This month, South Carolina United Methodists will gather for a virtual Annual Conference—the first time lay and clergy members have not gathered in person as a body for their yearly business meeting.
Health and safety concerns because of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the conference to shift to the all-virtual gathering, set for Saturday, Oct. 17, at 2 p.m.
Good News TV, the Annual Conference’s media partner for a number of years, will host the virtual gathering with participation via Zoom Webinar and voting on a separate, secure platform. GNTV already has helped conduct more than 20 virtual UMC annual conferences, clergy sessions or laity sessions in the past four months, and conference leaders are optimistic the virtual gathering will go smoothly and is the safest option given public health concerns this year.
The virtual Annual Conference session is being patterned after the Aug. 1 virtual Clergy Session, where more than 500 participants voted on some two dozen matters with no significant problems.
“The 2020 South Carolina Annual Conference Session is quickly approaching, and it will indeed be a blessed time to virtually gather,” said South Carolina Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston.
Holston said this year’s theme, “Seeking A More Excellent Way: Beyond the Bounds of Expectations,” encourages people to trust God with each step they take.
“It is a continuation of our faith journey as we seek a more excellent way to make disciples of Jesus Christ while transforming our world,” Holston said. “Miraculous things can happen when we leave our place of comfort and allow God to stretch us in new and different ways.”
By Sept. 23, about 1,200 members had registered, split roughly 50-50 between lay and clergy.
As with all Annual Conference sessions, AC2020 will be open to the public. Details on how persons other than voting lay and clergy members can access the livestream of the event will be announced soon.
The virtual Annual Conference session will feature a shortened agenda to cover the most important business matters before the conference that are mandated by the Book of Discipline to be voted upon this year.
Usually, Annual Conference is held over the course of several days, including a variety of worship services, offerings, special events and more. Before COVID-19 changed plans, Annual Conference 2020 was scheduled to be held June 7-10 at the newly renovated Florence Center. Now, the single-afternoon event will handle just the key matters, such as voting on the budget, closing churches and changing charge lines, facilitating necessary elections and nominations, receiving the report of pensions and health benefits, etc.
Lay and clergy members from 975 United Methodist churches in 12 districts across South Carolina will be able to participate in one of two training sessions prior to the Annual Conference session; these are set for Oct. 14 at 6:30 p.m. and Oct. 17 at noon.
Prior to the training sessions, laity and clergy are urged to view the video reports and read the reports on https://www.umcsc.org/ac2020. If they have any questions, they are urged to ask them in advance of the virtual Annual Conference, as time will be limited.
On Oct. 17 at 2 p.m., after the training session is held and video reports presented, Bishop L. Jonathan Holston will offer the call to order and opening prayer to kick off what will be the 49th session of the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church, organized in 1972 after the merger of the 1785 and 1866 conferences.
After greetings from Columbia District Superintendent Dr. Cathy Jamieson and Host Pastor Dr. George Ashford of Journey UMC, Columbia, the body will hear organizational motions by the conference secretary.
At 2:30 p.m. will be the Committee on Standing Rules, Consent Calendar, Committee on Nominations (the floor will be open for additional nominations) and the nomination and election of the new conference secretary.
Next, the body will review a Resolution on Predatory Lending submitted by the Advocacy Area of Conference Connectional Ministries (read more on this resolution, below).
After a break, the body will hear an informational report from the Council on Finance and Administration, then the report of the Board of Ordained Ministry, the Board of Pension and Health Benefits, the Commission on Equitable Compensation, the Cabinet and the conference lay leader.
At 5 p.m., the body will vote on adoption of the Consent Calendar, handle elections, vote on the reports of the Council on Finance and Administration (including the 2022 budget) and consider resolutions for church closings and the report of charge line changes.
They will also approve the date and site of the 2021 Session of Annual Conference.
Then Bishop Holston will preach the Sending Forth Service, effectively ending the day.
Resolution on Predatory Lending
Clergy and lay members of Annual Conference will have the chance to vote that day on a resolution against predatory lending, submitted by Advocacy co-conveners the Revs. Bernie Mazyck and Tracy Pender. This resolution references God’s directives in Exodus 22:25 and Deuteronomy 23:19 regarding fair moneylending to resolve that the conference encourage the General Assembly and Congress to pass legislation capping usury fees and interest rates for small dollar loans. It also urges that the UMC use its “collective voice of justice” to encourage lawmakers, financial institutions, funders and decision-makers to address the unjust effects of high-cost lenders, including consumer finance, payday lending and auto title lending.
The resolution notes payday and car title loan lenders have a negative impact on the lives of the poor and marginalized residents of South Carolina, and often target the poor, communities of color and those individuals who cannot access the traditional financial system.
It cites statistics: 23 percent of South Carolina’s jobs are low-wage jobs; South Carolina has some of the highest utility costs in the Southeast; in South Carolina by law, lenders can charge any interest rate they choose; 56 percent of South Carolina payday loan consumers borrow more than five times per year, 29.8 percent borrow more than 10 times per year, and 11 percent borrow more than 15 times per year; in 2018 nearly 700,000 payday loans were made to 86,000 people living in South Carolina, which is an average of 8 loans per person; and 42 percent of all South Carolinians have at least one account that is in collection and at least 14 percent of South Carolina households fell behind on bills in the past year.
Reduced budget for 2021
Also to be considered at the one-day conference is a $16.5 million budget for 2021.
In a video report in online conference materials, Council on Finance and Administration Budget Subcommittee Chair the Rev. Walter Cantwell thanked churches and individuals across South Carolina for their generosity and support during what has been a difficult year.
“COVID-19 has altered way the local church and annual conference are in ministry with God’s people,” Cantwell said. “Due to these unprecedented times, the council continued to convene throughout summer about ways to reduce the budget while minimizing negative impact.”
Cantwell said the goal was to reduce the recommended budget while striving to present a budget “enables us to engage in effective ministry and mission.”
The $16.5 million budget recommended by CF&A for 2021 reflects a 2.1 percent decrease from last year’s 2020 budget and is expected to be 14.3 percent of average net funds.
Other business at AC2020
Clergy and lay members of Annual Conference will also hear reports from the Board of Pension and Health Benefits, which is proposing a continuation of the HealthFlex Exchange, which is the managed health care plan of Wespath Benefits and Investments for active participants and eligible dependents.
In addition to the BPHB, the Committee on Nominations, Commission on Equitable Compensation and the Board of Ordained Ministry, the Standing Rules Committee and the Lay Leadership Committee all have virtual videos in addition to their reports that they are asking people to watch before Annual Conference.
The Committee on Nominations said that, with the extension of the 2016 quadrennia, the election cycle for members of conference boards, agencies, councils and committees is delayed. Those terms of office ending in the year 2020 will be instead extended until the 2016 quadrennia ends. However, various Committee on Nominations reports are before the body: for the election of those institutions that relate to the annual conference, who select and nominate their own board members, and who, by standing rules, pass these nominations directly to the Annual Conference; the nominations for the Wesley Foundations and Fellowships; the nominations for the various district boards and committees submitted by the districts for annual conference election; and the list of all boards, agencies, committees and councils of the annual conference elected at the 2019 annual conference (this report is given as information only).
The Board of Ordained Ministry report recognizes the 10 people ordained as full elders, the nine commissioned as provisional elders and the two commissioned as deacons in a limited attendance service held on Aug. 8.
It also recognizes two Seminary Student Scholarship recipients: Joseph Daniel Kovas and James William Smith, each receiving $3,000. They also recognize those who have reached a milestone in their continued preparation for effective ministry, completing the five-year Basic Course of Study in 2019/2020: John Elmore, August 2019, Duke; Jerry Godfrey, August 2019, Duke; Jacob Thompson, November 2019, Duke; and Richard Toy, July 2019, Duke.
Review full materials and video at https://www.umcsc.org/ac2020, and look for full coverage by the Advocate of Annual Conference in next month’s edition.