EPA Annual Conference to vote on 24 resolutions

Editor’ Note: This NewSpirit article about resolutions proposed to the 2014 Annual Conference is only an abridged summary and lacks many of the details of each resolution. Members to Annual Conference are urged to read the entire resolutions, which can be found on the conference Web site at http://epaumc.org/events/annualconference/2014-resolutions. You may also request a hard copy of the resolutions from your district office.

Members of the EPA 2014 Annual Conference will deliberate over two dozen resolutions, rendering their decisions after wading through numerous “whereases” and “be it resolveds.” The resolutions range from church closures to advocacy for global concerns, from avoiding church trials to changes in clergy housing standards and retiree health care policies. And finally, they include recommendations for funding of 14 Conference Advance Specials.

Resolutions for “discontinuance” of three churches represent the final step in a process that includes a charge conference vote, consent from district and Cabinet leaders, distribution of property and other assets, and finally transfer of historical documents to the conference archives. Crozierville (Resolution #2014-01) and New Covenant in Drexel Hill (#2014-02) both closed in late 2013; and historic Narbeth’s closure (#2014-07), if upheld, will be final July1.

Retiree Health Insurance Resolutions

The EPA Board of Pension and Health Benefits will present five resolutions to the conference session for approval. With predictions fairly certain that health care insurance carriers will inflate premiums in 2015, the board proposes that it have the flexibility, prior to the next conference session, to change insurance carriers or modify the conference’s insurance plan to reduce any premium increase that exceeds 10 percent. (#2014-03)

The board also resolves that the full pension and disability payments to any duly retired or disabled clergy member of the conference in 2015 be designated as rental/housing allowance, a designation allowed by the Internal Revenue Service. (#2014-04)

The benefits board further proposes that the Adoption Agreement to the Clergy Retirement Security Program (CRSP) be endorsed for 2015 as the base retirement plan for all clergy under episcopal appointment in the conference, except for those on incapacity leave who do not receive Comprehensive Protection Plan disability benefits. The resolution (#2014-05) sets the Past-Service Rate for the pre-1982 Ministerial Pension Plan at $502 for retired clergy covered under that plan. And Resolution #2014-06 seeks approval of the conference’s required Comprehensive Funding Plan for fulfilling all its benefits obligations in 2015.

A final benefits resolution (#2014-13) concerns retiree health care, allowing the board the option in 2015 to enroll with AmWins or another similar health insurance exchange plan. The move could relieve the conference of daily administration tasks related to retiree health care and provide retirees with a Health Reimbursement Account (HRA) and annual subsidy, plus a medical plan with more “one-on-one assistance,” flexibility and options. The resolution tries to stem the conference’s fast-expanding future unfunded liability burden for Post-Retirement Health Insurance.

The resolution reports that 32 out of 57 conferences no longer offer a retiree health plan because of future unfunded liability containment. Many report that individual plan usage and a subsidy not tied to the premium resulted in decreases of a third or more of their post-retirement future liabilities as well as reduced annual medical costs for retirees. Moreover, the resolution contends, more affordable cost rates may become available through AmWins or other individual plans by 2015, which is why the board requests authority to change retiree medical insurance carriers or plans for 2015 before the next annual conference convenes.

While spouses will continue to be eligible for retiree health benefits, the resolution outlines proposed eligibility and coverage changes, including the discontinuation of the Pre-Funding plan with no future enrollments as of December 31, 2014.

Resolution #2014-16, presented by the Disability Concerns Committee, also addresses a clergy health concern,  proposing that the Joint Committee on Clergy Medical Leave, along with other relevant bodies, examine the fairness and feasibility of the 2012 General Conference action that discontinued the payment of benefits for non-severe mental illness after two years. It recommends that the committee be tasked to bring a report to the 2015 Annual Conference, along with a plan of response that may include sending a resolution to the 2016 General Conference to reconsider this policy that applies only to mental illness.

Resolution #2014-08 proposes new housing guidelines and parsonage standards, as requested by the 2013 Annual Conference. The Bishop’s ad hoc Housing Task Force’s detailed document represents the first comprehensive revision since 1991.  Meanwhile, Resolution #2014-15, presented by Mark Moore of the Commission on Equitable Compensation, recommends a 2 percent increase in minimum starting salaries for full-and part-time pastors in 2015.

Resolutions on Church Law

Seven resolutions that may incite debate on the conference floor address both sides of the issue of church trials that prosecute clergy who violate the United Methodist Book of Discipline’s prohibition against performing same-gender marriage ceremonies.

Resolution #2014-09, presented by the Rev. Joseph DiPaolo, relates to “Affirming our Covenant and Accountability.” It asks the Conference to hold all clergy accountable to their covenantal vows of ordination and to call upon those who cannot abide by that covenant to “withdraw themselves from our connection,” in order to avoid judicial proceedings.

Resolution #2014-10, presented by the Rev. Joan Trout, calls for “Affirming Standards of Sexual Practice.” It asks the conference to reaffirm that the Discipline’s prohibition against homosexuality is a prohibition against “practices but never persons.” It thus rejects charges that the church is “engaged in discrimination against persons” and denies that the church “causes harm to anyone” by demanding its clergy practice “celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage.” But the resolution also calls upon the Conference to emphasize “its commitment to remain ‘in ministry for and with all persons,’” regardless of sexual orientation.

Resolution #2014-19, “relating to Christian love and unity,” calls upon the Conference to “avoid resorting to the last resort of church trials” and keep focused on Jesus Christ’s priorities “which focused less on human sexuality…and more on matters such as peace, poverty and prayer.”  Presented by Ruth Daugherty, the resolution calls for “a wider church where all people feel safe and welcome” and where members are more determined to “stay in respectful conversation with each other.”

Resolution #2014-20 asks the Conference to call for any Board of Ordained Ministry or District Committee on Ministry member who commits a chargeable offense, or who publicly defies its rules or advocates doing so to “consider voluntarily withdrawing” from that board or committee. The resolution, presented by the Revs. Bob Wilt, John Longmire and Joan Trout and also by Mary White, bases its conclusion on a need to protect “the integrity” of the board and committees charged with overseeing the practice of ministry.

Three other related resolutions come collectively from Arch Street UMC, Drexel Hill UMC, Penns Park UMC, Calvary UMC (University City, Philadelphia), First UMC Germantown and Swarthmore UMC.
Resolution #2014-22 calls upon the Conference to affirm, adopt and promote a “Statement of Principle” approved by the 2012 Northeastern Jurisdictional (NEJ) Conference that supports the “civil and ecclesiastical rights and privileges of all persons, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons” and that opposes church laws that restrict their rights and privileges.

The 2012 NEJ statement affirms as acting in faith with that principle, and with the commandment of Jesus Christ, anyone who conscientiously violates church law to offer “the ministries and sacraments of the church to all persons on an equal basis.”  It also views anyone who would punish such violators of church law as acting contrary to the denomination’s “highest ideals” and risking “grave harm to LGBT persons, their loved ones…faithful clergy and the United Methodist Church itself.”  The resolution, which the Rev. Herbert J. Snyder will present, further calls upon the Conference to admit that such extensive “grave harm” was caused by the church trials of former clergy members Irene “Beth” Stroud and Frank Schaefer.

Resolution #2014-24 asks the Conference to affirm Bishop Peggy Johnson’s Dec. 16, 2013, public statement that, “Church trials around the chargeable offenses that relate to the LGBT community are not helpful. They use time, resources and energy that could be better used for the ministry of the church. I will continue to try in every way to avoid having church trials, as far as it depends on me…”

The resolution, to be presented by Wilhelmina Young of Arch Street UMC, describes church trials as contrary to Jesus’ ways of resolving conflict and to the goal of achieving “just resolution of differences in the Body of Christ.” It further asks the Conference to make church trials for charged offences related to the LGBT community a “matter of last resort,” and it demands that the EPA Conference Communications Office use all appropriate media to promote that official position “in response to such charges or a trial anywhere in the denomination.”

And Resolution #2014-23 asks the Conference to support passage of bi-partisan bills before both houses of the state legislature (HB and SB 300) that would amend the state’s Human Relations Act to ensure LGBT persons “freedom from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.” The resolution, to be presented by the Rev. Sharon Vandegrift, asks that Bishop Johnson and all clergy and lay members be encouraged to communicate the Conference’s endorsement of the bills to state lawmakers and to Gov. Tom Corbett, who also supports the bills.

‘Journey toward Wholeness’

Two other resolutions address discrimination in another context: from opposite ends of the conference’s past and present struggles with race.

Resolution #2014-12 calls for “A Yearlong Commemoration of Our Journey toward Wholeness” to celebrate both the birth of the former, all-black Delaware Conference in 1864—150 years ago—and the vote to dissolve it a century later in 1964. The first of many racially segregated conferences in early Methodism, it resulted from oppressed African Americans’ yearning for dignity and self-determination through black leadership and more control of their own churches and ecclesial affairs.  Members and churches of the Delaware Conference located in the Eastern Pa. area officially merged with the white Philadelphia Conference in 1965, and thus, the racially integrated EPA Conference was formed. It was a precursor to the broader desegregation and merger that produced The United Methodist Church in 1968. The resolution, to be presented by the Rev. David Brown, who leads a joint committee representing the EPA and Peninsula–Delaware conferences, suggests activities for a yearlong commemoration that will also honor the 50th anniversary of the 1965 conference merger.

Resolution #2014-11 moves the quest for meaningful racial integration into the present by offering a “Process for Making Cross-Racial and Cross-Cultural Appointments.” Submitted by the Conference Commission on Religion and Race and the Healing the Wounds of Racism Core Team, it will be presented by the Rev. Scott Friedgen-Veitch and Mert Shane, members of the respective groups. The process responds to growing cultural diversity in many communities, the need for more cultural competence and sensitivity among congregations and leaders, and the Cabinet’s commitment to make cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments annually. It recommends open dialogue, careful assessment of readiness among congregations and clergy, and training events, in addition to providing appointment transition and intervention teams and other ongoing support.

Mission Outreach; Global Justice

Four other resolutions encourage churches to look and reach outward, beyond themselves, to respond to missional needs and concerns in their communities, across the conference and around the world.

Resolution #2014-14 calls for the Conference to communicate to the U.S. President, Secretary of State and U.N. delegation concern for the prejudice, injustice and persecution suffered by Christians living in many countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia—especially those under majority Muslim control. Submitted by the Rev. J. Timothy Fisher and the Church Council of Bushkill UMC, the resolution describes examples of persecution of Christian minority groups in Muslim countries and requests the Conference to ask top U.S. government and diplomatic officers to advocate for their protection and fair treatment “as a basic and integral part of any negotiations and conversations with all nations wherein Christians are found.” It also resolves that the United Methodist Board of Church and Society be asked to advocate to U.S. leaders on behalf of victimized Christian minority groups and that the Board of Global Ministries be asked to produce resources to help churches and conferences engage in collaborative mission outreach to those groups.

The resolution further urges the Conference to advocate to the National and World councils of churches through their United Methodist representatives and to encourage EPA churches to engage in prayer, study and advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians.

Resolution #2014-18 addresses the “Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza” caused by the containment of Palestinian residents there by Israeli guards and severe restrictions on the flow of survival necessities into that troubled region of the Middle East. The resolution, to be presented by George Bergey, comes from the Bishop’s Task Force on Israel-Palestine, a task force called for by the 2013 Annual Conference in response to appeals from UM missionaries and Palestinian and Israeli advocates for more humane and lawful treatment of Gaza’s people. It asks the Conference to support “human rights and the free flow of humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza” and to advocate to U.S. officials for pressure on both Israel and Egypt to ease severe restrictions at their North and South checkpoints into and out of Gaza. The task force also wants churches to support the efforts of various humanitarian aid agencies, including UMCOR, and to take a yearly offering for UMCOR’s humanitarian relief work in Gaza.

Resolution #2014-17’s focus, however, is on “Local Church Outreach and Mission Work.” It encourages EPA congregations to increase such work “by at least four hours a month,” either independently or cooperatively. Presented by the Rev. Mark Terry and Oxford UMC’s Missions Committee, the resolution asks churches to report at their charge conferences how those additional hours “in ministry with the poor” are spent serving their local communities.

14 Conference Advance Specials Proposed

Resolution #2014-21 reflects the EPA Conference’s commitment to ministry with the poor by recommending 14 Conference Advance Specials, which are ministries that need and may receive designated, “second-mile” giving support from churches that have first paid their financial commitments to the conference and the general church. The resolution, submitted by the Rev. David J. Davis, EPA Conference Secretary of Global Ministries, asks for approved projects to have access to needed funds beginning June 1.

The projects and amounts recommended for 2014-2015 are:

•    Cokesbury Summer Reading and Lunch Program: $3,000
•    Hempfield Academy: $4,000
•    Hope Christian Counseling: $3,000
•    Hope on the Hill: $3,500
•    Lehigh Valley Outreach Depot: $9,000
•    LUMINA: $10,000
•    Methodist Services for Children and Families / Methodist Family Services of Philadelphia ((MSCF/MFSP): $2,000
•    Midtown Parish UMC Sanctuary Development Campaign: $200,000
•    Mount Zion Food Cupboard Ministry: $2,600
•    New Journey Community Outreach: $10,000
•    Northwest District H.U.B.: $5,000
•    Red Bird Trailer Mission Team: $6,000
•    Spiritual Renewal Ministries: $10,000
•    United Methodist Neighborhood Services: $20,000

Descriptions of approved Conference Advance Special projects will be available on the conference Web site after Annual Conference.

By John W. Coleman, EPA Conference Communications Director