By Jessica Brodie
FLORENCE—For the first time since 2019, lay and clergy members of the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church will come together in person June 4-7 to pray, worship and conduct the business of the church.
“After four years of isolation and virtual gatherings, we look forward with great anticipation and hope to reuniting in-person this year for worship and fellowship, and to conduct the business of the Annual Conference,” said South Carolina’s Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston. “This will certainly be an opportunity to show our gratitude for how God has been working in the in-between while we have been apart, and it is this hope we bring as we come together in the spirit of remembering God’s purpose for us.”
Here is what to expect:
Annual Conference kicks off Sunday, June 4, at the Florence Center with packet pick-ups, clergy session, lay member orientation and other matters before one of the more anticipated services of the multiday session—the Commissioning, Ordination and Retirement Recognition Service. Presided by Holston with guest preacher Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball of the West Virginia Annual Conference, the evening expects to ordain 12 men and women as full elders, ordain one as full deacon, commission five as provisional elders and commission two as provisional deacons. It also will recognize 33 retiring clergy.
The Rev. Mel Arant, assistant conference secretary and coordinator of clergy services, said he is excited that the first opportunity to worship together since 2019 will be about celebrating the ordination, commissioning and retirement of people deeply committed to the UMC’s mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
“In this time of uncertainty and division, a service that celebrates the fact that we are part of something larger than ourselves is a powerful way to begin our week together,” Arant said.
Arant said he is also excited a representative from the retiring class of clergy will have the opportunity to offer a blessing over the incoming class of ordinands.
Arant called it “a recognition of the continuum of ministry we all have been a part of since the foundation of Christ’s church on earth.”
Business starts Monday
The business of Annual Conference begins Monday, June 5. After voting orientation and testing and an opening worship service led by Holston, business will start around 10:45 a.m. with the official call to order, greetings and organizational motions.
The theme of this 52nd session of Annual Conference is “Seeking A More Excellent Way: Breathe and Believe, Hewing Hope,” and Holston said he hopes people will contemplate this theme as they continue to cling to our shared faith in Christ, knowing that God is with us and will never abandon us.
“Please join me in praying that great and marvelous things will happen through the Holy Spirit who guides and sustains us, and that our time in Florence will be a living witness to the grace, mercy and love of Jesus Christ to everyone we encounter,” Holston said.
Various committees will present reports, including the committees on standing rules, nominations, and resolutions and appeals. Beyond the resolutions anticipated from churches who voted to separate from the UMC (which will be addressed Tuesday), Annual Conference members will have the chance to hear about six other resolutions at this year’s annual conference, plus any that might be introduced from the floor.
Four of these are from South Carolina Reconciling Ministries, an official caucus of the UMC that works for full affirmation of all of God’s children, including LGBTQ+ persons, in the church and the world. They are 1) Support for removing all discriminatory policies and harmful language related to sexual orientation from the Book of Discipline; 2) Support for the establishment of the government necessary to allow each region to design ministry for its particular contexts and be more effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world; 3) Support for and amplification of the LGBTQIA+ delegates’ call to justice and empowerment for the LGBTQIA+ community and for responsibility as United Methodists to do good, do no harm, and stay in love with God; and 4) Expression of respect and gratitude for those who have voluntarily stepped away from positions of leadership as they journey away from membership in the UMC.
The Conference Connectional Ministries’ Advocacy area and South Carolina Board of Church and Society is proposing a resolution urging South Carolina United Methodists to prayerfully address gun violence in their local context, including background checks and gun purchase restrictions.
And Wesley Chapel UMC and the Rev. Amiri B. Hooker submitted a resolution calling for South Carolina United Methodists to unequivocally oppose the death penalty.
Also on Monday, the conference Council on Finance and Administration will introduce the first reading of its recommendation of a proposed $13.2 million budget for 2024. That amount is down 15.4 percent from the $15.6 million budget for 2023.
The Rev. Mitch Houston, CF&A president, said the recommended budget for 2024 is reduced by $2.4 million and is estimated to be 13.9 percent of average net funds.
“This significant reduction is to reflect the apportionments estimated to be lost because of our conference’s separating churches. The council is recommending in its budget that the General Church apportionments be reduced by 15 percent,” Houston said in his written report to annual conference.
Tuesday to address separating churches, more
For many, Tuesday is the most anticipated day of this year’s Annual Conference, as it is the day the body is scheduled to address the closure of an as-yet-unknown number of churches who hope to separate from the UMC. These churches went through the conference-authorized Local Church Discernment Process this winter and spring, which is a process that enabled churches to pray, discern and then hold a churchwide vote about leaving the UMC if their members believed the denomination has not upheld its stated doctrine on issues of human sexuality.
According to Dan O’Mara, director of communications, the body will vote Tuesday on “several resolutions that would close local churches that have completed the Local Church Discernment Process and are planning to separate from the UMC.”
O’Mara said the trustees of the Annual Conference—the elected body that oversees the fulfillment of the requirements to separate—is scheduled to make its report to the Annual Conference Tuesday. That same day, before making their report, the trustees will make public a list of those separating local churches upon whom Annual Conference members will be voting.
“Until that time, trustees will continue to treat information about local churches participating in the process as confidential,” O’Mara said.
To be eligible to have their church vote go before Annual Conference this June, churches had to be in full communication with their district superintendent; complete an intentional, 30-day discernment process; satisfy financial obligations, including all unpaid apportionment giving and unpaid salary and benefits due to clergy; and satisfy or transfer of debts and other legal liabilities of the local church.
Then, a churchwide vote had to be taken before March 1 that indicated two-thirds of professing church members present agreed to formally declare the church can no longer continue to function as a UMC.
While the conference has told the Advocate it has decided not to release the names or the total number of these churches “to protect the integrity of the Local Church Discernment Process,” the Advocate has reported on the churches it does know about that have voted to leave. Of the 958 total churches in the conference, at least 55 have indicated they have voted to separate—including four of the nine largest-membership churches in the UMCSC (Mount Horeb UMC, Lexington; Chapin UMC, Chapin; Buncombe Street UMC, Greenville; and Covenant UMC, Greer).
Beyond these resolutions to close, several other major items of business are scheduled for Tuesday.
Business is slated to begin that day with a report from the Commission on Equitable Compensation, which is proposing a cost-of-living increase of 6 percent to clergy members’ minimum salary in 2024.
“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 2022,” the Rev. Jon Hoin, chair of the CEC, said in their report. “This increase also recognizes that no increase was made in minimum salaries for 2021 and 2022.”
Other items scheduled for Tuesday are the Board of Pension & Health Benefits, Conference Connectional Ministries, a report from the General and Jurisdictional Delegation and Committee on Nominations elections.
Tuesday evening will feature a memorial service preached by the Rev. Tim Rogers, Marion District superintendent who is retiring this year. That service will celebrate the lives of those clergy and spouses who passed away over the last year.
Wednesday is the last day of Annual Conference. Business will include voting on the 2024 conference budget, voting on any resolutions before the body, adoption of the consent calendar, resolutions to church closing and charge line changes (beyond the ones addressed Tuesday), and the announcement of the date and location of the 2024 session of annual conference.
Holston will preach the sending-forth closing service before the fixing of the appointments.
Annual Conference will also feature a number of special events and happenings. Some of these include a dinner for retirees and their families Sunday at 5 p.m.; a health screening for those covered by the conference health plan Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings; a blood drive Monday afternoon; the African American Clergywomen’s Luncheon on Monday; a Diakonia Luncheon; a Hood seminary luncheon; and a Gammon seminary dinner Tuesday. See a full list of special events and details at https://www.umcsc.org/ac2023.
Also on that website are hotels with special rates, restaurants, information on how to change an elected lay member and more.
What else should lay and clergy members do?
To prepare for the 2023 South Carolina Annual Conference, lay and clergy members are encouraged to go to https://www.umcsc.org/ac2023 to do a number of things:
• Complete online registration, if they haven’t already. Once members have registered, they should keep an eye on their mailbox, as they will soon be receiving their badges and voter IDs in a bright orange envelope;
• Watch the video “An Introduction to VPOLL: Your Tool for Voting at Annual Conference.” This 5-minute training tool will introduce members to the electronic voting process. Further voting orientation and testing is scheduled for Monday morning, June 5;
• Review key video reports from the Board of Ordained Ministry, the Council on Finance and Administration, the Board of Pension and Health Benefits, the Commission on Equitable Compensation, the Nominations Committee, Lay Leadership and Connectional Ministries; and
• Review the updated conference agenda and conference packet. This year, there is only one packet, rather than the two packets published in previous years.
Two more churches notified the Advocate about their plans regarding the Local Church Discernment Process.
Loris First United Methodist Church, Loris, reported their congregation has voted to separate from the UMC.
And the church council of Bethany UMC, Charleston, voted unanimously to not move forward in the process of discernment. The church will remain in the UMC.
See the full list of churches the Advocate has been informed are disaffiliating at https://advocatesc.org/articles/disaffiliating-umcsc
Dan O’Mara contributed to this article.