Message from NAC3 Team – A Vision for Our Future
A Word of Greeting
Grace and peace in the name of Our Savior, Jesus Christ! We thank God for each and every congregation in North Alabama. Through our churches, countless people have come to know the love, grace and transforming power of Jesus Christ, and are growing in the Christian faith day by day.
While we all continue to focus on making disciples for Jesus Christ during this challenging season, some of our clergy and churches are withdrawing from The United Methodist Church to join other Methodist expressions or to become independent. We wish those congregations well and want them to succeed. We are committed to blessing them in their departure. We do this acknowledging that the mission of God’s Church is greater than any one denomination.
We also acknowledge there is anxiety. For some, there is concern that they will be forced to compromise their convictions relative to human sexuality and same-sex weddings, or that those in other geographic areas of the church are acting outside the bounds of the Book of Discipline. For others, there is weariness and grief from delayed changes to the Book of Discipline, and a compromised ability to fully minister to the needs of their congregation and community. For all of us, there is sadness around the perpetual conflict within our churches and denomination, a stream of conflicting information and the departure of many of our brothers and sisters from our beloved denomination.
At the same time, we anticipate that the majority of the North Alabama Conference, including persons and churches across the theological spectrum, will remain United Methodist. Here in North Alabama, we have honored and will continue to honor our covenant together. Despite personal objections to our current standards, our progressive clergy have kept their vows to uphold the Discipline. Many of our conservative churches have continued to fully support their connectional giving, even in this season of uncertainty. A church that includes traditionalists, centrists and progressives is well equipped to reach an increasingly complex world for Christ. We believe, through the grace of God, that our best days are before us, not behind us. This document seeks to give clarity towards that vision.
For the last several months, our NAC3 team has been working to discern a way for us to not only live together as an annual conference, but for us to be more effective in disciple-making as a result of our togetherness. The NAC3 team is a diverse group of North Alabama clergy and lay leaders committed to Christ, community and clarity. As the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church moves into the future together, our NAC3 team envisions a conference where our differences are honored, our ministries fit our local contexts and our connection leaves us stronger.
A Vision for Our Future
We envision a future where our distinctive practices of ministry and the convictions of our pastors and local churches do not stand in the way of our witness, but complement it. To accomplish this, we commit ourselves to three principles moving forward:
- We will honor existing convictions in the appointment-making process.
For many of our congregations, the conversation around human sexuality is not only divisive, but also peripheral to their particular context. Declaring a position on human sexuality will bring unnecessary conflict into these congregations, damaging our United Methodist witness in those communities. For some of our local churches, holding together many people who are not of one mind is not a flaw, but a feature of their fellowship.
For other clergy and churches across the theological spectrum, the conversation around human sexuality strikes at the heart of scriptural authority, the gospel of Christ and people they love.
All clergy and churches will be able to communicate these convictions utilizing a process outlined by the Bishop and the Appointive Cabinet. The Bishop and Cabinet will work closely with Staff-Parish Relations Committees to ensure that convictions are honored, especially in the appointment process. Additionally, congregations may continue to designate their connectional giving for ministries funded by the Annual Conference budget or other ministries within the boundaries of the Annual Conference.
- We will seek paths for gracious exit beyond General Conference 2024.
Currently, some churches feel an urgency to pursue disaffiliation under Book of Discipline ¶2553. Out of our desire to promote intentional Spirit-led discernment, the leadership of the North Alabama Conference is committed to be creative, fair and non-punitive in negotiating with departing congregations, after ¶2553 expires in December 2023.
The Conference Board of Trustees, has a long history of being gracious and fair with departing congregations. The NAC3 team will work with district and conference leadership and the Conference Board of Trustees to ensure ongoing fair and gracious negotiations regarding the disposition of property of closed churches. Such commitments would not end with our current bishop’s tenure, regardless of when that may be.
- We will focus on discipleship and shared mission.
While we acknowledge diversity of belief around some matters, we share a commitment to core historical and theological beliefs, including but not limited to:
- A practical theology grounded in Scripture
- A high view of the authority of Scripture including belief in the virgin birth; Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; and the Triune God
- Sacramental theology, emphasizing Christian baptism and Christ’s table available to all
- Balance between heart and head, law and grace, personal and social holiness
- Affirmation of women in ministry
- Commitment to multicultural ministry
- A belief in the sacred power of connectionalism
Our focus will be on making disciples rather than building programs. We foresee a renewed emphasis on doing new things in new places to reach new people by forming teams to innovate, experiment and implement effective ministry strategies. This will become paramount as we endeavor to create new expressions of United Methodism in communities left without a United Methodist presence.
We will share a renewed commitment to Wesleyan models of evangelism to reach new people for Jesus Christ, and unite around love and service of neighbor.
Finally, we foresee a renewed focus in our churches to discover and meet the needs of the people in the communities we serve.
The North Alabama Conference has quite a history of making a significant difference in our communities and world: Sumatanga Camp and Conference Center, Embrace Alabama Kids (formerly known as the United Methodist Children’s Home of Alabama and West Florida), Methodist Homes of Alabama and Northwest Florida (which focuses on eldercare), $1 million raised for Imagine No Malaria, Superannuate Homes for retired clergy, our on-going support of ministries to Ukrainian refugees including nearly $75,000 given through the 2022 Annual Conference mission offering, 638 United Methodist Churches in North Alabama, Birmingham-Southern College, our Wesley Foundations and more!
Our connection to each other and our commitment to serve the world, in spite of our differences, becomes a witness to the sufficiency of Christ and the truth of the resurrection.
A Final Word
John Wesley’s passion was not only to preach the gospel to individuals, but to create structures and relationships that fostered discipleship in community. Our connection within the North Alabama Annual Conference manifests itself in the ways we call forth and share clergy, our commitment to a global mission and our shared confession of the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church. Not only are we stronger together, our connection to one another fosters accountability, wisdom and partnership. In seasons of strength, our local churches share that strength with the larger connection. In seasons of struggle, the local church is served by the connection. None of our congregations need stand alone.
North Alabama United Methodism would be less without traditionalists. We would be less without centrists. We would be less without progressives.
Our differences are not new, they have existed for our 150+ years as the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church and ancestor denominations. Bishops and cabinets across the decades have worked to align the skills and theologies of clergy and churches in ways optimal to the church’s mission of disciple-making for the transformation of the world. It is time now for us to move forward together.
We envision a future where our differences allow us to reach more persons for Christ. We foresee a renewed emphasis on class meetings, fresh expressions of United Methodism in communities, including those left without a local UMC, and a connection not defined by conflict. It will require work from all of us. We must tend to relationships that we have neglected. We will have to be gracious with one another, attend to one another in prayer and seek the mind of Christ as we humbly put ourselves toward the task at hand.
As challenging as this work will be, we need not do it alone. May our shared ministry in this divisive season be a witness to the world that Our Savior is alive, and because He lives, our story is not done yet, either.
Bishop Debbie Wallace-Padgett
Rev. Brian Erickson, co-chair
Rev. Sherill Clontz
Rev. Rick Owen
Rev. Tom Parrish
Rev. Donald Smith
Rev. Keith Thompson