The 2018 North Alabama Annual Conference gathered at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville, Alabama, from Sunday, June 3 to Tuesday, June 5 under the theme of “Singing God’s Song in Harmony.”
Sunday began with clergy and lay members from all corners of the Conference area gathering and checking in at their District table. Old friends took time to catch up and new acquaintances were made.
The session opened at 4 p.m. with the traditional singing of “And Are We Yet Alive.” The focus of this year’s Annual Conference, the Conference priority of Ethnic Ministries, took center stage as musical groups from various congregations and ethnic backgrounds sang. The worship included music in Cherokee, Korean, Spanish and in the African-American tradition.
Special guest Bishop Sharma D. Lewis, resident bishop of the Richmond episcopal area (Virginia Annual Conference), led the Conference in a prayer for Holy Conferencing, and North Alabama Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett officially called the Conference to order.
Bishop Wallace-Padgett called on Conference Secretary Rev. Dr. Dedric Cowser to lead the conference in the organizing work of setting the bar; electing Rev. Nancy Cole, Karen Long, Rev. Tim Tatum, and Rev. Matt Reed as Assistant Conference Secretaries, Rev. Sherill Clontz as Conference Parliamentarian, and Johnny Frazier as Conference Statistician; and presenting the consent agenda.
The bishop recognized Executive Director of Ethnic Ministries Rev. Dr. Clinton Hubbard Jr. to share about the Conference priority of Ethnic Ministries. Dr. Hubbard recognized the Ethnic Ministries team which works to develop African-American, Latino, Korean, Asian and Native American spiritual leaders and to equip local ethnic congregations to grow in worship attendance, membership, baptism and professions of faith. He shared a video of highlights of the team's work over the last year.
Conference Director of Missions and Advocacy Rev. Dr. Adlene Kufarimai took the stage to make three presentations. The first was the In Mission Together Award from the General Board of Global Ministries recognizing the North Alabama Conference as one of the top ten Annual Conferences in its financial support of United Methodist missions. She also announced that the Southeastern Jurisdiction's Herman Siedschlag Award was being presented to Rachel Estes, Director of Outreach & Missions at Canterbury United Methodist Church (South Central District). Finally, she recognized Allie & David Houle who are young adult missionaries from Thailand Methodist Mission.
Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett gave a formal introduction of Bishop Sharma Lewis, the guest preacher for the 2018 Annual Conference. The Special Offering was collected. This year’s Annual Conference special offering was designated to continue and expand the work of the Conference Ethnic Ministries Team by funding ministry opportunities to strengthen and create healthier ethnic minority local churches by way of leadership recruitment, internships and young adult ministries.
Bishop Lewis preached a rousing sermon based on scripture containing the Conference theme verse. Preaching from Colossians 3:12-14, Bishop Lewis posed the question, “North Alabama, what clothes are you wearing?” She concluded, “My prayer today is that you are wrapped in the shawl of love."
Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett closed the opening worship celebration by leading those gathered in the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Rev. Woody Woodin, Director of the Upper Sand Mountain Parish, offered the blessing over dinner as the Conference prepared for a dinner break. He noted before his prayer that the Upper Sand Mountain Parish started as an idea discussed over a meal almost 50 years ago.
Following dinner, clergy and laity divided for the Clergy Executive Session and the Lay Session, the only official time clergy and laity meet separately during Annual Conference. During the Laity Session, lay members heard from Dr. Rica McRoy who shared her testimony of falling in love with Jesus.
Monday morning began with gathering music by Revs. Lucy and Hur Morales from Trinity United Methodist Church in Huntsville.
Dr. Kevin M. Watson, Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, led a teaching session. During the teaching he focused on the scripture beginning in 1 Corinthians 1:18. He talked of the importance of small groups in the Methodist movement noting that in John Wesley’s day, “a Methodists was someone who met together in small groups weekly and talked about how their soul prospered.” He discussed the class meeting and band meeting emphasizing that Methodist small groups focused on transformation and not just information. He also taught about Wesley’s definition of Christian Conferencing. Dr. Watson shared that Christian Conferencing is not just polite conversation about controversial issues, but instead it is the distinctive way Methodist got together to talk about their experiences of God and growing in love of God and neighbor. He also noted that Wesley only used the term “social holiness” once as a critique of the desert fathers who withdrew from others. Dr. Watson concluded that one key of Methodist life is "we need each other.”
As morning business began, the Conference adopted the Consent Agenda before moving to the morning’s first presentation from the Commission on Archives and History. The presentation featured Dr. William E. Nicholas, retired Wood Professor of American History at Birmingham-Southern College and author of the book Go and Be Reconciled. The new book tells the story of the United Methodist Church during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly focusing on the North Alabama Conference. Dr. Nicholas explained that in the process of writing the book he interviewed a number of key lay and clergy leaders including Louise Branscomb, John Rutland, Claude Whitehead, Denton Franklin, Bob Morgan, David Vann, and many others. Dr. Nicholas presented the first copy of the book, which was on sale at the Cokesbury display, to Bishop Wallace-Padgett.
Rev. Kelsey Grissom presented the report of the Commission on the Status and Role of Women. She noted that the video #HerTruth produced by North Alabama COSROW continues to be used by United Methodists throughout the country. She also noted that following a detailed study of salary related to gender in the North Alabama Conference, COSROW members wrote the resolution the 2018 Annual Conference will consider on Tuesday called "A Resolution Concerning Parity in Appointments." The resolution was endorsed by the Appointive Cabinet and more than 50 other members of the Annual Conference. To conclude the report Rev. Grissom presented the Louise Branscomb Barrier Breaker Award. This annual award is presented to a North Alabama United Methodist who has shown courage and willingness to take risks and stand up for the rights of women, ethnic minority persons, and other marginalized persons. Nominees for this year’s award included Rev. Stephanie Arnold (Birmingham First), Rev. Adam Burns (Church of the Reconciler), Rev. Sherri Ferguson (Vestavia Hills) and Ama Shambulia (Urban Ministry). This year’s recipient was Ama Shambulia, director of Urban Ministry’s WE Gardens and WE Café. WE Gardens beautifies and feeds the Birmingham neighborhood of West End, and WE Café is a pay-as-you-can restaurant that employs young adults from the neighborhood and teaches them restaurant skills. Ms. Shambulia accepted the award sharing her story of learning from her grandmother the importance of good clean food.
Conference Director of Lay Servant Ministries Becky Walker shared about the importance of the classes and training Lay Servant Ministries provides. She used a fictional account of how having access to Lay Servant Ministries could have helped Moses when, in Exodus, he shares his feelings of be unskilled and inadequate for the task God has called him to do.
Conference Statistician Johnny Frazier shared the Statistician’s Report noting the story the numbers of the 2017 Year End Report tell. He said, “Across 37 counties of North Alabama, roughly 60% of the state, we have 129,658 Christians as members of our 679 active churches. This is a lot of potential for influencing our communities. 1,817 worthy souls committed their life to Jesus this past year. New Christians are the most exciting and can have the greatest impact on those around them. We welcome them into our family and support them as they grow. 1,619 people received Christian baptism. Our churches reported our average attendance at just over 60,000 per Sunday and in a new category, some 4,163 averaged watching services online. We are reaching souls and those souls will reach other souls. … Local churches reported spending $132,841,387 in 2017. This comes from the extreme generosity of United Methodists in North Alabama. These same Methodists supported Conference and global church ministries in the amount of $12,034,208.”
The Ethnic Ministries focus continued as Rev. Lucy Morales and Rev. Kim Teehan reported on the work of North Alabama’s Latino and Native American Ministries teams. Rev. Morales shared about the work of reaching Latino community. She ended her report with a video of The Immigrants Creed. Rev. Teehan shared about the work of the Native American Ministries Team including their annual mission trips. The team’s 2018 mission trip to work with the Cherokee in North Carolina is August 19-24.
Rev. Lewis Archer requested a moment of personal privilege. He shared that the Ministry with the Poor Interns are now in place in Birmingham and Anniston. He explained that these young people are living in intentional community and serving their local neighborhoods with the goal to be in ministry with the poor – not do ministry to or for the poor, but to build meaningful relationships.
Northwest District Superintendent Kelly Clem presented the Property Resolutions on behalf of the Cabinet. She noted there are seven churches closing. They include the following:Central District
The Conference approved these property resolutions and Bishop Wallace-Padgett led a congregational prayer of thanksgiving for the ministries of these now disbanded congregations.
The Conference heard about the resources available from the Southeastern Jurisdiction United Methodist Volunteers in Mission through a video presentation. UMVIM, SEJ’s Executive Director is North Alabama elder Rev. Matt Lacey.
Conference Treasurer Scott Selman and President of the Council on Finance Rev. James Haskins presented the Finance Report. During this time the Conference approved the 2019 North Alabama Annual Conference proposed budget of $10,155,71. This is the same as the total budget for the last four years. The Conference also approved that North Alabama will continue to use a proportional giving (tithe) model of funding the Conference budget. The goal of the proportional giving funding model is for each local church to remit 10% (a tithe) of its unrestricted receipts on a monthly basis in support of the Conference budget and the applicable district budget. The Annual Conference also approved all other reports from the Council of Finance.
The Conference then shifted to the Board of Pension and Health Benefits report presented by Scott Selman and chairperson Brant Sanders. They reported that in 2019 HealthFlex Exchange will continue to offer participants a choice of six plans, including three gold plans (more generous), two silver plans (less generous), and one bronze plan (least generous). The Conference approved Report 10 that outlined plan designs and defined contributions. The report noted, “The Conference Board of Pension and Health Benefits anticipates using $481,000 from the health insurance reserve fund to cover plan costs in excess of local church health insurance premiums in 2019.”
Additionally, in Report 11, the Board recommended the same premium rates for 2019: Individual insurance ($740 per month); Dependent insurance ($740 per month); Family Total ($1,480 per month). After discussion of several health insurance related issues including affordability and lack of understanding by young clergy voiced by Rev. Sarah Smoot and Dr. Ken Dunivant, the Conference adopted the report and all other reports presented by the Board of Pension and Health Benefits.
Rev. Dr. Peter Von Herrmann presented the report on the work of the Conference Adult Discipleship Team. He noted, “We’re planning a series of opportunities throughout 2019 to help us develop as spiritual leaders called 'disciples together.' It will feature components such as a blog to discuss bible readings, questions to help spark discussion, and other opportunities for individuals and churches to be disciples together in 2019 and beyond. At its foundation will be a shared journey through scripture.” He invited Annual Conference members and all who are a part of North Alabama congregations to join in “Reading Together.” This is an opportunity to read through the entire Bible during the year 2019 using the plan Bishop Wallace-Padgett has used herself for years. The Bishop echoed the Adult Discipleships Team’s invitation and noted how important this practice has been to her own spiritual life.
Rev. Dr. Dedric Cowser and Sonia Gallimore, members of the Ethnic Ministries Team, shared a presentation on Black Church Initiatives. They reported on the work of the team since the 2017 Annual Conference and highlighted initiatives that will be offered during the next year including Know to Grow Leverage Workshops and Partnership Ministry Grants.
Conference Lay Leader Steve Lyles presented the annual Laity Address. He focused on the Conference theme of “harmony” and encouraged North Alabama United Methodists to continue to grow to know God, sing in harmony with God and share the good news with their communities.
Executive Director of New Church Development Rev. Dr. Richard Hunter and team presented their report. They shared stories from new congregations and ministries in North Alabama via video. North Alabama has started 60 new faith communities in 2017, more than any other annual conference in the United States. This includes Celebrate Recovery, Fresh Expressions, Satellites, new worship services, new faith communities and restarts. They also reported there have been 44 new Celebrate Recoveries started in North Alabama churches in the last three years. They introduced sixteen new church planters. Bishop Wallace-Padgett led the Conference in a prayer for new churches and church planters. Rev. John Ryberg also introduced “Shark Tank” a ministry grant competition for new, innovative ideas to reach new people.
President of Birmingham-Southern College Linda Flaherty-Goldsmith presented greetings to the Conference and offered a blessing over lunch.
Following the lunch break, the Conference gathered for the annual Memorial Service. This service is a time to celebrate and remember those clergy and clergy spouses who have died in the last year. Rev. Roger Thompson preached the service using the image of treasures in jars of clay. He noted that “God has always used people.” During the Service the following saints were remembered:
The business session began after an ice cream break sponsored by Educational Opportunities Tours.
The Board of Ministry made the afternoon’s first presentation. Executive Director Rev. Ron Shultz and Chair Rev. Sherry Harris noted that the board was celebrating four newly ordained elders, three newly ordained deacons, recognition of two new associate members, three provisional elders, one provisional deacon, 17 newly licensed local pastors and 19 certified candidates for ministry. They also noted the Board will continue its work to equip clergy by sponsoring a Preaching Academy in the fall of this year, applying for a Lilly Grant and creating a comprehensive program called Thriving in Ministry to turn around burnout and better equip all clergy to lead effectively. During this time they recognized the clergy who are retiring this Annual Conference. Those clergy include the following:
Koneisha Timmons and Marian Royston presented the next presentation offering insights on how Ethnic Ministries is reaching children, youth and millennials. They noted the Ethnic Ministry Team has been involved with many conference level efforts to engage young people such as Encounter, Camp Sumatanga, SEJ BMCR Youth Harambee, and also including Millennials on various operational teams throughout the conference.
Rev. Michael Miller presented a report on the work of the Evangelism Team and presented the annual Denman Evangelism Awards. He listed the Denman Award nominees for the year. Clergy nominees are Barry Hallman, Zac Head, Tony Johnson and Paul Vick. Nominees for laity are Rita Dobbs, Chase Allen, Amy Sizemore and Paula Phillips. The youth nominees are Billy Prewitt and Nate Tipple. Rev. Miller presented the 2018 Denman Award recipients. A video highlighting the ministry of each recipient was shown and then the winner entered the stage and was greeted and awarded a plaque by Bishop Wallace-Padgett. The winners include the following:
Rev. Mike Brinkman and Rev. Dr. Richard Stryker presented an update on North Alabama’s Racial Diversity Initiative. The two, who are members of the Conference the Courageous Conversations Team, reported the group has met over 28 months and continues to converse and to explore systemic racism, white privilege, explicit and implicit bias, cultural differences, and various means of spreading and promoting the conversation with reconciliation as the major goal. The team has also begun action by working with Ms. Betina Byrd-Giles, a nationally respected trainer based in Birmingham. She developed a four-hour course of training. The training has been offered to both the students at the Pastor Licensing School and the Bishop’s Operational Team. They also noted that the team aspires to expand its scope to include not just reconciliation between the races, but also any other Children of God who suffer from “systemic marginalization.” For instance, the group would like to expand its membership to include Latino representation and more leaders from Conference and district laity.
The final report of the afternoon came from Director of Connectional Ministries and Leadership Development Linda Holland who presented the report of the Conference Nominations Team. The report from the PreConference Book and updates handed out at Conference were approved.
On Monday night, the Conference celebrated a high point of Annual Conference with the Service of Ordination, Commissioning and Licensing at Trinity United Methodist Church. Bishop Wallace-Padgett preached encouraging the new clergy to maintain focus.
Licenses were presented to the following new Local Pastors:
The following people were ordained Elders:
The following people were ordained Deacons:
The following people were commissioned as Provisional Elders:
The following person was commissioned as a Provisional Deacon:
The following people were recognized as Associate Members:
Dr. Kevin Watson opened Tuesday morning with a teaching session. He continued his focus on small groups. He noted that Wesley emphasized sanctification and that “there is no place in Wesley’s thinking for nominal Christianity.” He also noted that discipleship is about much more than knowing. It's more than ideas and ultimately about transformation and an experience of God. He added that one challenge in our current culture is “for people who have not been speaking the language of their soul there is certain vulnerability.”
The Conference transitioned to a time of listening and discussion on A Way Forward in the United Methodist Church. The setting of the room had changed from Monday and members now sat in groups around round tables. Bishop Wallace-Padgett began by presenting accurate information about where the United Methodist Church is on the journey as a church to the 2019 General Conference. She presented information about the Commission on a Way Forward, and basics about the report being developed by the Council of Bishops to submit to the Special Session of the General Conference, which will meet in St. Louis on February 23-26, 2019. Full details of the report will be forthcoming once it is edited and translated into the four languages of the General Conference (no later than July 8). She also invited Annual Conference members to be a part of Praying Our Way Forward Phase 3, which includes a weekly Wesleyan fast and daily prayer for the United Methodist Church’s mission and way forward. Finally, the bishop announced that listening sessions will be offered again this fall. She added that they will be a partnership between her and the North Alabama Conference delegation.
Following the Bishop’s presentation, Executive Director of United Counseling Rev. Monica Harbarger walked the Conference through a time of processing around tables.
Following a morning break, Rev. Rachel Gonia reported on the Abundant Health Initiative explaining, “Abundant Health supports mental, physical and spiritual well-being is through the General Board of Global Ministries Global Health focus which is extending health interventions to one million children by 2020.” She noted giving to The Advance is one way for congregations to support many health ministries. She also invited congregations to host a Hulapalooza. She explained this fun event is great opportunity for community outreach, a way to promote personal health and a means to support health-related missional opportunities.
As business continued, lay members and deacons and elders in full connection cast ballots on the correct text of an amendment to the UMC constitution approved by the 2016 General Conference. North Alabama’s votes will be sent to the Secretary of the General Conference to be added to all other Annual Conference votes.
The full Conference then focused on this year's Petition and Resolutions.
The first item was “A Petition Concerning Clergy Appointments to Home Church” This petition received a unanimous vote of non-concurrence by the Committee on Procedures and Petitions. There was no discussion. The petition was not adopted by voice vote of the Annual Conference.
The second item was “A Resolution Supporting Childcare Licensing and Inspection.” This resolution received a unanimous vote of concurrence by the Committee on Procedures and Petitions. There was no discussion. The petition was adopted by a voice vote of the Annual Conference.
The third item was “A Resolution Concerning HealthFlex Insurance Plan.” This resolution received a unanimous vote of non-concurrence by the Committee on Procedures and Petitions. The petition was not adopted by a voice vote of the Annual Conference.
As discussion was opened for the HealthFlex resolution, young adult member Tyler Smoot brought up the previous day’s question about education for young clergy to understand the insurance options and affordability noting there was never a formal motion made. Executive Director of the Board of Ministry Rev. Ron Shultz committed that the Board of Ministry will hosting learning sessions for young clergy. Additionally, Conference Treasurer Scott Selman explained one of the ongoing tasks of the Conference Board of Pension and Health Benefits is to research affordable insurance options. Mr. Smoot stated he was satisfied and opted to withdraw his motion.
The fourth item was “A Resolution Concerning Parity in Appointments.” This resolution received a unanimous vote of concurrence by the Committee on Procedures and Petitions. There was no discussion. The petition was adopted by a voice vote of the Annual Conference.
The fifth and final item was “A Resolution Concerning Unity.” This resolution received a vote of concurrence by the Committee on Procedures and Petitions with 6 members voting concurrence and 1 member voting non-concurrence. There was discussion on this resolution. Rev. R.G. Wilson-Lyons and Rev. Lyle Holland took a moment to make a statement encouraging those who knew they disagreed theologically on some issues to show respect to each other. Resolution submitters Jim Starnes and Rev. Charles Alexander, as well as, Dr. Andrew Keith spoke in favor of the resolution. Rev. Vaughn Stafford, Rev. Dr. Tiwirai Kufarimai and Anne Lee spoke against the resolution. During discussion Rev. Wade Griffith tried to offer a friendly amendment. The Bishop explained the Conference would need to suspend its rules in order to allow the addition of an amendment from the floor. The Conference voted against suspending the rules by a voice vote. Members then voted on the resolution through a written vote. The resolution was not adopted by a vote of 240 yes to 412 no.
Following lunch, the Conference gathered for Closing Worship and the Sending Forth. Bishop Wallace-Padgett began by leading the Conference through four minutes of prayer for the United Methodist Church as part of the Praying Our Way Forward Phase 3. Rev. Dr. Clinton Hubbard, Jr. reported on future possibilities of Ethnic Ministries and introduced the new Executive Director of Ethnic Ministries Rev. Donald Smith.
As Closing Worship began, District Superintendents read clergy appointment changes and District Lay Leaders or Lay Servant Ministry Directors offered a prayer for clergy and congregations in their district. After the reading of the appointments, Bishop Wallace-Padgett declared the appointments fixed. Following music led by Tommie Lockheart and Carmelita Gandy, Bishop Sharma Lewis preached the sending forth sermon. She encouraged North Alabama congregations to “take Jesus to the streets.” The Conference answered with the hymn “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.”
Northeast District Superintendent offered an invitation for the North Alabama Conference to once again meet in Huntsville on June 2-5, 2019. His motion was approved without discussion. Bishop Wallace-Padgett offered a benediction and dismissed the Conference.