Western PA Annual Conference members were blessed by dynamic preaching, insightful creative presentations on disciple-making and the joyful participation of church leaders from Zimbabwe during its 2013 session June 13-16 at Grove City College. The theme was Disciples Making Disciples, chosen by Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton to focus “conversations, training, and strategies around how we once again find the courage and passion to invite people into the heart of God through Christian discipleship. This is the key to any transformation or turnaround that will take place in the church.”
The Bishop encouraged members to do community evangelism during the conference, engaging those they encountered in the shops and streets in conversation about their faith. Several reported back to the Bishop on their experiences, praying for individuals and encouraging others to think about returning to church.
In his State of the Church report, Bishop Bickerton urged leaders to make disciple-making the top priority for them and their congregations. He said clergy must lead by example and invite people into the heart of God, making it part of every conversation; laity must witness, and congregations must raise their level of expectation and state clearly what it means to be a disciple. Congregational leaders should be people who have walked the Emmaus Road and met Jesus, he added.
To make disciples, it’s important to share life-changing stories, the Bishop said. “Potential disciples are hunting for hope, joy, peace, a place of acceptance and love. Churches that have a vision of inviting people into the heart of God and work a plan to do it are churches that grow,” he noted.
He urged pastors and church members to engage people in conversation wherever they go and to “pray with me that somehow something will be said or done that will cause us to go home better able to see the need, sense the call, discern the vision and work the plan of disciples making disciples in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.”
In a lively and powerful Laity Address, Conference Lay Leader Sharon Gregory declared that just as spark plugs provide power for engines, the Holy Spirit can be the spark plug for Christian lives. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, she said, it is not possible to be a living, functioning disciple.
In lieu of a Bible study, the Revs. Greg Cox, director of connectional ministries; Jim Walker, director of congregational development and revitalization; and Chris Kindle, director of discipleship, gathered in a “coffee shop” on stage and discussed the biblical mandates for making disciples. In a second “meeting”, Cox and Walker talked about leadership and evangelism and “phoned” various Conference clergy and leaders to join in conversation. They discovered that the fruits of the spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-25, with the help of the Holy Spirit, provide the ability to be effective in disciple-making.
Rev. Rudy Rasmus, pastor of St. John’s UMC in Houston, TX, one of the fastest-growing congregations in the U.S. preached at a Friday evening worship service, as well as the Saturday morning commissioning service for four new provisional members. He said most of what he learned about disciple-making he learned when he was eight years old: the only way it will happen is through relationships. “You can’t make a disciple by yourself,” he said. It requires collaboration – and love. Most people “are not going to aks what your doctrine or your polity is,” he said. “What they reallywant to know is can you love them.”
In his sermon during the service of ordination for seven new elders, Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa of Zimbabwe, said disciples are made by creating community. The church comes out of community.
“What is happening in the pews, you refuse to be affected by that,” he told the new elders. “They have come for you to preach as if it is your last day of preaching.” But, he said, that won’t make the difference in disciple-making.
“Even when people saw Jesus, they doubted. That did not stop the resurrection! The ressurection will always be there,” he declared. “It is the power that will bring people to Christ!”
The ministry of 34 faithful clergy who have brought people to Christ was recognized as they retired from active ministry. They represent a total of 917 years in ministry. Each received a pin and congratulations from Bishop Bickerton during the plenary session and were honored at a dinner with new ordinands.
In the first 1.5 days of the event, members packaged 25,000 meals for “Stop Hunger NOW. The T simple, yet nutritious pre-packaged meals will be delivered throughout the world to meet the needs of the hungry.
Eastbrook Mission Barn volunteers at Grove City received 4,507 UMCOR kits, including four bedding kits, 26 sewing kits, 2,862 health kits; 64 school kits; 135 layettes; 263 cleaning buckets and 577 birthing kits, which were collected by the United Methodist Women.
During the Conference, offerings were received for Stop Hunger Now, Imagine No Malaria, New Places for New People and the Bishop’s Discretionary Fund.
Denman Awards for Evangelism, announced by Paul Morelli, went to the Rev. Steve Cordle, who founded Crossroads UMC in 1991, and Jeff Patton of Harmony-Zelienople UMC. Crossroads has grown from a small group that for a time worshipped at a motel to a congregation now numbering 1300 worshipping at four locations. Cell groups are the main structure of church life. Patton owns a sports card and hobby store where he regularly engages people in spiritual discussions. Several young men expressed interest and a study group was formed at the church. Patton is also involved in a Sunday School class to equip leaders.
The Youth Ministry Team presented the volunteer Youth Worker of the Year award to Amy Scott of First Bethel UMC in Bethel Park. Amy has been volunteering for 18 years and recently kept the youth program running strong during a transition between youth pastors.
Johnstown District Superintendent Alyce Weaver Dunn and her husband, the Rev. Keith Dunn, pastor of Belmont UMC in Johnstown, shared the professional Youth Worker of the Year award. The Dimms have been instrumental and very hospitable to the uth 4 missions group, held each year in the Johnstown District, said Conference Youth Director Renaye Hoffman. “They welcome us every year. We have had dinners and worship in Keith's church and done hands-on work on the district parsonage. They have been very supportive of the annual SPARK retreat in Pittsburgh. Keith Dunn has served as a breakout speaker.
“The Dunns also have led MacD camp for years and years,” she added. “That’s a big reason why the youth know them and like them so much.”
Golden Sneaker Awards, for wholistic health activity, were presented by Susanna Wesley (portrayed by evangelist Luella Krieger). First place went to the Washington District and Superintendent Eric Park, in accepting, noted that a key “player”, Rev. David Stains, was acquired last year from the Kane District, which had been a perennial winner, but this year earned the second-place silver award. The bronze third-place awared went to Indiana District. Greensburg District had an honorable mention with the largest number of churches participating.
The Conference approved a 2014 connectional (apportionment) budget of $9.55 million, a slight increase over the $9.06 million 2013 budget, but a decrease of more than $1 million from the budget originally proposed for 2014. The major difference came in the amount allocated for Conference reserve funds, which are maintained to cover costs in the event of an emergency. Bishop Bickerton said the definition of what constitutes an emergency is ambiguous in Conference rule 3.4.1.e, which requires the fund to be maintained. He referred the issue to the Conference Rules Committee, asking that they define an emergency. The total budget for the Conference, which includes endowment and other income, was set at $38.09 million.
A petition that would have instituted participant and local church cost-sharing for health insurance was referred to the Conference Leadership Table and other related groups for further review and study.
Other legislative action included:
The daily proceedings of annual conference, as well as links to news stories, photos and videos, are available at www.wpaumc.org/AC2013.
Conference membership stands at 173,928, down 3,291 from the previous year. Worship attendance is at 56,192, down 2,129 from the previous year. Sunday School attendance is 17,542, down 397