By John W. Coleman
To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1, NKJV)
Invoking heaven’s oversight from start to finish, the 232nd Eastern PA Annual Conference, June 14-16, sought to reconcile its uneven past, its changing present and its uncertain future, while fulfilling every purpose on its busy agenda.
From pre-conference clergy and laity sessions and opening worship to the final legislative debates and ministry reports, the two-day annual conference, held at the familiar Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, Pa., offered the usual sights and sounds. But along the way, there were some new twists and ample evidence of the conference’s overarching theme: “We Will All Be Changed,” taken from the Apostle Paul’s end-times prophecy in 1 Corinthians 15:51.
The historic opening worship service featured an on-stage assembly, liturgy and preaching that all emphasized, visually and verbally, the contributions of people with disabilities, proving once again that disability does not mean inability. The Rev. Justin Hancock (left), a deacon from the North Texas Conference who has cerebral palsy, inspired many with his uncompromising but affable candor in advocating for the church to welcome the leadership and witness of all members of the Body of Christ. (Read related story: Annual conference urged to embrace change, unity.)
Also historic was the first evening’s dramatic but peaceful discourse about The United Methodist Church’s ‘Way Forward.’ Prepared speeches appealed for support of opposing plans of the Special Commission on a Way Forward. Bishop Peggy Johnson summarized the commission’s work and advocated for the One Church Plan favored by the Council of Bishops. She also explained the process leading up to the Special Session of General Conference in February 2019 and encouraged members to pray continually for a positive, peaceful outcome.
The Rev. Joan Trout (right) spoke for the conservative Eastern PA Evangelical Connection, which favors the Traditionalist Plan to retain and enforce current sexuality prohibitions in the church’s Book of Discipline. In a polished, eloquent argument, Trout criticized the One Church Plan, asserting daunting risks to the denomination’s membership, integrity, administration and public image. But she enthusiastically cited numerous positives in the more exclusionary Traditionalist Plan.
Trout chairs the Evangelical Connection, which also sponsored a breakfast presentation and Q&A session with the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, Vice President and General Manager of Good News, a 50-year-old conservative renewal movement within the UMC. A founding leader of the recently formed Wesleyan Covenant Association, Lambrecht served on the Commission on a Way Forward. He spoke on “A Faithful Way Forward,” advocating for the Traditionalist Plan, and fielded numerous questions from the full-house, early morning audience at nearby Arnold’s Family Fun Center.
Trout’s Annual Conference speech was one lone voice speaking for many. But seven diverse voices spoke for the Eastern PA Reconciling Ministries Network, which supports “inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in policies and practices of the denomination”—including ministry and marriage. Jerry Noone, a gay layman who co-chairs the network, voiced personal pain and reflection in advocating for the One Church Plan. So did other lay and clergy members in remarks shown on recorded video. The Rev. Sukja Bang also read a statement as part of the assembled presentation.
Conference members pulled their chairs forward, leaned in across tables and listened closely, some with intense facial expressions, as a hubbub of voices arose from over a hundred tables crowded across the vast meeting hall. On-screen were rules to remind members of respectful communication, emphasizing personal responsibility, empathy, self-examination, confidentiality and acceptance of ambiguities, without concern for who’s right or wrong.
Participants were encouraged to write down their thoughts and questions on pieces of paper that were later collected and will be used to inform Bishop Johnson’s town hall meetings in the four districts in the fall.
“I hope these church leaders will also bring the discussion back home to their local churches for more conversations and sharing of thoughts and hearts,” said Bishop Johnson. “As we talk together in gracious holy conferencing, barriers can come down and bridges of understanding can be built.”
More dialogues are being scheduled in the coming months, as our General Conference delegates also make themselves available to listen and share insights. The Reading Mission Connection will host an hourlong session on the “Way Forward,” titled Prayer of Unity, Dialogue of Hope, at West Lawn UMC August 8, at 6:30 PM. The Rev. Jeff Raffauf and Judy Ehninger, both delegates, will lead the gathering in prayer and discussion. All churches and conference members are invited to attend.
In his Friday morning teaching session, the Rev. Eric Law (right) explained to conference members how Money, Time and Place, Gracious Leadership, Relationship, Truth and Wellness are six Holy Currencies to be used for creating sustainability in mission and stewardship. (Read related story: Sustaining mission through ‘Holy Currencies’.)
But those same values were very much a part of the conference session as well. The staff and members invested considerable time and funds to rent, furnish and fill the Expo Center with about 900 members and guests, all to conduct the important business of the conference. Part of that business was the nearly unanimous approval of the conference budget, pension and health benefit plans and other fiscal proposals for the coming year.
Law’s holy currencies of Gracious Leadership, Relationship and Truth could be witnessed in worship and Communion, in “holy conferencing” during legislative debates on resolutions, including several justice-oriented resolutions (Read related story: Annual Conference approves justice-related resolutions.), and in ceremonies to honor newly retiring clergy and recently deceased clergy and clergy spouses.
Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi preached during the Service of Ordination and Commissioning (Read the text of her sermon: Changed.) and then joined Bishops Johnson and Violet Fisher in ordaining and commissioning full and provisional elders and deacons. (See the list of ordinands and commissionees in the story ‘We Will All Be Sent!’.)
Another highlight of the ordination service was the commissioning of two new, young Global Ministries missionaries, Rebecca Parsons, a member of the Eastern PA Conference, and Brenda Nguwa of Zimbabwe.
Another special guest from Africa, the Rev. James Boye-Caulker (right) of the Sierra Leone Annual Conference, also greeted the conference and gifted Bishop Johnson and Dawn Taylor-Storm with colorful dresses from his country. Educated at the United Methodist University in Monrovia, Liberia, and the University of Sierra Leone, he serves as a District Superintendent and Secretary to the Board of Ordained Ministry.
The Rev. Jonathan Baker and Donna Baker, RN, who recently retired as missionaries with the Congo Partnership, gave a farewell report and gifts to the conference and bishop. Eastern PA partners with three other conferences in the thriving mission enterprise in the Central Congo Episcopal Area. Eastern PA’s Congo Partnership representative, Anette Onema-Orbach, joined them on-stage.
In other highlights, David Koch was reelected Conference Lay Leader for 2018-2022 by the Laity Session and affirmed by the full conference session. He reported to the conference on lay ministry efforts, achievements and concerns, followed by reports from the presidents of UM Men and UM Women.
Three other dynamic reports captured members’ attention with their theatrical creativity:
In addition, the Rev. Fred Day, General Secretary of the UMC’s Commission on Archives and History, and the Rev. Robert Wilt, retiring pastor of Lima UMC, offered compelling testimonies to celebrate the Evangelical United Brethren heritage—including Wilt’s own family history—that is key to The United Methodist Church’s legacy.
As always, inspirational music filled the conference hall during worship and during gathering moments. The Rev. Eric Carr, pastor of Midtown Parish UMC in Philadelphia, led a young adult band and praise singers onstage, and the Rev. Lydia Munoz, pastor of UM Church of the Open Door in Kennett Square, joined them during the opening worship service.
Carr also conducted the Philadelphia United Methodist Mass Choir, which energized the ordination service congregation. The popular concert choir, formed in 2015, comprises 45 singers from 10 Philadelphia churches.
Equally uplifting was the energetic music performed during gathering times, as conference members reconvened, by Lima UMC’s praise band and young liturgical dancers from New Life UMC in Drexel Hill (above). The Revs. Monica Guepet and Candy LaBar coordinated worship again this year, offering artistic, colorful, often profoundly relevant worship elements to inspire conference-goers.
During worship and at other times, the conference raised $19,447.40 in offerings, including:
For the first time members could donate offerings directly to the conference via text message. The text codes are still accessible and can still be used to make contributions even now. Text 610-463-0244 with the desired offering code:
Also historic were the unprecedented number of awards presented to ministry leaders at this Annual Conference. Members recognized peers for their noteworthy evangelism, discipleship and urban ministry efforts. The awards spotlight not only recipients and the work they do but also the importance of missional values in the work of discipleship that all are called to do, and do well, in service to Christ.
The conference Congregational Development Team awarded the clergy Denman Award to the Rev. Richard Connor, a retired but still serving pastor, and the laity Denman Award to Apryl Miller, Director of Gretna Glen Camp & Retreat Center.
The One Matters Award, recommended by conference leaders and presented by the UMC Discipleship Ministries agency, recognizes churches that have grown from zero to one or more new, profession-of-faith members in one year. This year Cokesbury UMC in Marcus Hook was awarded for its growth from 0 to 7 new members since 2016.
Finally, the conference expanded its yearly Kim Jefferson Award for extraordinary work in urban ministry from one to eight recipient churches, two recommended by superintendents in each of the four districts. While several of the awardees were commended as Impact Initiatives for their achievements, others were recognized as Emerging Initiatives for creatively investing vision, talents and resources into their fledgling pursuits.
The 2018 Kim Jefferson Awards for Urban Ministry were presented to:
Evangelism and community outreach ministries are key to much-needed church growth, said Gordon Yocum, in his conference 2017 statistical report overview. He cited a few bright lights: reported increases of nearly 5,000 church members involved in mission and 40 members attending Christian education classes.
But most of his stats were dim versions of past years’ reports, including decreases in: church membership (4,028); worship attendance (1,264); professions or reaffirmations of faith (93); and members involved in small groups (1086).
Two final bright lights for this Annual Conference involved the use of a new online tool to encourage members’ mental engagement and an old, offline tool to encourage healthy, physical exercise.
A first-time use of a mobile event application, or app, helped the conference communicate with and involve attendees in activities—like games—through their mobile digital devices. With information at their fingertips, the mobile app kept members informed about resolutions, exhibitors, speakers, schedules, offerings and other details.
They also found themselves more connected with fellow attendees, as they shared photos, contact information and tweets. And they were enticed to answered quizzes and scour the conference center in search of QR codes in a contest to rack up points and win prizes.
Some of those points could be gained by uploading photos of the Hulapalooza contest, where attendees could get their hips and hearts moving inside spinning hula hoops. The Conference Board of Pension and Health Benefits supplied the colorful hula hoops and urged members to put them to good, healthy use, while uploading smartphone photos of their hula-hoop duels to the mobile app to score points.
The artful combination of work and play, mixing serious information and inspiration with light-hearted performances and the quest for points and prizes, may have helped this Annual Conference to fulfill Eric Law’s final holy currency of Wellness. Indeed, thanks to the inclusion of all the currencies across a full, action-packed agenda, there seemed to be “a time for every purpose under heaven” and much that was accomplished for the good of the entire conference.
Editor’s Note: Video recordings of this Annual Conference session are posted on our Annual Conference 2018 webpage and on our conference YouTube page. Also, be sure to view the dramatic, colorful photos depicting Annual Conference highlights in several albums on our Flickr page.