Opening Worship Procession, 2015 Annual Conference

Looking back, leaning forward: Annual Conference 2015

Ranging from the serious to the celebratory, the 2015 Eastern PA Annual Conference, May 14-16, shone its spotlight on past, present and future concerns, beyond merely voting on resolutions and General Conference delegates. There were also presentations, reports, worship services, memorials to the deceased–including both clergy and Native American children–ordination and commissioning of new clergy, and a celebration of conference connectional ministries.

The first presentation that drew a crowd of conference members to the Expo Center in Oaks, Pa., came the night before the session began. “An Evening with Clif Christopher” presented the popular church finance expert in an informal talk and Q&A session open to anyone, not just conference members. The next evening he delivered the Annual Conference’s keynote address. His appearances were sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic UM Foundation and coincided with the conference’s holistic focus on stewardship.

Clif Christopher, 2015 Annual ConferenceIn both addresses Dr. Christopher (right) diagnosed why UMC membership and giving are declining in most U.S. conferences and prescribed some possible solutions. His remarks came in the wake of a discouraging survey report released May 12 by the Pew Research Center, titled “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” that cited decreasing religious affiliation and support among the nation’s increasing population of young “Millenials.”

Christopher urged churches to focus more on understanding, promoting and fulfilling their core mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ. He emphasized the need for improvement in church worship experiences, outreach and welcoming efforts, and financial leadership acumen. As usual, he also stressed the need for more clergy to preach about tithing and to be involved in managing church finances, including knowing how much members give.

Conference members gave generously to offerings during three worship services: $6,200 was given to support higher education scholarships, $3, 656 to financial aid for seminary students, and $3,369 to support the conference’s Congo Partnership, a joint mission to aid UMC health and education efforts in an impoverished area of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Bishop Johnson and Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, 2015 Annual ConferenceThe Rev. Susan Henry Crowe (left with Bishop Peggy Johnson), General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society, preached at the opening worship service, offering vivid images of chaos leading to creation, as she noted the approaching observance of Ascension Day.

Bishop Peggy Johnson preached at the annual memorial service to honor recently deceased clergy and clergy spouses. In prose and pictures she extolled the “eyes of faith and eyes of God” that perceive all from a heavenly perspective, a view now shared by “those who have entered the Church triumphant.”

Bishop James Swanson, 2015 Annual ConferenceBishop James Swanson (right), leader of the Mississippi Conference, preached at the annual service of ordination and commissioning, his stage presence, mobility and enthusiastic eloquence enlivening the solemn occasion and inciting applause and “Amens.”

“Learn to praise God, and you’ll learn how truly generous God can be,” he told the clergy members about to become ordained and provisional elders and deacons. “You’ll trust God enough to allow a bishop and Cabinet to tell you where to go…to an appointment where you might think you don’t belong…. In the midst of pianos out of tune, choirs that can’t sing, boilers and electrical systems that stop working, God called you to comfort and lead the people. It’s a heavenly call.”

Clergy, laity and congregations who have answered that call in exemplary ways received awards given annually. The Kim Jefferson Urban Ministry Award went to St. Philip’s UMC in Philadelphia and the new One Matters Discipleship Award, recognizing membership growth, was presented Iglesia Nuevo Nacimiento (New Birth) UMC in Lebanon. Two Harry Denman Evangelism Awards went to the Rev. Maxime Jaouen, pastor of Lansdale First UMC, and John Schadler, a member of Fairless Hills First UMC. And the Urban Commission presented a grant to Philadelphia’s Mid-Town Parish UMC for its efforts to erect a long-awaited new church facility.

David Ryan presents certificate to the Southeast DistrictAlso the Rev. David Ryan (left), conference liaison to the Congo Partnership, climaxed his report by presenting a certificate of appreciation to the Southeast District for raising $60,000 to build and outfit a pediatric and eye surgery wing of the Mpasa Medical Clinic in Central Congo. Representatives of the denomination’s Imagine No Malaria fundraising and awareness campaign were also on hand to request the conference’s help in making a final push to reach the goal of raising $75 million by 2016 to fund mosquito nets and other assistance for fighting the deadly disease of malaria.

Two other presentations commemorated history–the good and the bad. Simpson House in Philadelphia, the oldest retirement community historically related to the UMC marks its 150th anniversary this year. Kim Williams, President and CEO of Simpson Senior Services, shared a moment of joyful celebration with conference members, many of whom have relatives, friends and colleagues who have resided there.

CONAM Presentation, 2015 Annual ConferenceMuch less joyful was the Committee on Native American Ministries’ (right) celebration of the children who attended the old Carlisle Indian Industrial School but who died and are buried there. Carlisle, now an. Army installation, was the first of dozens of industrial schools created in the late 1800s to indoctrinate Native American children into Anglo-American culture and rid them of their indigenous cultures and heritage. As many of their pictures were displayed onscreen and hung on curtains surrounding the conference floor, youth members read the names of children buried at Carlisle, while CONAM members led the conference session in solemn remembrance.

Peter DiNofia retirement speech, 2015 Annual ConferenceFinally, the conference witnessed a creative, multimedia, interactive Connectional Ministries report celebrating conference and local church ministries implemented over the past year. And it bid a fond farewell to Conference Treasurer Peter DiNofia (left), who retires in August after six years of managing the conference’s finances. Presented by Kip Craven, Chairman of the Committee on Finance and Administration, DiNofia expressed his appreciation for the leadership opportunity and support he received and for the faithful stewardship of Eastern PA Conference congregations. CFA, which recently announced James Cruickshank as DiNofia’s successor, will present a 2016 budget for approval at the Adjourned Session of Annual Conference, Nov. 14, at Hempfield UMC in Lancaster.

By John W. Coleman

Photos by Rev. James Mundell and Sabrina Daluisio