May 29, 2014

Bishops Gabriel Unda Yemba (center, left) of the East Congo Area and Peggy Johnson of the Philadelphia Area lead the opening worship procession for the EPA Annual Conference, May 15, accompanied by members of New Life UMC in Upper Darby.  Rev. S. J. Mundell photo

The spirited praise and worship that began the 2014 Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference burst forth in vivid pageantry and vivacious African rhythms of music and dance. No less energetic was the teaching that followed, when mega-church pastor the Rev. Mike Slaughter shared empirical–and at times, radical–wisdom on ministries and principles essential for “Growing Vital Congregations.”

With that theme, the EPA Conference’s 228th annual session began with a bang on May 15.  But after three days of reports and presentations, inspiring worship, and challenging legislative debates, it ended in subdued relief when presiding Bishop Peggy Johnson finally pronounced the meeting of more than 900 delegates adjourned.  

After separate meetings of clergy and lay members, the conference commenced Thursday afternoon at the Philadelphia Area Expo Center in Oaks, Pa., with a prayer to “bless the ground” offered by local Native American musician Barry Lee.

Celebrative worship ensued, heralded by “the sound of the drum,” played by African members of New Life United Methodist Church (UMC) in Upper Darby. They led Bishop Johnson and visiting Bishop Gabriel Unda Yemba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in a dancing procession to the stage singing a Zimbabwean hymn, “Hakuna Wakaita Sa Jesu.”

Several African languages and French were heard in Scripture, prayer and song throughout the Communion service. Meanwhile, guest music director Mark Miller and his small but gifted band of musicians and vocalists further enhanced the soul-stirring worship experience.

‘The Lord knows me,’ says East Congo Bishop

Bishop Unda preached in his native Otetela, as Annette Onema of First UMC Germantown interpreted for him. She is the daughter of retired Congolese Bishop Onema Fama.  

The new bishop, elected in 2012 to lead the new East Congo Episcopal Area, preached about God claiming Jacob as his own, despite his faults, renaming him Israel and promising to bless him and his progeny.

“The Lord knows me,” asserted Unda, mentioning the recent deaths of his wife and daughter, his capture and imprisonment by rebel soldiers, and the prayers that he believes stopped his planned execution. “We are all here because God knows us. I am a witness.”

After his sermon Bishop Unda, who will host Bishop Johnson on her visit to the East Congo Area in August, described and depicted in slides conditions and needs in his area, as well as ministries that include a school, maternity wards for new mothers, and basic shelter and rebuilt homes for people displaced by civil war.

The evening ended and Friday morning began with the Rev. Mike Slaughter, an influential  speaker, author and church-planting, church-growing visionary. He shared nearly four hours of wisdom from his 35 years as lead-pastor of the renowned, 5,000-member Ginghamsburg UMC, a multicultural, multi-campus, mission-focused congregation based in Tipp City, Ohio, near Dayton.

Slaughter: ‘Pastors should empower teams’

“We are people of the Resurrection, and we need a mission strategy to bring people into a life-celebrating, sustaining relationship with Jesus Christ,” said Slaughter. Warning that many pastors are “trying to do too many things,” he showed a diagram contrasting two triangles. The traditional one positioned the congregation at the broad base, church leaders in the middle and the pastor at the narrow point where only limited ministry and evangelism can happen. The inverted triangle reversed that order, placing the pastor at the bottom point, church leaders in the middle and the congregation at the broader top where more ministry and evangelism can happen. 

“We’ve gotten rid of every committee in our church…which was illegal (in our denomination) until 1996,” said Slaughter. He challenged the attentive audience to “minimize meetings and maximize mission.

“The pastor should empower teams, not committees…which exist mostly to approve stuff for the pastor to do anyway.” 

Slaughter, who answered questions and signed copies of his books after his talk, showed living examples of his inverted triangle in short videos portraying laity who were empowered to take the lead in outreach ministries and evangelism, both local and worldwide. Some have even become Ginghamsburg-nurtured local pastors of innovative new-church starts, without the benefit–or the burden, in his view–of seminary education.

“I believe the future of pastoral ministry in many churches is the licensed local pastor,” he proclaimed.

Slaughter outlined three ingredients every “contagious leader” needs: a picture of God’s purpose for new ministry; a strategic plan to realize that vision; and some “repetitious, persistent practices” to inculcate key principles of faith and effective ministry into the hearts and habits of the congregation.

Among those who may disagree with him, however, about the importance of a seminary education were some new seminary graduates who were about to become full and provisional elders and deacons. The Service of Ordination and Commissioning Friday was deeply moving as always with a grand procession, the singing of majestic hymns of faith, the presentation and examination of those to be commissioned and ordained, the placing of hands upon their heads for prayer and consecration, and finally the bishop’s invitation that inspired more than a dozen lay members to come forward in response to God’s call to ordained ministry.

Honoring new, retired and expired clergy

In her sermon Bishop Johnson addressed seven new elders, seven provisional elders, three provisional deacons and one elder transferring his orders. She advised them all to manifest the wisdom of Ephesians 4:1-6 by walking “in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” 

Hours earlier she recognized 19 new clergy retirees for having lived and served in a manner worthy of their calling for many years. Five retirees were featured in brief videos sharing insights and experiences from their years of ministry. Many will continue to serve part-time as pastors. But all were applauded by conference attendees before passing the mantle of service to the new class of ordinands.

Also honored in a poignant memorial service were three United Methodist bishops, 15 EPA Conference clergy and 22 clergy spouses who all expired and entered the “Church Triumphant” since the 2013 annual conference. Their names were read amid silence, as a bell tolled, and friends and family members either stood or came forward to place red and white carnations in a vase on the altar.

The Rev. Byung Woo Cho, founding pastor of the Lighthouse Korean UMCin Glenside, Pa., preached about true, sacrificial faith. He honored the memory of early American Methodist missionaries who brought the gospel to Korea, as well as the recently departed saints who served in this conference. A mass choir of members from several Korean congregations sang during the service.

Reports, presentations, awards

In addition to these special moments there were numerous reports from:

  • the Council on Finance and Administration, whose proposed 2015 total budget of $3,150,000–a nearly $285,000 decrease from 2014–was approved (including a $50,000 increase in program and administration funding but nearly $335,000 less in the amount designated to help retire the pre-1982 unfunded pension liability debt).
  • Connectional Ministries, which highlighted an array of diverse ministries initiated or supported by conference program staff, boards and committees.
  • Leaders of the “Fulfilling Our Covenant” Capital Campaign to retire the pre-1982 pension debt, who celebrated raising $3.7 million in pledges, surpassing the $3 million goal.
  • Conference Lay Leader Mary White, who was honored for her eight years of service and leadership;
  • District Superintendents, who reported on church property matters, three church closures, and various district and congregational ministry highlights over the past year.
  • the Council on Youth Ministries, including Adrienne Newcomer’s reflections on her “life-changing” experience as one of three EPA Conference youth on the 2014 Mission of Peace to South Africa.
  • the Rev. David Ryan on the conference’s Congo Partnership global mission project.
  • United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men; and
  • the Monitoring Team, which evaluated the conference session’s racial, gender and disability inclusiveness.

Moreover, two special presentations marked the 150th anniversaries of both the former, all-black, predecessor Delaware Conference and Simpson House, the conference-affiliated assisted-care and nursing facility for seniors in Philadelphia.

Cynthia Kent, president of the Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Native American Ministries, came from New Jersey to speak briefly about the importance of preparing for the Service of Repentance and Reconciliation with Native Americans that all annual conferences are charged to observe in 2015.

David Koch was recognized as the new Conference Lay Leader for 2014-2018. And newly-trained Certified Lay Ministers who will graduate in June were also presented.

Denman Awards for exemplary clergy, lay and youth leadership in evangelism were presented to the Rev. Michael Roberts, pastor of Eastwick UMC, Conference Lay Leader Mary White and Sierra Shoudt-Reddi, an active youth member of St, Matthew’s UMC Valley Forge. Kim Jefferson Urban Ministry Awards went to East Stroudsburg UMC for its leadership in the Monroe County Homeless Initiative and St. Matthew’s UMC in Reading for its innovative outreach events to serve families and youth in its community.

Finally, the conference deliberated, amended and voted on most of the 25 resolutions it received, completing a near-marathon six-hour legislative session before the conference adjourned Saturday evening.

But it referred to the Cabinet six controversial resolutions on how the conference should view and address challenges to the denomination’s rules disallowing same-sex marriage ceremonies and homosexual ordained clergy. Those resolutions will be considered in dialogues the bishop and Cabinet members will hold with clergy and laity in each district in the fall.

More detailed accounts of the outcomes of resolutions, the CFA budget and other significant annual conference matters will appear in subsequent news stories.

–By John W. Coleman, EPA Conference Communications Director

Photos: Sabrina Deluisio, Jim Mundell, John Coleman