Update: More photos and videos have been added since this story was originally posted. See links at the end.
--By Jackie Campbell--
Western PA United Methodists gathered from June 7-9 at Grove City College for the 2018 Annual Conference session heard Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi assure them that despite disagreements, the United Methodist Church in the region "is doing well and each day is being perfected in love."
“We have much to smile about because in the midst of the distractions and discouragements of this world, God keeps breaking through our churches with signs of hope. And it is on that hope that we stand,” she said in her State of the Church address on Thursday afternoon.
WPA Chic: Dressed in Hope was the theme of the 2018 Annual Conference and it was woven throughout the three days of Bible study, worship, celebration, reports and legislative action.
New Clergy Commissioned
The Conference celebrated the commissioning of 11 new clergy as part of the opening worship service on Thursday evening. They include: provisional deacons Nicole Marie Crouch and Lynette Sklar Moran and provisional elders Kendra Lovelace Balliet, Jeremy Wayne Barkely, Tai Symington Courtmance, Adam Troy Dotts, Victoria Ruth Heath, J. Mark Heckman, Craig Ronald Lindahl, Clint Thomas Phillips, and Shane Joseph Siciliano. In addition, four licensed local pastors were received as associate members. They are: Matthew Blake, Sr., Rebecca Lynn Edwards, Carol Hamil Hickman and Beverly Kay Roscoe.
In her message, Bishop Moore-Koikoi acknowledged that many in the church feel like exiles in their own land and are living in fear of what will happen to their church. “We are at a critical time in the life of the United Methodist Church… but I am convinced that God has a plan for us… for a future with hope."
Pointing to the new clergy, she added: "God would not have put them through the things that God put them through if God didn’t have a plan for the denomination. This current earthquake that we are going through…this is all in the plan that God has for us.
"Our church is not going to be the same, because God is always creating and re-creating. When you stop changing," she said, " you are dead—and are we yet alive? ... God does have a plan for the people called United Methodists. We hear it throughout scripture. Jesus the Christ would not have said ‘upon this rock I will build my church…and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.' I am excited and I can’t wait to see what God is going to do!"
In other worship services, the ministry of 26 retiring clergy, representing 774 years of service, was celebrated with a rousing message from outgoing Pittsburgh District Superintendent Paul Taylor. See story and messages from retirees.
Conference members who passed away between June 30, 2017 and May 31, 2018 were honored at a Memorial Service. Pastor Calvin Cook offered the message.
State of the Church
During the State of the Church address, the Bishop acknowledged that as she traveled across the conference, she has heard words of disappointment, fear and anxiety and has experienced those feelings herself.
“I must admit that as I have traveled throughout this annual conference, even in the midst of your smiles, my hope, and the powerful work of God, I have seen that there are forces in this world, and unfortunately in this church that are trying to discourage us and steal our hope. There are forces that are trying to turn our smiles upside down and change our garments from garments of hope, to mourning clothes.
But, she said as she climbed up onto a large rock sitting on the stage, “God has reminded me that my hope is not built on the situation I see around me, but my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness. That’s who we are as followers of the one for whom the grave was empty. We live by faith, not by sight.
“Thanks to your prayers, God convicted me that my job is to remind the people of the hope that we have that does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. My job is to boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God,” said the Bishop.
The Rev. Dr. Shively Smith, assistant professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary who said she has been preaching longer than she has been a scholar, also focused on the theme of hope in three Bible study sessions. She used Ephesians, which she said was the only one of the Apostle Paul’s 13 letters that addresses globally based church life, rather than local church situations. Only three places in Ephesians does Paul use the singular you – and it’s when he’s quoting the Old Testament, she explained. Paul’s aim, she said, was to encourage the churches to stay together—safe and flourishing. “He used locally informed strategies, but the end game was to keep the churches together,” she said.
Among legislation approved by Conference members were:
RS 412, Global Partnership Assessment and Renewal, which called for a new formal partnership with the Methodist Church in Fiji and continue partnerships with Methodists in Eastern Germany, Russian, Latin America (including Honduras); Nicaragua and Zimbabwe through 2025. The legislation also recommended dissolving two global partnerships–one with the Korean Methodist Church that has been inactive for several years and another with the UMC in Uganda that has encountered obstacles that make it difficult to continue at this time.
RS 301,302, 303, and 304, approving Ken Wilson, Christine Zimmerman and Luella Krieger as Conference Evangelists and Rev. John Zimmerman as General Evangelists
RS305 raising the minimum base cash compensation for pastors by 2 percent.
RS102, urging the clergy and laity to call on Pennsylvania lawmakers to enact legislation that will eliminate gerrymandering by creating an independent citizens commission to draw legislative district boundaries that ensure population equity, are compact and contiguous, and respect municipal boundaries.
RS104, calling on churches to do at least one of several suggested activities such as discussion, prayer and study to move toward solutions to reduce gun violence against children, now the third leading cause of death among children in the U.S.
RS401 Funding for Ministry, setting the Connectional budget for 2019 at $9,499,524, which is $213,229 less than the 2018 connectional budget. The total budget and disbursement directives approved for 2019, including income from endowments and other sources, was set at $23,464,506.45
Laity Session - See All the People
During the Laity Session on Thursday morning, the Rev. Junius B. Dotson, the chief executive of UMC Discipleship Ministries, was guest speaking, offering an engaging message on Making, Shaping and Engaging Passionate Disciples. “We’ve got to stop trying to fix churches and focus on making disciples,” he said. “If you build disciples you will build the church.”
Rev. Dotson is the author of two books that help churches to “See all the People” and build an intentional discipleship plan. “We’re not talking about new ways of inviting new people to your church,” he said. It requires building relationships with people. “Rebirth can happen at any point … any time the church decides to See All the People,” he explained. Resources, many of them free, are available at seeallthepeople.org
About 200 clergy and laity came to Grove City early to participate in a workshop with Nancy Beach on how to create and sustain healthy teams. Beach reported that the number one reason people leave any position is because of poor relationships, or culture, within the team. The workshop aimed to help participants evaluate the state of their own team culture, whether volunteer or staff, so they could see areas that most needed attention and celebrate areas of strength.
Youth in Action
Youth and young adults were active helping with nearly every aspect of the annual conference from arriving earlier in the week to prepare packets of materials for members to serving as pages, presenting a report on Youth Ministry Team work, serving on the tech team, serving as voting members, operating a snack booth with delivery to the plenary room and lending a hand wherever needed.
Many resembled super-heroes, a theme chosen by Mollie Landman, president of the Youth Ministry Team and a delegate to next year’s Global Young People's Convocation, for her message at a youth-led worship service on Friday at 9:37 p.m. Watch her message at wpaumc.org/2018ACVideos.
The Deeply Rooted, Upward Reaching Campaign to support the Conference camping and retreat ministry programs officially kicked off, after a year of planning and organizing, during AC2018. Bishop Moore-Koikoi paddled a canoe into the plenary room as a multitude of young people--and a few not quite so young--gathered around a campfire and filled the stage, sharing glimpses of how their lives had been affected by camping and retreat ministries. Leaders of both very small and mid-sized "pilot churches" shared stories of how their congregations committed to raising funds for the campaign, which will fund improvements at all of the sites and endow scholarships to ensure that all children and youth have the opportunity to attend camps and retreats regardless of their ability to pay.
A Way Forward
During a plenary session on Friday afternoon, the executive team of the Order of Elder reported on the six dialogue sessions held between October 2017 and May 2018 with members of the order. A total of 467 participated. In discussing topics related to the inclusion of LGBTQI individuals in the life of the church, said the Rev. Tom Strandburg, “we experienced a microcosm of the denomination as a whole. Our discussions were candid, emotional, and difficult at times. Many of our people believe that a change in the denomination’s policy on the issues in question will be the detrimental to the United Methodist Church. For them, anything but the traditionalist path will lead us to destruction.
“Other respondents believe that we cannot fully be the church that Christ has called us to be until we adopt a stance of “full inclusion.” For them, a united inclusive church would be preferred. In the absence of that, any sketch but the traditionalist one would do," he said.
“The divisions that surround the work of the commission (on a Way Forward) are very real, and at times, very deep. The task of finding common ground is difficult when discussing an issue (like this one) where compromise is viewed by both sides as capitulation. As officers of the Order of Elder, we are encouraged by our bishop’s intention to expand the circle of dialogue on this issue in the months to come. Our experience would indicate that people appreciate the opportunity to discuss matters of consequence, and to have their voices heard. When asked to discuss the question – “Where do we go from here?” – many discussion groups expressed the need to pray as we continue in dialogue, and so we must pray our way forward, as we seek a way forward.”
The Rev. Renee Mikell, another member of leadership team, noted that "people agreed to disagree. We agreed to bear with each other in love."
Bishop Moore-Koikoi pointed out that "questions have been raised about how we can live together as a church family...with people we believe are knowingly engaged in sin and are unrepentant about that sin."
"You can ask my dad that question," she said. “If they were alive, you could ask my grandparents that question,"
In 1939, the year her father was born, the Methodist Church segregated itself, putting black people into one conference based on race, rather than geography.
"We all know racism is sin," said Bishop Moore-Koikoi. "As a denomination, we institutionalized that sin." Yet her family baptized and raised their children in the denomination.
"They chose to do that because they had hope," she said. "... They had hope in the dream that one day this denomination would look like the kingdom of God."
In the 1960s, as a condition of becoming part of the United Methodist Church, Methodists abolished the segregated conferences.
"And now my grandparents' granddaughter is a bishop serving in an annual conference where 97 percent of the people are white," the Bishop said. "If they had not had stayed and endured the sin, I wouldn't have gotten to know you all. I would not have been blessed in this way."
I don’t want to imagine a church where I'm not working ... with folks who I disagree with on this one thing," she added.
The Bishop then shared the story of three Western PA pastors – two brothers and their sister—who found a way forward despite often contentious disagreements over the role of LGBTQ individuals in the church. Pastors Justin Judy, Hannah Loughman, and Jake Judy eventually realized that their family was more important than their views on this one issue. In a video, they shared conversation about how they got to a place of reconciliation, offering hope to others.
Siblings Seeking a Way Forward
As the 2019 special called session of the General Conference approaches, Bishop Moore-Koikoi has brought together a task force to develop a process to ensure that accurate information is shared and conversations are held about the recommendation of the Council of Bishops. Members include: Bob Zilhaver, Alyce Weaver Dunn, Jake Judy, Hannah Loughman, Renee Mikell, Sharon Gregory, Shannon Schaffer, Denise Nicole Stone, Tom Hallman, Roger White, Richard Thomas, Noah Manalo.
Bishop Moore-Koikoi has asked that members do three things: (1) surrender some of the work that we have been doing to God, (2) value the blessing that comes through diversity, and (3) put this issue into proper context.
Lay Leader's Message
Sharon Gregory, Conference Lay Leader, told members that the new conference year "is a good time to pause and reflect on our response to Christ, who knocks at the door of our hearts and calls us to get up.” She talked about the difficulties of “door knocking” and possibilities of what lies on the other side of doors.
“We have been called to go out, to knock, and to tell others about the faith we have in Jesus, and the second chances, and new beginnings he is always giving us,” she said adding that we need to gently, but persistently strive to open doors in the walls of racism, prejudice, fear, loneliness, sickness, and hunger.
“Yes, beautiful people, we are recipients of the blessings that came when that door was opened so long ago … and that door can be opened today by anyone who will open it.” Gregory said. Offering a prayer, she reminded the body of the words of the old hymn, This rock is Jesus, yes he’s the one This rock is Jesus, the only one. Be very sure, be very sure, your anchor holds and grips the solid rock.