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by Danette Clifton, Director of Communication
The North Alabama Annual Conference began on Thursday evening as members and visitors gathered at Huffman UMC for the Annual Memorial Service. During the service the Conference took time to remember the clergy and clergy spouses who have died since the last Annual Conference meeting.
Dr. Ken Dunivant, senior pastor of Tuscaloosa First UMC, preached a sermon entitled “We Shall Be Like Him!” which was based on the scripture 1 John 2:29 – 3:2. During the sermon Dr. Dunivant talked about the Biblical promise that as we grow in the Christian life we grow more like Jesus to the point that one day a stranger could look at us and Jesus and not be able to tell the difference.
Following the sermon Bishop William H. Willimon brought words of consolation to the family and friends of the memorialized clergy and clergy spouses. He then led those gathered in an Act of Remembrance. During this time each name was read as a candle on the altar was lit in their memory.
Mrs. Johnnie L. Barrett
Rev. William Johnny Clark
Rev. Paul Gene Douglas
Rev. Edward T. Fuell
Mrs. Vera Jeanette Gifford
Rev. Jacqueline Gray-McDonald
Mrs. Rebecca Elizabeth Gregg
Mrs. Betty B. Hardiman
Mrs. Marie H. Hardin
Mr. James L. Hauer
Rev. Jerry Thomas Herston
Mrs. Louise Holt
Mrs. Frances E. Rutland Johnston
Mrs. Doris Elizabeth Ponder Jones
Mrs. Dorothy B. Kimbrough
Mrs. Edith S. Knox
Mrs. Margaret McElroy
Rev. Jesse Howard Marks
Rev. Delbert H. Miles
Rev. Alton H. Mobley
Mrs. Ruth H. Perkins
Rev. Issac Clark Pope
Rev. Joseph Randall Prickett
Mrs. Mary Jo Self
Rev. Bobby R. Shaw
Mrs. Iona Faye Sims
Mrs. Brenda Faye Sims
Mrs. Ruth Anne Sprouse
When a clergy is ordained he or she is no longer a member of any individual United Methodist Church, instead that clergy becomes a member of the Annual Conference in which they were ordained. Thus, the Annual Conference gathers each year to remember these faithful servants just as local congregations observe an annual All Saints worship service.
Before the Memorial Service, the families of these clergy and spouses gathered for a Memorial Dinner.
The 2008 Annual Conference Session will be called to order on Friday morning, June 6, at 9 a.m. at ClearBranch United Methodist Church in Trussville.
The Restoration Mission Band and Praise Team opened the morning by leading those gathering for the 139th Session of the North Alabama Conference in songs of praise and worship.
Bishop William H. Willimon called the session to order and then the Conference moved into worship together.
The Conference began worship in the traditional Methodist way by singing “And Are We Yet Alive” together as children entered the sanctuary waving banners. Rev. Nancy Hornsby brought the sermon urging worshippers to “hold on” as we work together to do God’s work together. She noted the wisdom of African-American spirituals as a witness to the notion to hold on as God works.
Following the opening worship, Conference Secretary Rev. Sherill Clontz led the Ordering of the Conference by presenting the motion to set the bar of the Conference, and electing the Assistant Conference Secretaries and Conference Chancellor.
After the Conference was ordered the Conference Historical Society helped the Conference take a moment to note the 200th Anniversary of Methodism in Alabama Pete West and Nell Berry presented a resolution from Alabama Governor Bob Riley and the Alabama Legislature made declaring 2008 the Bicentennial of Methodism in Alabama. Then Bishop Willimon met a visitor from the past Bishop Francis Asbury, who was portrayed by Rev. George Cobb. Asbury began telling the story of the story of early Methodism and how circuit riders were first sent to Alabama in 1808.
As the opening session concluded, Conference members divided into the Clergy Executive Session and the Lay Orientation Session. This is the only time during Annual Conference during which clergy and laity are separated to do their work.
As each session closed, members shared lunch together.
Following lunch Conference members gathered as the Song Leader Dedric Cowser led them in hymns. Bishop Willimon announced that Dedric is a resent graduate of Birmingham-Southern College and will be a student at Candler School of Theology this fall.
Patsy Willimon then took a moment of personal privilege to announce that during the clergy spouse gathering on Friday morning the spouses turned in money they had been collecting to support Babies First, a new ministry of the United Methodist Children’s Home in Birmingham. They collected more than $4000 for this Conference ministry.
The Conference then continued to focus on its ministry together by taking time to hear a mission moment. The Servants Like Jesus team convener Sammy Hayes explained how the North Alabama Conference supports ministries called Conference Advance Specials. Then Pashion Lewis introduced the Conference to one of the Advanced Specials called DreamGarden. Children and youth who are participants in this ministry sang a song and told stories of their experiences at DreamGarden.
As the Mission Moment concluded Bishop Willimon asked those who are part of congregations paying 100% of their connectional giving (apportionments) to stand. He thanked these congregations for supporting the ministry of the North Alabama Conference and worldwide United Methodist connection.
As reports began Director of Connectional Ministries Dale Cohen presented a presentation on the Conference Priorities. These priorities are
He noted that starting new congregations are important because of population shifts and many existing churches are located where people used to live. He also noted that “new churches are more effective in reaching new Christians.”
Dr. Weems then encouraged existing churches to support new churches saying as North Alabama United Methodists, “You are stewards of United Methodism witness within the boundaries of the North Alabama Conference.” So the existing churches should support new congregations even if they are not located near them. He also challenged existing churches to start new faith communities within their church and their community such as new Sunday School classes or Bible studies or a new ministry in the community.
He finally challenged all North Alabama Congregations to do a yearly audit by pausing and asking themselves, “If our church closed today, who would miss it other than our members?”
The Conference then heard the Board of Ordained Ministry report. During which time those people who were licensed as local pastors, those who will be commissioned probationary members on June 22; those who will be ordained as full connection elders and full connection deacons; and those who are retiring were all recognized.
Next the chairperson of the Board of Ordained Ministry Rev. Roger Thompson presented a Study of Elders in the North Alabama Conference. He presented information as to how the number of ordained elders serving in the North Alabama Conference has lost a net of 43 elders over the last 10 years. He also presented that based on the age of current elders and the average numbers of those to be ordained over the next 10 years the trend of a shrinking number of elders will continue.
After the information was presented, Conference members we encouraged to look for the gifts of those in their congregations and to ask them if they had ever considered that God was calling them into ministry. At the end of the report a resources was offered to those committing to have such conversations with people in their congregation.
As the afternoon continued the Conference heard the Ethnic Ministries report presented by Dr. Thomas Muhomba, Rev. Hong-il Ji and Rev. Paul Hillard. The Conference also took another moment to recognize the 200th Anniversary of Methodism in Alabama as Bishop Frances Asbury (portrayed by George Cobb) returned and finished his story of how Methodism came to Alabama in 1808.
Conference Lay Leader Ellen Harris then led the report of the Lay Ministry Team. During the report the Conference elected the new district lay leaders and heard the Laity Address presented by Harris.
The Conference then heard a report about one of the Conference priorities – Natural Church Development. The report was presented by Dale Cohen, Lori Carden, Kipp McClurg and Bill Gandy. During the report every church was challenged to consider Natural Church Development as a process to become a healthier disciple-making congregation.
Conference presenter Dr. Lovett Weems then addressed the Conference talking about Natural Church Development. He further encouraged churches noting how NCD allows congregations to address its minimum factor through your giftedness and strengths.
Gloria Holt then presented a report on the 2008 General Conference.
As the Afternoon session drew to a close the Conference heard a mission moment from the Advocacy for Social Justice Team led by convener Betty Likis. The mission moment included a report from the Conference Disabilities team and how churches can become BridgeBuilding congregations. The winner of the 2008 Louise Branscomb Barrier Breaker Award Rev. Sally Allocca was also recognized.
Before Conference members broke for dinner, Paulette West reminded of the Conference of the Special offering which will go to Nothing But Nets the campaign to end malaria.
Friday ended with a high and holy time as the Conference ordained new deacons and elders in full connection.
Bishop Willimon preached the sermon using the story of Nicodemus noting that the story teaches that religious leaders are the ones that must be reborn.
Two new Deacons and 17 Elders were ordained.
Those newly ordained include
On Saturday morning members of the North Alabama Conference gathered as Song Leader Dedric Cowser led music.
Rev. Sheri Ferguson Executive Director of United Methodist Pastoral Care and Counseling led the opening prayer for the morning session.
Presenter Lovett Weems then addressed the Conference focusing on the Conference vision of growing more disciples of Jesus Christ in light of the priority of empowering a new generation of Christians. He told those gathered that “There is no future for United Methodism in America unless we can figure how to reach more people, younger people and more diverse people.”
The Conference heard a mission moment on the connection North Alabama has had in Boliva through several missionaries. Rev. Dale Clem introduced Missionary Kay Twilley who has served faithfully in Bolivia.
Following the mission moment Bishop Willimon announced that the offering received for Nothing But Nets during Friday nights ordination service was more than $17,000
Next, Anne Wheeler presented for the Committee on Procedure and Petitions. She began by explaining that the resolution on the War in Iraq in the PreConference Book had been pulled off the agenda and instead there would be talking sessions during August so that North Alabama Conference could enter into times of discussion and listening to each other on this important issue instead of limited discussion constrained by Roberts Rules of Order during the Annual Conference session. She also noted that Bishop Willimon would host these sessions.
As the Committee’s Report Continued the Conference voted to pass
Bishop Willimon then took a moment to introduce special guest Bishop Robert Fannin. Bishop Fannin served the North Alabama Conference for 12 years before he retired. Bishop Fannin addressed the Conference and led members in a prayer for its disciple-making work.
Dean of the Cabinet Rev. Hal Noble then presented the property resolutions. He noted that this is always a difficult report, but pointed to scripture in Ecclesiastes 3 which says for everything there is a season. He then announced the 16 churches which are being closed.
The Conference then heard the report of the Conference Council on Finance. Conference Treasurer Scott Selman and Chairperson Bob Boyce presented the reports of the Council. Conference members voted to approve all reports including the Conference budget of $10, 861,055 for 2009. Boyce noted that this budget was just over 1% of the 2008 budget – one of the smallest increases in many years.
As the report concluded, Selman thanked the 487 congregations which paid 100% of their connectional askings in 2007. He noted that this was an increase in the total number of 100% congregations from the year before.
Lovett Weems then addressed the Conference again saying, “If we reach more people…they will be younger and more diverse people.” He then explained how the United Methodist church membership and clergy are much older on average than the general population. He said that was not always so. In fact, United Methodists were generally younger than the general population until the year 1975. He encouraged clergy, members and congregations to make an effort to listen and reach out to younger people.
The Conference then heard a report from the Conference Board of Pensions presented by Terry Greer & Scott Selman. They also heard a report of the Central Conference Pension Initiative presented by Dr. Neal Berte & Thomas Muhomba. During this report members heard of how pastors serving in the Central Conferences (those regional conferences outside the United States) did not have a pension system and as they are reaching retirement they have no support. The Conference was urged to contribute to this initiative. Rev. Ken Dunivant made a motion from the floor that the North Alabama Conference set a goal to raise $1.5 million dollars. This motion was supported by Conference members and referred to the Council on Finance.
The Stewardship Team then presented a report. Zac Riddle, Convener of the Conference Stewardship Team; Warren Nash, a newly ordained deacon in our Conference and Executive Pastor at Canterbury and Kathryn Fickling, a lay member of the Stewardship Team presented a new conference stewardship and connectional giving. The team proposed that the North Alabama Conference change its budgeting and apportionment process from the current method of establishing a budget and then apportioning it to each local church to a strategy of a tithe. In this method each congregation would contribute 10% of its income (excluding capital giving) to the Conference. The team showed how this strategy would keep the Conference budget and funding for ministry in the same range as it currently is, but be a more Biblical model. They also noted that this would help North Alabama live out of a mindset of abundance instead of scarcity as it is when less than 100% of apportionments are paid. Congregations were asked to pray about this over the next year and it would be proposed next Annual Conference.
Next, Conference Statistician Lori Carden presented the Statistician’s Report. The report noted that the Conference membership dropped in 2007 to a total of 150,348. However, Carden pointed out two facts of the report. The first was that the number of participants in small groups who became profession members grew in 2007. She encouraged churches to start more small groups. She also noted that during 2007 the North Alabama Conference celebrated 2,567 professions of faith – individuals claiming Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Carden invited the Conference to stand and sing the Doxology as a thanks giving to God for these new Christian disciples in our Churches.
Following the Statistician’s Report, Conference Director of Communication Danette Clifton announced the new Weekly Benchmark Reporting system which will allow local churches to report their benchmark statistics (worship attendance, membership, baptisms, professions of faith and connectional giving) on a weekly basis through an online reporting system. The system will go through final testing with test churches this summer and all congregations will be asked to use the system by the fall. Connectional Ministries Coordinator Kathy Clements then told the Conference about a training event for church office staffs that will occur in the fall. The Keeping It Together retreat will be in September and will help train staff in this new Weekly Benchmark reporting system as well as other important information each church needs to know.
Conference Youth Coordinator and Connectional Ministries Consultant Rev. Robert Mercer then introduced the youth and young adult members to the Annual Conference. He also recognized the president of the Council on Youth Ministry Tom Webster.
Following lunch, the afternoon session began with the Children’s Choir from Ministerio Metodista Hispano “El Puente” de Albertville (Methodist Hispanic Ministry “The Bridge” of Albertville directed by Esperanza Baltazar-Ramirez.
Conference Children’s Coordinator and Connectional Ministries Consultant Danette Schader then introduced two young girls from Bluff Park Untied Methodist Church who talked about their active children’s ministry program and how they are growing in discipleship of Jesus Christ.
The Conference also heard a mission moment from the Conference Disaster Response Team. Rev. John Hassell, Disaster Response Coordinator for the North Alabama Conference introduced Rev. Marvin McCormick, associate pastor at Helena UMC who shared that congregation’s work with a congregation in Louisiana still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
In his final address of the Conference, Dr. Lovett Weems and Bishop Willimon had a public conversation about the ministry of the North Alabama Conference. Weems said he thought one of the biggest challenges of the conference was the aging of the membership and clergy of the Conference. He said the Conference’s commitment to new congregations is one of its greatest strengths. He also encouraged the Bishop and leaders of all ministries in the Conference and local churches to develop “so that” statements for all things they do in ministry. The “so that” statements help define the purpose of every ministry effort.
The Conference also heard the report of Higher Education presented by Rev. Ken Dunivant. During the report Dr. David Pollick, President of Birmingham-Southern College and Dr. Mark LaBranch, Vice-President of Huntingdon College also greeted the Conference. Then Megan Cotton representing the Black College Fund shared how the money we contribute to the Black College Fund is empowering a new generation of students throughout the United States.
Dick Freeman, the Director of the Center for Congregational Development, presented the winners of the Denman Evangelism Award for 2008. He announced the three winners and showed a brief video of each. This year’s winners are Don Barham; Rev. Glenn Keedy and Rev. Calvin Havens.
Then Rev. Tommy Gray then introduced a video featuring one of North Alabama’s new congregations – Community Church without Walls. This congregation is in the West End area of Birmingham. Rev. R.G. Lyons is the pastor.
As the afternoon drew to a close Rev. Deb Welsh Convener for the North Alabama United Methodist Volunteers in Mission shared about the work many North Alabama congregations has done Panama.
Bishop Willimon then announced that the 2009 session of the North Alabama Annual Conference will be held on June 4th through 6th next year, Robin Scott, the newly appointed pastor of ClearBranch UMC, invited the Conference to once again meet at ClearBranch. The invitation was accepted.
Bishop Willimon then invited Conference members and visitors to take a moment of prayer and reflection to think about the 2008 Session of the North Alabama Conference. He invited people to reflect on how God has spoken to them and challenged them and their congregation during the two days. As members took time to reflect, a slide who from the conference was projected as the song “A Time to Grow” written by Rev. Keith Elder was played.
Bishop Willimon then officially fixed the clergy appointments and accepted a motion to dismiss. The Conference Business sessions closed as those gathered sang the hymn “Lift High the Cross”.
The 2008 Annual Conference will continue as the Commissioning Service will take place on Sunday, June 22 at 5 p.m., at Huntsville First United Methodist Church in Huntsville, AL.