to change language of Paragraph 161J of The Book of Discipline regarding the sanctity of life and abortion. The petitioners said the current wording “has been used by some United Methodists as a means for one-sidely advocating for public policies advancing elective abortion.” Their proposed amendments “would more clearly align our church with biblical, historic Christian teaching that defends unborn children and their mothers from abortion.”

Hands-On Efforts

During the annual conference, members volunteered to pack meals for Stop Hunger Now and completed 50,000. They also filled a large truck with used shoes to be reclaimed or recycled by Funds2org, which, in turn, gives money to the Erie UM Alliance for ministries to the homeless and to All God’s Children ministry to those with disabilities. There were 36,750 pairs of shoes, filling nearly 1500 large plastic bags. Members also brought UMCOR kits and material, which were collected by volunteers from the Eastbrook Mission Barn, an UMCOR Depot.

Cabinet Report

The Cabinet report began dramatically with superintendents pushing their way to the microphone, bickering and declaring, “It’s all about me!” Ultimately, they realized it was really about all of them and all God’s people in their districts. More importantly, they declared, it’s really all about JESUS! Saying “Excellent leadership begins on our knees,” Butler DS Joel Garrett invited all who were able to kneel at their seats. He then offered a prayer concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.

New Church Starts

Amy Wagner, Director of Congregational Development and Revitalization, gave a history of new church starts that occurred during the 1700s and 1800s. She explained that never in our history has there been more than four years without starting a new church. Currently, there are several new worshipping communities supported in part by our annual conference: The Heights Faith Community, Allegheny River Valley, Roots of Faith, Faith Acts, Faith on 68 (Rochester), Connect Church (Blairsville), Charter Oak Crossroads Campus, Point Marion Fijian Language Community, and Laketon Heights.

Patti Columbe, CEO of the Keystone UM Federal Credit Union, presented Bishop Bickerton with a check for $3500 for New Church Starts. The number represents a tithe of fees received from Credit Union Visa cards.

Receiving Denman Awards for Evangelism were Michael Gionti of First UMC in Titusville, General Evangelist John Zimmerman and Steve and Wendy McPherson of Brookville Evangelical UMC.

The Youth Ministry Team honored long-time Conference staff member Jane Fiedler with the Pineapple Award for 25 years of  consistent work behind the scenes to support youth ministries through the camping and youth ministry programs.  Laurie Groves of First UMC in DuBois received the professional Youth Worker of the Year award, and Jonah Foster was presented with the Timothy Award in recognition of student leadership. Foster is leader of his youth group at Harrisville UMC, as well as a member of the chancel choir and a drummer in the praise band.

See archived videos, photos, the Daily Proceedings, a narrative budget, the text of Bishop Bickerton’s messages, and more at wpaumc.org/ACLive.  Find more photos at revrichpearson.com.