Annual Conference 2021 wrap up
By Lindsay Peyton
“Love, Hope, Faith” were essential to navigating the challenges of the past year. Those three powerful words became the theme of the 52nd Texas Annual Conference, held Sunday, May 30 through Tuesday, June 1. Those words, referencing Corinthians, also inspired Bishop Scott J. Jones’ Episcopal Address, which kicked off the event. He explained that despite facing difficulty and uncertainty, the Conference discovered new ways to move forward and has strengthened its mission.
In his laity address, John Esquivel voiced a similar sentiment. “We have learned and adapted to continue to worship and continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ in a new and different environment brought on by this pandemic,” he said.
One example of resilience can even be found in the way Annual Conference was modified during this time. In 2020, the event went virtual for the first time. Lessons were learned, and the experience improved, Assistant to the Bishop, the Rev. Kip Gilts explained. This allowed members to reconvene on Zoom, for a new and improved session, and still be protected from the coronavirus.
“We have not truncated our schedule as much as we did last year,” Gilts said. “We are able to host our presenters on Zoom and in-person by following the proper protocols and benefitting from vaccinations. We have even invited a limited number of guests for our worship services.”
Delegates were able to vote by Zoom and to pose questions on the Q & A box on their screen. A few delegates even met in the evenings by Zoom.
Conference members celebrated retiring clergy and mourned leaders who have passed away. They recognized new pastors, awarded congregations for excellence, prayed together and bowed their heads in worship.
Nominations to serve the conference were accepted. New pastors were ordained and commissioned. Awards were bestowed, and honorees celebrated.
Important updates were delivered during conference sessions by Conference staff by General Secretary Roland Fernandes from the Board of Global Ministries. Gilts presented an update on discipling implementation. Dr. Marc Boom and Dr. Charles Millikan gave the Houston Methodist Hospital Report, followed by an update on Lakeview Methodist Conference Center Report by Josh Pulver and a presentation on Methodist Retirement Community by Alan Brown.
Special guest Bishop Ruben Saenz spoke on “Leading in a Multi-Cultural Mission Field.” Conference news was also noted. For instance, Ruth Arellano Serquina was received as Deaconess and Home Missioner. Fairbanks UMC was celebrated in its decision to join with the Foundry. Acknowledgements were made regarding the Center for Clergy Excellence and the new Center for Leadership Formation.
The consent calendar was approved with a 1031 vote, 12 against.
The Board of Pensions report was also accepted with a 990 vote in favor and 51 against. The Group Health Benefits report passed with 1022 voting for and 59 against.
The annual budget was approved by a 1095 vote in favor and 19 against. Rev. Dr. Deborah Vaughn, 2020-2021 Chair of the Conference’ Council on Finance and Administration, presented the proposal. In the straw poll, a non-binding vote take at each Pre-Conference meeting, the budget received 831 votes for and 20 against.
The 2022 Conference budget totals $9.786 million, about a $1 million reduction from last year.
“These are challenging times, but, your faithfulness in giving has prepared our Annual Conference financially to move forward effectively in ministry with financial stability,” Vaughn said.
Rev. Dr. Carol Bruse presented a report from the Property Task Force, which she chaired for the past year. All Conference properties were reviewed, and the two most financially valuable became the focus: the former Bethany UMC, which the task force recommended listing for sale, and the Annual Conference office, which the group suggested maintaining for the next few years.
The motion passed for Bering UMC in Houston to separate from the United Methodist Church, with 867 for and 21 against.
Three resolutions were also considered during the Conference:
This resolution, presented by Rev. Karen Dorris and Rev. B. T. Williamson, passed with 897 votes for and 257 against. In the straw poll, there were 746 votes in favor and 80 against.
“The Texas Annual Conference is facing an uncertain future and radical change,” he said. “Current organizational structures that reflect our mission and vision for the future may no longer be sustainable. Our life together as we know it today may not be possible.”
The measure will create a plan and a task force in advance of any action of the General Conference. This will include assessing financial assets, property, liabilities, benefits, institutional and ministerial relationships and local church discernment.
“With our Annual Conference’s history of planning for ministry and a tradition of making informed decisions, this resolution represents a consistent pattern of our ethos,” Williamson said. “This resolution does not represent a position, rather a process. Out of this process, should we ultimately decide to enter new relationships, we can do so hopefully on the best of terms.”
The Revs. Nathan Bledsoe and Chappell Temple presented this action, which also calls for the creation of a task force to apprise all options responding to General Conference.
“The motion itself does not call for any one outcome,” Temple explained. “It will ensure that we make that decision fully informed so that whatever our General Conference decides, we will be ready to respond. The point is to be able to be proactive in this season ahead, however it unfolds.”
Bledsoe explained that the resolution also calls for additional meetings after General Conference is decided. “We won’t make any firm decisions about our own alignment until three months after any such legislation is passed,” he said. “It’s pretty simple. We want to be prepared to deal in a timely and informed fashion with whatever possibilities might be put into motion.”
The motion allows for studying all possibilities, thinking it through together and having honest conversations between those embracing different positions. The two pastors said that uniting on this measure could be an inspiration during a divisive time.
The resolution passed with a 942 vote for and 235 against. In the straw poll, there were 699 votes for and 121 against.
The Rev. Diane McGehee at Bering United Methodist Church proposed a motion to suspend all administration and judicial processes related to self-avowed practicing homosexuals or same sex weddings. She explained that this measure would place any action on hold until General Conference meets and next steps are decided.
“It’s time to stop the harm,” McGehee said. “We are causing soul-level harm by judging self-avowed, practicing LGBTQ persons as ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’ and denying them Christian marriage and ordination.”
She asked her clergy colleagues to stand up and advocate for LGBTQ individuals and their families. “I promise you that in every one of your congregations there are children, young people, and adults, who are longing for someone with authority to stand for them,” she said.
The resolution failed, with 726 voting against and 475 in favor. In the straw poll, 341 voted yes and 474 voted no.
Bering Church disaffiliated, as part of the trustees report, which was presented by Kevin Benedict, chair of the board of trustees. He explained that during the 2020 Annual Conference, a disaffiliation process was created, which includes a process of discernment with the District Superintendent, a vote by the Conference and payment of apportionments and unfunded pension liabilities. Bering has met all of the requirements.
“Friends, we are indeed sad to see Bering Memorial seek to leave our Conference and denomination, yet we give thanks to God for all they have meant to the life and ministry and connection of the United Methodist Church and the TAC,” Benedict said.
Bishop Jones offered a prayer before the vote. “God, we pray for wisdom and discernment,” he said. “As our church has disagreements, and yet a discipline, we as that you would give us wisdom for how to navigate both this step as well as all steps in the future, that we would indeed bless each other.”
The report of the trustees was approved with a 994 vote in favor and 21 against.
Rev. Lindsay Kirkpatrick, pastor at Asbury UMC in Pasadena, offered a prayer after the disaffiliation vote and asked that Bering be blessed as the congregation moves forward.
“Loving God, we give you thanks for the people and legacy of Bering Church,” she said. “They were and remain a beacon to the light of Christ, a birthplace to so many powerful kingdom ministries. Now they are being born again.”
She continued, “Comfort us as we grieve this loss to our conference, and inspire us by the boldness of Bering’s heart for the oppressed and marginalized. Convict us with our own tendency to harm our neighbor, including our Christian neighbor.”
Annual Conference delegates heard a presentation from Don House, Lay Leader of the Delegation for the 2020 General Conference, and Dr. Tom Pace, Clergy Leader of the Delegation for the 2020 General Conference.
They explained that General Conference has now been postponed for two years and clarified that in 2022, the event will actually still be a 2020 General Conference.
This is an important distinction, Pace said. For instance, a 2022 General Conference would require electing new delegates and a number of other issues would arise as well, such as the rules by which new legislation can be submitted.
House added that convening General Conference in 2022 is still not a certainty. “While the COVID pandemic appears to be waning in the U.S., the global perspective remains uncertain,” he said. “And visas to travel to the US from the global community are a necessity for that General Conference.”
The two leaders discussed the financial challenges facing the UMC in general. Even before COVID-19, a 32 percent budget reduction was recommended at General Conference. “The episcopal fund, from which we pay our bishops, is declining and rapidly depleting its reserves,” Pace said. “It will run out of money in four years at current rates.”
The Council of Bishops called a special virtual session of General Conference on May 8 for what were described as “housekeeping matters,” Pace said. That included, for instance, extending the old budget until General Conference.
“However, a number of annual conferences cited concerns that their bishops had not listened carefully to their delegations, and there was a concern that someone could bring other issues to the table by suspending the rules with a supermajority vote, including legislation such as the protocol,” Pace explained.
That called session was cancelled. In response, Bishop Jones met with the TAC delegation to gather input.
“The issue always underneath these conversations is the possibility of separation of the denomination in 2022,” Pace said. “There is so much uncertainty moving forward, and it will be up to General Conference to identify for the Texas Conference what options are available to us.”
The two leaders said the delegation will continue to monitor future discussions. “I have been really proud of the way our delegation has functioned,” Pace explained. “When we began to meet in 2019, we established a set of values that would guide our work together. “Those values were prayer, respect, integrity, accountability and possibility.”
Regardless of differing opinions of the delegates, Pace explained that dedication brings them together and carries them forward. “We have a balanced delegation, of people who differ on many different issues, but who are united in our mission to make Disciples of Jesus,” he said. “We believe we have been placed in this role of responsibility for just such a time as this.”
Annual Conference ended with a powerful Ordination Service, preached by Rev. Lataya Simpson, where Bishop Jones commissioned 10 candidates, ordained 14 deacons/elders and welcomed one new elder in full connection to the Texas Annual Conference.