Built for God’s purpose: Third virtual Annual Conference wraps

By Jessica Brodie

FLORENCE—Clergy and laity across the state gathered online June 5-6 for an abbreviated, virtual golden anniversary session of the South Carolina Annual Conference.

Held at the Florence Center with only those necessary for presenting, recording or reporting the event present in person, the session marked 50 years since the merger of the 1866 and 1785 conferences into the new South Carolina Annual Conference, which occurred June 5, 1972.

The event began Pentecost Sunday, June 5, with a 2 p.m. closed clergy session to discuss private personnel and other matters, including this year’s class of ordinands. At 7 p.m., an intimate crowd of clergy sponsors and other loved ones gathered for a service that commissioned or ordained 18 clergy and recognized the faithful service of 41 retirees.

The next morning, June 6, after training on the voting platform and the presentation of all conference video reports, Annual Conference was called to order. Good News TV hosted the virtual gathering with participation via Zoom video conferencing and voting on a separate, secure platform, and the entire event was live-streamed so all could observe the proceedings.

By the day’s end, the body had approved a $15.6 million budget for 2023, closed five churches and merged three others into one, endorsed Conference Secretary the Rev. Ken Nelson as the conference’s episcopal nominee and approved a 6 percent cost-of-living increase for pastors.

South Carolina Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston wove the 2022 theme, “Seeking A More Excellent Way: Trusting, Believing, Knowing God is with Us,” throughout the two-day event.

‘Not for the faint of heart’

Holston opened the session at 11 a.m. with a devotional drawing from Romans 12:9-21, emphasizing our call to genuine love, hatred for evil and overcoming evil with good.

“It is not for the faint of heart,” Holston said, echoing Arkansas Resident Bishop Gary E. Mueller’s theme from the prior evening’s ordination and retirement service, “Costly” (see article here). “In the long run, following God’s call is not always easy.”

Along the way, Holston said, we’ll face persecution and enemies, and we’ll sometimes feel we live in a strange world, with old rules being rewritten and things are changing that we thought would never be changed.

“Our current challenge is understanding we are a connectional denomination in an ever more individualistic society,” Holston said. “We have to relate the good news to people who feel they no longer need Jesus Christ, and that’s our task—to let them know Jesus is still real in their lives today and for the days to come.”

He noted we must proclaim God’s word of hope even in the midst of mass shootings, the pandemic, racial unrest, political divisiveness and a schism in our denomination.

But as the apostle Paul was saying in Romans 12, we have to keep our eyes focused on what is important: what God is truly calling us to do. It’s no easy task, but the Gospel calls us to a higher way of life, to discipleship not membership.

“The church was not built for our pleasure,” Holston said to amens. “The church was built for God’s purpose.

“Miraculous things can happen when we leave our place of comfort and allow God to stretch us in new and different ways.”

Continuing the journey

Nelson next brought organizational motions, which were all approved, including that this year’s session would be conducted virtually and the bar set as voting lay and clergy members present on the webinar.

Florence District Superintendent Terry Fleming and the Rev. Josh McClendon, pastor of host church Pisgah United Methodist Church, Florence, brought greetings and welcomes, even if many were gathered far away physically.

As Fleming noted, “The virtual format is not what any of us are hoping for,” and the floor of the conference and empty bleachers do not feel right without all those participating across the state. “But since we are virtual, think of the positives. Maybe you’re sitting in the kitchen and coffeemaker is within arm’s reach, or you’re on the couch with your feet propped up.”

Holston lifted up the anniversary of the merger, which occurred 50 years ago this session.

“We are here as people who are celebrating that,” Holston said, calling South Carolina United Methodists a people of faith and hope who know God is with us every step of the way. “My friends, that was a beginning of a new journey, and we are here to continue that journey as well.”

Business begins

Business kicked off in earnest with the report from the Committee on Standing Rules, led by the Rev. Michael Hood. That committee proposed one standing rule change this year, to Standing Rule 30, Section F to bring the paragraph into agreement with the current practice of the Annual Conference’s Lay Leadership area of Conference Connectional Ministries.

Approved by online vote, the change concerns election of conference lay officers, as well as language used to describe the Lay Leadership area.

Next, Nelson presented items on the Consent Calendar, as Standing Rule 22 allows for the adoption by “consent” of reports and other items that do not necessarily require deliberation by the Annual Conference in open session and can be adopted or “moved to the record without reading” by a simple majority vote. Nelson explained that if anyone wished to remove an item from the Consent Calendar, they were to email the request to [email protected] prior to consideration of the Consent Calendar later that day.

Next, the Rev. Joseph James of the Committee on Nominations presented the proposed committee nominations, which would be formalized later in the day. Changes to committee names should be sent to [email protected] and [email protected], he noted.

Nelson voted as episcopal nominee

Next, General Conference Delegation Chair Jackie Jenkins asked to make a motion on behalf of the delegation. She noted the delegation had already endorsed Nelson as their episcopal nominee, but as Annual Conference has not met in person since this endorsement, they had not formally confirmed it through a vote of the Annual Conference.

The body voted online and overwhelmingly approved Nelson as their episcopal nominee. When the Southeastern Jurisdiction gathers, he will be considered in the voting for new bishops along with other episcopal nominees.

Budget approved

Next, Council of Finance and Administration Chair the Rev. Mitch Houston presented the first reading of the proposed 2023 Annual Conference budget. Set at $15.6 million, Houston said it is a 2.1 percent decrease from the previous budget.

He expressed deep gratitude for the way churches stepped up to pay apportionments even in the uncertain times of a pandemic, bringing in 87 percent in 2020 and 91 percent in 2021.

Houston also lifted up a request not in the budget report. Similar to a request by Epworth Children’s Home a few years ago that was approved by the body, this year Camps and Retreat Ministry is requesting conference permission to do a capital campaign, where it will be requesting financial assistance from churches across South Carolina to build a multipurpose building at their Upstate camp, Asbury Hills.

The request involves no conference funding or budgetary change, only permission to begin their campaign and fundraisers.

At the close of conference, the body overwhelmingly approved the full budget along with the camp request.

Aligned for discipleship

After a break, Conference Connectional Ministries Director the Rev. Millie Nelson Smith presented the Connectional Ministries report, noting they are focusing on fundamentals to foster a healthy church where disciples are made and grown and sent out into community and into the world.

“The work of Connectional Ministries is to help resource and connect those churches to be able to do that work and utilize the resources of the annual conference,” Nelson Smith said from the podium. “Our job is to make sure the resources of the annual conference are aligned in a way to make disciples.”

Next, the Rev. Morris Waymer offered the Board of Ordained Ministry report, first pausing a moment to remember former board member Dr. Charles Johnson, who passed away earlier this year. Their report lifted up those who were commissioned or ordained the evening prior, plus noted the approval of full membership in the South Carolina Annual Conference of three full elders previously ordained in another conference or tradition: Ronald “Ron” Alan Hoesksema, Darlene Lee Kelley and Marvis Lavern Stewart.

Health plan rates increase

Next, Board of Pensions and Health Benefits Chair Valerie Brooks-Madden was joined by Conference Benefits officer the Rev. Christopher Lollis and board member the Rev. Joyce Timmons, doing a “did you know?” fast-fact session from the podium to help people understand some of the new changes in their area.

Among the items approved in their report this year were a small raise (from $846 to $863/month) for pre-1982 retirees, reminding people of an $1,800 moving grant available to help retirees, and a 7 percent increase in all 2023 conference HealthFlex Exchange health plans with the exception of the H3000 plan.

They also noted health insurance rates are projected to continue to increase in the coming years. As a result the South Carolina Conference Board of Pension and Health Benefits is taking steps to ease the impact on premiums paid by churches, pastors and conference employees covered by the plan.

While there is an increase in rates in 2023, the board is using investment earnings to slow the rise in healthcare costs and intends to continue to do so.

However, they cautioned, it is expected that rates will continue to increase for participants and local churches.

Pastors get 6% cost-of-living increase

Next, Commission on Equitable Compensation Chair the Rev. Jon Hoin presented his commission’s report. Hoin shared that because of ongoing economic shifts caused by the pandemic, they are recommending a cost-of-living increase of 6 percent to pastors’ minimum salary in 2023.

“Our aim with this increase is to continue to provide competitive minimum salaries as well as to ensure pastors can pay their bills after the large amount of inflation we saw in 2021,” Hoin shared in the report. “This increase also recognizes that no increase was made in minimum salaries for 2022.”

They requested $565,000 from the CF&A for 2023, which is the same amount requested in 2021 and 2022.

Finishing out the day

Dr. Stephen Love, dean of the Cabinet, brought the Cabinet report, officially welcoming the Rev. Fran Elrod as new Columbia District superintendent and bidding a fond farewell to the Rev. Cathy Jamieson, whose eight-year term ends.

Conference Lay Leader Barbara Ware brought her area’s report next, noting that her group has found a way to stay connected through a lot of Zoom meetings and emphasizing the conference’s four priorities (developing leaders, engaging our communities, connecting with and growing disciples, and measuring and evaluating current realities and missional possibilities).

Ware also noted their committee recommended two current vacant positions be filled: Jeff Fogle as associate conference lay leader and Cassie Watson as secretary of Lay Leadership. Ware will continue as conference lay leader until the next General Conference and a new quadrennium begins.

After a break, the body approved the budget, the adoption of the Consent Calendar and the elections proposed by the Committee on Nominations.

Members also approved the closing of five churches—Cherokee Place UMC, North Charleston; Lynnwood UMC, Lancaster; St. John UMC, North; College Place UMC, Columbia; and Loree UMC, Spartanburg—and the merging of Brown Chapel, Heaven Gate and St. James UMCs to become The Brook UMC, Murrells Inlet.

Jamieson urged people to remember the church is not a facility.

“It is the people of God at work in the world,” she said.

(See full article here.)  

Next year’s and future site

Ware noted the 2023 date and site of Annual Conference will be June 4-8, 2023, again at the Florence Center.

The Annual Conference Committee selected the Greenville Center as the site for the 2024-2026 conferences, and the body voted and approved that site for 2024’s event.

All voted to adjourn the business, and after a quick break, Holston offered a sending forth and a Fixing of the Appointments, available on Pages 14-18 of this edition.

The business of Annual Conference ended just before 4 p.m., with all joining at 7 p.m. for a prerecorded memorial service preached by Dr. Robin Dease that remembered 53 departed saints (see article here).

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