By Jessica Brodie
Delegates from across the Southeastern Jurisdiction gathered online July 21 for a one-day special session of jurisdictional conference to handle limited but much-needed business postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The SEJ special session looked much different from normal years, when lay and clergy delegates, bishops and others converge at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center in the mountains of North Carolina for a multiday gathering filled with worship, business, elections and more. Only a handful of key people gathered in person for the session, and the rest participated with electronic livestream and voting to handle the two matters placed on the session’s agenda.
But a little more than two hours after it began, the session ended with necessary matters resolved, including the formation of the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference.
The new Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference formed from the Tennessee and Memphis annual conferences, which in 2019 had petitions the SEJ to unite as one. SEJ could not approve this because its 2020 meeting was cancelled because of COVID-19, so the special session enabled the vote to occur and the new conference to form.
‘This I know’
The special session began with music and song, then a welcome by Dr. Sam Parkes and Dr. Stephanie Hand. “This I Know” was the conference theme, based on Hymn 191 in The United Methodist Hymnal, “Jesus Loves Me,” and Mark 12:28-34 was the scriptural basis for the theme.
Proceedings were led by Bishop James Swanson, resident bishop of the Mississippi Conference of The United Methodist Church, with assistance from South Carolina Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston and from Bishop Bill McAlilly, who will lead the newly formed conference.
After Swanson read Mark 12:28-34 for all gathered, a devotional message was brought by Dr. Candace Lewis, new president-dean of Gammon Theological Seminary, and Dr. Edgardo Colón-Emeric, dean of Duke Divinity School. Lewis focused on Jesus’s response in Mark 12 to the teacher who’d affirmed Jesus’s explanation that the greatest commandment was to love God above all others, and then to love your neighbor as yourself.
“You are not far from the kingdom of God,” Jesus told the man in Mark 12:34.
Lewis posed the question: How might Jesus reflect on the actions of the UMC regarding racism in the last 400 years, and particularly the last 16 months? How far (or near) would Jesus say we are to the kingdom of God based on our efforts to create justice and dismantle racism?
“We have an opportunity to become an anti-racist church, to make things better for future generations,” Lewis said. “We have an opportunity to take actions, not just words, to bring about healing, restoration, reparations, and these steps I believe Jesus will look at and assess.”
She closed urging all gathered, “Let’s become an anti-racist church.”
Colón-Emeric followed with his message, which focused on how love comes first.
“Love is the sum of God’s law: Thou shalt love. Love is the sum of the prophets’ message. Love is the sum of God’s revelation. Love is at the heart of what we expect from our clergy,” Colón-Emeric said. “In a world where the powers and principalities of systemic racism and atheism enslave us, love sets us free.”
All stories are unfinished, Colón-Emeric said, urging people to remember that no one knows how the future of the UMC or the SEJ will unfold. As he noted, “The next chapter may have a big Holy Spirit plot twist.”
“But this I know—our story still has blank pages waiting to be filled, and Jesus is still inviting us to write the story with him.”
Next, Hand led the body in a prayer asking God to teach us to love first and use us to shine hope into the politics of despair.
New Tennessee-Western Ky. Conference
Swanson called the business portion of the session to order around 10:30, lifting up help he received from Holston and McAlilly, gathered onstage with him, as well as the staff of Lake Junaluska for hosting the event.
GNTV, the media partner for the session, led a practice vote, then SEJ Conference Secretary Anne Travis offered organizing motions. The body voted electronically to approve the organizing motions, which included naming moderators, setting the agenda and the bar, authorizing who was to participate, approving business and attendance via electronic voting, and authoring electronic voting on the resolution for the day.
Dr. Jan Love spoke on behalf of Emory’s Candler School of Theology, and Gregory Fennes on behalf of Emory.
Then came the presentation of the resolution to unite the Tennessee and Memphis conferences as one conference. Holly Neal, Tennessee Conference lay leader, and Janice McCallen, Memphis Conference lay leader, presented the resolution, reading it together.
The action realigns the boundaries of the two conferences to form one new annual conference known as the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference, with boundaries coextensive with the current Tennessee and Memphis conferences. It authorizes the new Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference to begin operations as a fully unified annual conference on Jan. 1, 2022, all in accordance with a Plan of Union adopted by both conferences at their June 2021 annual conference sessions.
The resolution passed overwhelmingly, 335-3.
“I give thanks to God for this affirmation,” McAlilly said after the results were announced.
Red Bird becomes Central Appalachian Missionary Conference
Next came a brief announcement about the name change and new missional realignment of what had been the Red Bird Mission Conference, now renamed the Central Appalachian Missionary Conference. Red Bird leaders realized their work had evolved during their 100 years of existence, and they are no longer only serving the people of Red Bird, but also those in eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia.
Red Bird has been providing ministries in that region of the Appalachian Mountains since 1921, offering health care and spiritual resources to underserved areas, economic outreach, community housing, education and more.
They are also launching a new website and developing new office space to better serve the people of that area.
Responding to racism
Holston spoke next along with Hand and Parkes, talking about how our nation not only dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic but also the tragic deaths of three persons of color that brought devastation and pain to so many.
Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old man, was fatally shot in February 2020 while jogging near Brunswick, Georgia. Breonna Taylor, a medical worker, was shot and killed by police officers in March 2020 during a botched raid on her home in Louisville, Kentucky. And in April of this year, Andrew Brown Jr. was killed in his car in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, by sheriff’s deputies attempting to serve a warrant for his arrest.
“How have we, as United Methodists across the Southeast, responded?” Holston asked.
Videos then displayed the efforts every conference in the SEJ made to respond with God’s love and light in the aftermath of violence and darkness.
South Carolina’s video lifted up “Our Response to Racism,” which focuses on six distinct responses including district clergy meetings, small group conversations, cross-racial exchanges, a season of jubilee, healing through preaching and accountable honesty in society (learn more at https://www.umcsc.org/endracism).
‘God’s love comes first’
Swanson lifted up retiring bishops and also the work of Anne Travis, taking a moment off-agenda to celebrate her service as SEJ conference secretary.
He ended the special session with uplifting words of encouragement, reminding the body, “God’s love comes first.”
He closed the session at 12:10 p.m.
For more on the SEJ, visit www.sejumc.org.