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by Danette Clifton, Director of Communication
United Methodists from throughout the North Alabama Conference have begun gathering on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College. The opening session will begin at 3 p.m.
Thursday evening Conference members and guests filled the coliseum for the Commissioning Service in which new probationary members of the conference were commissioned.
Al and Pashion Lewis and friends opened worship by leading worshippers in song and in sharing a song entitled It Ain't About Us.
Bishop James Swanson, of the Holston Conference, then presented a straightforward and challenging sermon based on the text John 21:15-19. As he preached, he addressed those to be commissioned and said, "You are not here to jump start your career." He spoke of the challenges of ministry in the United Methodist Church which has seen almost 40 years of decline. He noted that people are talking more about this decline since church finances are just now being effected.
As he talked about the state of the church he admitted, "I am trying to scare you ... you can't love anything more than you love Jesus!" He urged the new ministers not to try to be managers, but instead be evangelists. He said their role is to love God and to love people.
He encouraged those gathered, "Don't confuse the decline in the UM church for decline of people searching of the word of God."
He added, "People need youthe numbers are going down ... maybe that's why God called you."
Those commissioned as probationary members included.
David Richard Allison
Kanuna Emmanuel Busambwa
Brantlett Noel Butler
Joseph David Cox
Theodore Gilbert Crum
Bridger Elaine Dowdy
Deborah Gibson Epley
Dennis DeWayne Herron
Michelle Hunter Hindman
Robert Glenn Lyons
Robert Eric Mercer
Joy Jeanette Morgan
Dana Loerch Pender
Phyllis Cleveland Riddle
Minnie Cotton Stovall
Debra Lynn Welsh
As the rain began to pour outside, the 137th session of the North Alabama Annual Conference came to order. The band from the Innerchange, one of the newest North Alabama Conference, led conference members in song. Bishop William H. Willimon then greeted those gathered at Bill Battle Coliseum on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College. Then everyone joined in the traditional singing of the hymn And Are We Yet Alive led by the Innerchange Band. "We will sing this as John Wesley never heard it," Bishop Willimon said as the guitars began the song.
The Annual Conference was then called to order. Members then heard a greeting from Birmingham-Southern College President Dr. David Pollick. Then the session turned back to worship as guest worship leader Paul Saik sang I Bowed on my knees and cried holy. Following a scripture reading by Dr. Charles Gattis of Ephesians 2, worshippers joined in a litany of Psalm 100.
Bishop Willimon then called on new Conference Secretary Rev. Sherrill Clontz to lead the organization of the Conference. Members elected assistant secretaries, conference parliamentarian and recognized the Consent Calendar and Consent Agenda.
Members closed with the hymn, The Church's One Foundation. Then clergy members went to the Clergy executive session and lay members remained in the lay orientation session. This is the only time during the three days of Annual Conference that clergy and laity meet separately.
The first full day of Annual Conference began with worshipful work. After singing a few "good ole hymns" led by Paul Saik, the Conference approved the Consent Calendar and Consent Agenda and began to hear reports.
Connectional Ministries Report - Dale Cohen
Dale Cohen took time and introduced the Connectional Ministries staff and talked about their work connecting all levels of the church and resourcing local churches.
The New Assistan Director of Congregational Development for Ethnic Churches Thomas Mohomba greeted the Conference. He will begin his work in North Alabama on July 1.
Rev. Cohen also introduced Natural Church Development. He said this could be the process that helps local congregations grow. "In two years we could see turnaround not just to be a growing annual conference but growing significantly in making disciples."
He also reported on the motion that recommended a task force be formed to study the reduction of staff in Connectional Ministries by two persons. (At the end of the 2005 Annual Conference, one of those positions was reinstated.) During the last year this task force, which included ministries working with these staff positions, met and will continue to meet as the Conference goes through the process of Redistricting.
He closed the report saying we must focus on the mission of making disciples.
As Conference Lay Leader Gloria made her way to the stage Bishop Willimon noted the North Alabama Congregations who signed up to participate in the Prayer Vigil for this business session.
Laity Report - Gloria Holt
Gloria Holt opened the report saying this report, her swan song after 12 years of serving as the Conference Lay Leader, is going to be a reality check and a challenge.
She established that the church's mission is to make disciples. She then noted that almost half of the North Alabama Conference churches have not made a disciple - 48% have not had one confession of faith. "It seems as if we have lost our passion to minister to those outside our doors just like the church at Ephesus."
She continued that she hears people blame the preacher, their location and resources for our not growing. However, Mrs. Holt challenged the Conference saying we are all guilty of not being witnesses for Jesus Christ.
She noted that laity have a role in making disciples and reaching others for Christ.. It's not just the role of the clergy. "Shepherds don't multiply sheep; the sheep multiply the sheep."
Primary evangelistic tool in the 21st century is establishing new communities of faith. She commended the conference for making this a priority and reminded them that establishing new churches is mission work.
Guest worship leader Paul Saik then led those gathered in singing Spirit of the Living God as a musical response to Gloria's challenge.
Bishop Willimon then introduced Rev. Hal Noble, Dean of the Cabinet, who presented a report of the Redistricting Process.
Rev. Noble noted that much of his reported echoed Gloria's in that the focus is on making disciples. He reported that following the had happened since the called Annual Conference in January. This has included listening sessions; Gary Ward being appointed to be the Assistant to the Bishop to assist in Transitional Issues; Bishop Willimon has drawn the district lines, teams have worked to look at property and financial matters, Conference staff has been working on administrative matters and each of the current 12 districts have held district conferences to dissolve.
He also reported that a training center is being developed in the northern part of the Conference area, so all meetings and workshops don't have to happen in Birmingham.
He also said this process is happening in the light that the January 28 vote to Redistrict was a covenant vote among North Alabama United Methodists. He added, "We are moving from transition to transformation by the Holy Spirit."
Bishop Willimon then led the Conference in a prayer that this transformation would extend beyond North Alabama and take a hold of the whole Church.
Conference Nominations Team (Handouts F and G) - Dale Cohen
An additional nomination of Pat Meadows for Conference Lay Leader came from the floor. Each of these nominees for Lay Leader were given an opportunity to speak from the floor.
Ellen Harris was elected by a voice vote. The remainder of the Nominations Team slate was then elected by a voice vote.
Vision Team - Dr. Oliver Clark
The team brought a motion to make a minor, but significant change, in the Conference vision statement and core values.
These core values include Biblically rooted, passionate spirituality; love of all people; Christ-shaped community; empowering leadership; nurturing; commitment; stewardship; integrity.
The new vision statement would be Every church challenged and equipped to grow more disciples of Jesus Christ by taking risks and changing lives.
The report was accepted without discussion.
Bishop Willimon complimented the Conference on this action noting that in our Methodist tradition this has help quantify our faithfulness.
The Conference then transitioned into a time of Bible Study led by Dr. Layce Warner.
Dr. Layce Warner opened the Bible Study with words of greeting and thanks.
She noted that coming to North Alabama was a bit of a homecoming. She was baptized in Jasper First United Methodist Church where her grandparents were members.
The mornings Bible Study was based on Ephesians 4:1-5 and focused on calling. She reminded those gathered that all Christians are called to ministry at our baptisms.
Admitting she was a history buff, she helped listeners understand the calling of all people within our Wesley tradition.
She shared stories of women as role models of those following their calling. Including Suzanne Wesley, Mary Bosanquet Fletcher, Julia Foote, the deaconesses.
Each of these women claimed their baptism as their identiy. This was a risk, but the only way they thought they could live out God's call on their lives. She encouraged members that we call as still being called.
Worshipful work continued with the Report from the Board of Ordained Ministry. This included presenting those newly commissioned probationary members as well as those who will be ordained as full connection deacons and elders tonight.
The Board also took time to recognize retirees including Mac Chapman who has served as the Director of Superannuate Homes and Ordained Ministry. A video presentation featured many retirees.
The annual passing of the Bible also took place during this report. Rev. James Robertson, representing the retiring class of presented a Bible to Melisa Saccucci the representative of the incoming class of full connection elders.
Rev. Hal Noble presented the Property Resolutions which listed the 16 congregations that are closing this year.
The afternoon session centered around financial and stewardship issues.
The Board of Pensions, Insurance Committee and Council on Finance presented their reports. There was a long time of discussion when the Conference budget was presented.
In the 2007 proposed budget more money was provided for new church development while some institutions received cuts.
A motion was presented from the floor to ammend the proposed budget to reinstate the 2006 funding level for the Birmingham-Southern College, Huntingdon College and the United Methodist Children's Home. After lengthy discussion the motion was defeated. Conference members then passed the Council on Finance's proposed 2007 budget of $13,936,444 was passed.
After a break the Conference heard from the United Methodist Foundation's work with local North Alabama Conference. Dale Cohen then presented a report on Stewardship. He urged Conference members to send him names of people to be on a task force to examine and work on this important issue.
The business session was adjourned and members will reconvene tonight for the Ordination Service at Trinity UMC in Homewood.
The Conference reconvened at Trinity UMC in Homewood to ordain a new class of Full Connection Deacons and Elders. The guest preacher was Bishop Gregory Palmer of the Iowa Conference.
In his sermon Bishop Palmer focused on the Conference's theme text of Ephesians 4:1-13. As he began his words, he told those to be ordained this was a big night and his suggestion to them was " to soak it upsop it upthen get over your self!" He encouraged them that their life in ministry was not about them or the institutional church, but about getting God's movementto where God wants it to be.
He reminded those gathered for this high time of worship that all the baptized are called to ministry. "Over the last 50 years we have lost ground because we have contracted the ministry of the whole body to an artisian class we call clergy." He reminded the new ministers their role as clergy is not to do all the ministry but instead to "multiply ministry and equip all the saints."
During the service three people were ordained as Deacons in Full Connection. They include
Twelve others were ordained as elders in Full Connection. They include
Saturday morning's time of worshipful work began with a Bible Study led by Dr. Layce Warner. As Dr. Warner began her remarks she complimented the group on the spirit and function of the meeting. "Y'all seem Christian," she said noting that she had been inspired by the worshipful work.
Dr. Warner then focused her lesson on the theme scripture of the conference and moved the discussion toward spiritual gifts. She reminded those gathered that each person is gifted and the those gifts are not just for you, but for the whole community.
She then continued the theme of celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Full Ordination Rights for Women by using the stories of Methodists women from history who worked toward that right of full ordiantion so they may most fully share their gifts with the faith community.
Before the Conference moved it's focus toward business worship leader Paul Saik shared his personal testimony and sang, Mary did you know?
Business began with the report of the New and Renewing Communities of Faith team.
The group first recognized the Conference's Denman Evangelism Award Winners. The laity winner is Paul Wieger of Gardendale-Mt. Vernon UMC and the clergy winner is Rev. Robert Sparkman of Hartselle First UMC. A video presentation of each winner was presented to share the story of their dedication and creativity in the area of evangelism.
Director of Congregational Development Dick Freeman then announced that this year the Conference would be beginning 10 new communities of faith. The new churches would being in areas through out the conference in a variety of areas. These areas include Westend in Birmingham, Bessemer, Guntersville, Albertville, Huntsville, Tuscaloosa, Florence, Deactur and North Shelby County. The team then shared a video featuring the church that will be started in the Brandon School in east Florence. This former school building will not only provide a place for worship but will house other district and community ministries that the new congregation can quickly connect with in order to reach out to the community.
The team also recognized the new Assistant Director of Congregation Development for Ethnic and Multicultural churches Dr. Thomas Muhomba. Bishop Willimon asked Dr. Muhamba to share a portion of his testimony that shows the beautiful connection of the United Methodist Church. He said that he grew up in Zimbabwe and that his mother became a Christian because of the work of a United Methodist missionary from North Alabama Mildred Taylor. "Mildred gave Jesus to my mother and my mother gave Jesus to me. I am standing here because of what Mildred did."
The next order of business was hearing from the Children's Discipleship team. Rev. Don Barnett and Children's Coordinator Rev. Danette Schader shared sotries of current children;s ministries throughout the conference and presented learning opportunities coming in the next year to help local chuch's further strengthen their work with children.
The Youth Discipleship Team then presented a video highlighting the work the Conference has done giving local churches and youth opportunities to further their discipleship such as the annual Gatlinburg retreat and the New York /Washington Citizenship tour.
The Conference then heard the report of the Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry. After hearing the report from Huntingdon College, the discussion once again turned to the budget decisions the Conference had made on Friday. This led to Dr. Bill Morgan, pastor of Canterbury UMC to issue an invitation from the floor that other pastors and laity join him and focus on raising the funding that was cut for the institutions of Birmingham-Southern College, Huntingdon College and the United Methodist Children's Home.
Conference Treasurer Scott Selman also made an offer that his office would prepare and send a letter to each church, separate from each church's apportionment package, to let each congregation know what their Conference asking for these institutions would have been if the funding had been raised back to 2006 levels as a guideline church's could choose to work toward.
The Conference then moved to the Ethnic Ministry report. It was a video that shared and celebrated many stories of the ministries in multicultural and ethnic minority churches throughout the conference.
The Conference then paused for a special service of worship in which they remember those clergy and clergy spouses who have died since the last Annual Conference meeting. During this Memorial Service Rev. Bill Boastick preached and the following people were remembered
The afternoon session began with Dr. Mickey Morgan and Rev. Al Lewis both taking a personal previledge and thanking Bishop Willimon for his work here in North Alabama.
The Conference then heard the report of the statistician. Rev. Kenny Baskins reported that during the last year the Conference had lost 2844 people from the membership roles. He thanked those pastors who had led the process in their congregations to clean up the roles, so that each church's numbers are more accurate.
The next group of reports came from the Advocacy for Social Justice Team. The team first recognized the Conference's Louise Branscomb Barrier Breaker Award recipient for the year Rev. Helen Shelly Willoughby.
The report then turned to other Social Justice issues and much discussion. The Church and Society team presented several position papers that were written to help local church's discuss issues within the United Methodist social principles and tradition. The paper of Abortion was voted to be tabled by the Conference during this time.
The Conference then heard a report from Randy Kelly and Rev. Doyce Dowdy of the Religion and Race team. The report was a challenge for each congregation to get a free book on racism and use the book to read and guide discussion. The team will then host an event with the book's author Dr. Tony Campolo along with Bishop Willimon to discuss the issue on a wider basis as a Conference.
The Resolutions and Petitions Committee then presented a resolution dealing with the Iraq war. After much discussion and debate, the conference endorsed a substitute to the original resolution by a vote of 329 to 250.
The Servants Like Jesus Team then reported. During the report one of the things the team lifted up was the work of the North Alabama Conference in the area of disaster relief. Director of Mission and Advocacy Rev. Patrick Friday and Disaster Response Coordinator Steve Kilgore thank the Annual Conference for these efforts and showed a video presentation.
As the afternoon session closed Rev. Dale Cohen asked Rev. Tommy Gray pastor of Clearbranch UMC to the stage. Rev. Gray invited the Conference to hold its 2007 session at Clearbranch UMC. Rev. Cohen announced that the 2007 session will be Friday and Saturday June 1-2 at Clearbranch and will include the Ordination Service. He then said the Commissioning Service will be later in June at Trinity UMC in Huntsville and the Conference will hold its Annual Memorial Service as an All saints Service in November at Gadsden First UMC.
The Conference then transitioned to the Sending Forth Service. As the Service began Bishop Willimon declared the Clergy Appointments fixed . Worshippers then saw a video testimony of the 1956 General Conference that granted Full Clergy Rights to Women. During the Sermon Bishop Willimon preached , he said, "Now I've just fixed the appointments, determined the destiny, sent out to preach, restricted the lives, risked the futures of a little over six hundred prisoners of the Lord. Otherwise known as Methodist preachers. In a culture willing to fight a bloody war, to risk our future and our children in the name of freedom, do you know how odd it is to find over six hundred willing women and men to sacrifice their freedom, to risk and to restrict their liberty to be prisoners for the Lord?" Clergy Women served communion as Annual Conference members and visitors were send forth for another year of ministry and making disciples of Jesus Christ.