By Jessica Brodie
Annual Conference organizers are gearing up for an event this year that will embrace increased reliance on technology as well as streamline new procedures for a more efficient, engaging gathering.
Set for June 4-7 at the Florence Center, this is the first in-person Annual Conference held since 2019. The 2020, 2021 and 2022 annual conferences were held virtually because of the pandemic.
The Rev. Mel Arant, assistant conference secretary, said this year’s gathering will bring an opportunity both to celebrate new opportunities and to mourn things that will never be the same—namely, the loss of friends and colleagues over the past three years from COVID-19, as well as the coming separation of some colleagues and church families many have shared ministry with for decades.
But, Arant said, “Annual Conference also represents an opportunity to take a step into the future by adopting technology, processes and activities that we learned during the pandemic. We are integrating them with our own traditions, while at the same time letting go of some of the ways we used to do some things.”
Electronic voting and materials
One of those new things is electronic voting. All electronic voting will utilize lay and clergy members’ personal electronic devices. Clergy and lay members will need to bring a smartphone, tablet or laptop capable of connecting to a Wi-Fi network and accessing the internet in order to vote. Arant said if any difficulties in voting occur, paper ballots will be available.
Also this year, pre-conference packets and video reports will only be available online.
Arant said that at previous in-person annual conference sessions, organizers have provided a hard-copy pre-conference packet of materials—mailed ahead of the gathering—and a hard-copy registration packet on-site.
But this year, one hard-copy annual conference packet will be available to lay and clergy members upon their arrival at the Florence Center. The packet and video reports will be posted online by May 1 at https://umcsc.org/ac2023.
The conference will mail, in a bright orange envelope, name badges and voter credentials to all lay and clergy members who register online. Members will present these at the Florence Center in June to receive their printed packet and a badge holder.
“By consolidating these materials into one packet and not mailing them, we are saving on printing and postage costs,” Arant explained.
Business to include budget, separating churches, resolutions
The theme for this year’s event is “Seeking a More Excellent Way: Breathe and Believe, Hewing Hope.”
Conference will address a reduced budget for 2024, ordain and commission approximately 20 new clergy members, honor 26 retirees and remember a number of clergy and spouses who passed away over the last year.
This year’s event will also have members vote on a host of churches that elected to separate from the denomination. No decision has been made as to how any resolutions involving separating churches will be addressed by the annual conference, nor has the conference released the names or total number of these churches.
“To protect the integrity of the Local Church Discernment Process, the trustees of the Annual Conference, who oversee the fulfillment of the requirements to separate, are treating information about local churches participating in the process as confidential until it is complete,” said Dan O’Mara, conference communications coordinator.
The churches had the opportunity—if their members believe the denomination has not upheld its stated doctrine on issues of human sexuality—to go through the Local Church Discernment Process this winter and vote by March 1 on whether to separate from the denomination. Those churches with a two-thirds majority, and who satisfy financial obligations, debts and other legal liabilities, will go before AC2023 this June.
Members will also have the opportunity to vote on six resolutions that do not involve separating churches—one addressing gun violence, one opposing the death penalty and four from Reconciling Ministries of South Carolina, an official caucus related to the UMC.
(See article here.)
Other highlights of this year’s event as are follows:
Ordination and commissioning of new clergy will be combined with a service recognizing retiring clergy. This Service for Commissioning, Ordination and Retirement will be held the opening night of Annual Conference, at 7 p.m. Sunday, June 4, to make it easier for people to attend because it is a weekend night instead of during the week. Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, resident bishop of the UMC’s West Virginia Conference, will preach.
The Tuesday 5 p.m. Service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving will be preached by the Rev. Tim Rogers, Marion District superintendent, to honor those clergy and spouses who passed away over the last year.
The opening worship service Monday at 9:30 a.m. will be preached by South Carolina’s Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston.
“This is an opportunity to recognize our shared call, with prayers of blessing for each pastor, layperson and congregation who will be pursuing God’s call in the way they best understand it,” Arant said.
Lay and clergy members who plan to attend must register by May 21 at https://www.umcsc.org/2023acregistration.