May 28, 2021 | John W. Coleman

The 2021 session of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference, May 20-22, meeting via Zoom webinar for a second time, showed newfound skill in virtual conferencing, deftly mixing live with pre-recorded content, including preaching, teaching, legislating, reports and recognitions. 

There were questions but little debate over eight resolutions in total. One approves conference trustees’ clarification of how to distribute required payments received from churches that want to disaffiliate from the denomination and retain their property. 

The 2019 Special General Conference (UM Book of Discipline, para. 2553, pages 4-5) determined that churches may disaffiliate for reasons of conscience—prompted by UMC policies toward LGBTQ members’ rights–and retain their property if they meet conditions approved by their annual conferences, including making required, negotiated payments. Typically, a UM church’s property is owned by the denomination through the annual conference but held in trust by the congregation.

Conference passes seven resolutions and budget

Four approved resolutions address Clergy Equitable Compensation levels and Clergy Benefits, including retirement payments, rental/housing allowances for retired or disabled clergy, and pension past-service-rate increases for pre-1982 clergy retirees. 

The pension increase, from $502 to $515 monthly, is the first in at least five years. It is directly related to the conference having achieved 100% funding in its Pre-1982 account, a result of its successful 2014-2017 capital campaign.

The session body also approved six ministries as Advance Special Projects for 2021-2022, endorsing them to seek funding support from local churches. The Conference Global Ministries Team recommended the projects.

And the conference voted to officially discontinue two East District churches that closed recently due to membership losses: First UMC in Perkasie and Asbury UMC in Norristown. 

The conference passed a 2022 Connectional Ministries Fund spending budget of $3.3 million, $74,500 or 2.3 percent more than in 2021 but the same amount as in 2020. “The overall spending for the Connectional Ministries Fund has remained fairly flat over the past decade,” reported Irene Dickinson, chair of the conference’s Council on Finance and Administration (CFA). “The average increase has been 1.5 percent. The conference continues to be strategically frugal and strives to be a good steward of the finances.”  

Significant 2022 budget increases are provided for “Latino (ministries) outreach congregational development and urban ministries,” Treasurer James Brown reported.

Irene Dickinson

Dickinson also announced a Connectional Ministries Fund 2021 Holiday “to celebrate the good financial standing of the annual conference.” CFA approved a one-month payment holiday for local churches that have satisfied their 2021 Connectional Ministries Fund (CMF) apportioned payment for 11 months. Those churches “will be considered as having paid 100 percent (12 months) of their Connectional Ministries Fund apportionments.” All other payments, including remittances and general church apportionments, should be paid in full.

The Rev. Joseph DiPaolo requested a ruling of law on whether churches and the conference are obligated to pay general church apportionments (which are separate from the conference’s Connectional Ministries Fund) prior to the next General Conference in 2022, or if such payments should instead be considered voluntary. 

He suggested that if we are still operating with the general church’s 2017-2020 budget legally—as the UMC’s Judicial Council recently ruled—and the quadrennial total asking of that budget has been paid, then: “Is it therefore permissible as a matter of church law for annual conferences and local churches to regard all general church apportionments beginning January 1 as voluntary and not required until such time as the General Conference meets to pass a new budget for the new quadrennium?” The 2020 General Conference has been postponed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is now scheduled to convene in late August 2022.

The conference approved DiPaolo’s request for a ruling of law. Bishop Johnson now has up to 60 days to render her decision before it goes automatically to the Judicial Council.

Diverse voices address Eastern PA members

A diverse line-up of guest preachers and keynote speakers addressed the conference. 

The Rev. Jacqueline King

The Rev. Jacqueline King was the Laity Session keynoter May 20, The discipleship consultant and trainer was formerly the Director of U.S. Conference Relationships at the UMC’s Discipleship Ministries agency. Clergy met separately that morning in their annual Clergy Session. 

The Rev. Dorlimar Lebrón Malavé, pastor of First Spanish UMC in New York City, preached at the opening worship service May 21. Part of a growing cadre of Latinx young adult leaders in the UMC, she serves an active, urban congregation also known as “The People’s Church.” 

The Rev. Frederick Douglas Powe Jr.

The Rev. Frederick Douglas Powe Jr. taught a well-attended, two-hour session that afternoon on the topic “Church Revitalization through Community Outreach.” An author and Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership in Washington DC, he teaches Evangelism and Urban Ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC.

Bishop Mark Webb, leader of the Upper New York Episcopal Area, returned to his native Pennsylvania to preach at the closing Service of Ordination and Commissioning on Saturday. The service was again held at Olivet UMC in Coatesville, following the Memorial Service. 

The Rev. Jane Dutton was ordained a deacon, and the Rev. Correen Russo was commissioned a deacon. Four clergy were commissioned elders: the Revs. Karen Bartkowski; Noe Gabriel Lopez; Jason Perkowski; and Mark Salvacion.

Bishop Peggy Johnson

Bishop Peggy Johnson, who presided over the business session and led the commissioning and ordination ceremonies, also preached and celebrated Communion at Saturday’s Memorial Service. It was her final Annual Conference here as Presiding Bishop after 13 years of serving the Philadelphia Episcopal Area. She retires Sept. 1. 

Annual Conference members were introduced to 20 other new clergy retirees, featured in a revealing video with personal remembrances of lives spent in ministry. And 10 new Certified Lay Ministers (CLMs) were also introduced by Judy Ehninger, who coordinates CLM training. The conference now has 71 active CLMs, 14 of whom serve as church pastors. 

Other video reports included: 

  • A Committee on Native American Ministries (CONAM) video on challenges to Native Americans’ electoral voting rights on reservations.
  • An update on the conference’s Racial Justice Transformation process, part of its 2021 Northeastern Jurisdiction Call to Action Initiative.
  • Conference Lay Leader David Koch’s annual report on lay ministries and concerns.
  • An encouraging Camp & Retreat Ministries update from the Rev. Don Keller.
  • Presentations of the annual One Matters, Denman Evangelism and Herbert E. Palmer Urban Ministry awards, plus the new Narberth Grant award.
  • The Higher Education Scholarships Fund, which featured three scholarship recipients.
  • A grateful farewell report honoring Bishop Peggy Johnson from the Rev. Scott McDermott, who chairs the conference’s Episcopacy Committee.

‘Come to the Water’

The conference theme, “Come to the Water,” drawn from Acts 8:26-40, was “a reminder of our baptism that unites us, transforms us and directs our discipleship,” said the Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm, Director of Connectional Ministries. Featured in the Connectional Ministries video report, it evoked the conference’s emphasis on encouraging creative community outreach, including faith-sharing and justice-seeking ministries.

“I pray that this theme will continue to resonate with our churches throughout the year,” she said, “as we offer the living water of Jesus Christ to our communities and as we seek to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”

The Annual Conference drew 712 total registrants. About half that number attended the Clergy and Laity sessions each. Over 400 logged into the teaching session to hear Dr. Powe. 

In evaluations most members were generally pleased with the conference’s limited agenda and technical operation of Friday’s business session, including the Zoom polling feature for voting. Despite a few glitches, some lauded the efficiency and convenience of the virtual session. But some bemoaned the loss of face-to-face fellowship and dialogue and full opening worship services enjoyed in previous conference sessions held onsite. 

“I think what is noteworthy was the inclusivity, the smooth execution, and the Holy Conferencing-way people handled themselves for the most part,” said Bishop Johnson. “This was my last annual conference with Eastern PA, and although it would have been wonderful to be there in person, the extraordinary spirit of cooperation and presence, albeit through Zoom, was noticeable and appreciated. 

“This is an amazing, historical, diverse, feisty and Spirit-filled annual conference! I will miss you all!”

Conference Offerings sent in with registrations:
  • Scholarships (Undergraduate and Graduate): $2,520
  • Youth & Young Adult Ministries: $1,051
  • Board of Ordained Ministry: $1,190
  • Camp & Retreat Ministries: $2,405

The conference still needs and welcomes more offerings for these funds. You can either mail donations to the Eastern PA Conference Treasure, P.O. Box 820, Valley Forge, PA 19482-0820, or use our Online Giving Page.

NOTE: Read full conference resolutions, the budget and leadership reports, and other information on our AC2021 web page. Links to most video reports will appear there also. 

Recordings of the Thursday Laity Session, Friday’s business and teaching sessions, and Saturday’s Memorial Service and Commissioning and Ordination Service will soon be viewable on the conference’s YouTube page. 

Also, enjoy viewing photos of the 2021 Memorial Service and the Commissioning and Ordination Service in our Flickr photo albums.