Pictured, the body stands in a solemn approval vote that allowed 113 United Methodist churches to separate from the South Carolina Conference. The vote occurred Tuesday afternoon during Annual Conference. Photo by Matt Brodie.
By Jessica Brodie
FLORENCE, S.C.—With a tone sometimes solemn and sometimes exuberant, the 52nd session of the South Carolina Annual Conference was a historic one in many regards. From grief over the separation of 113 South Carolina churches who chose to leave The United Methodist Church to the joy so many experienced at the opportunity to be together in person for the first time in four years, emotions ran the gamut.
But by the time business ended June 7, more than 2,000 United Methodists wrapped up a four-day Annual Conference that ordained or commissioned 22 people, celebrated 38 retirees, passed two resolutions, honored the lives of 49 clergy and spouses who died over the past year, approved a $13.2 million budget for 2024, approved three church closings, changed 36 charge lines and allowed the separation of 113 churches across the state who have chosen to leave the UMC (see article, here).
As South Carolina Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston said in his closing sermon, just like when Jesus called the disciples to rise above their own limitations when it came to feeding the 5,000 in Matthew 14, today we United Methodists must also do the same. We must set aside a “scarcity mindset” and instead be willing to push aside boundaries when it comes to God’s limitless possibilities.
“We are called to be God’s people, and God is calling us to be the people that would accept the challenge of seeking out the community in our midst who need the word, who may need to see the word in action, who may need to experience the word,” Holston said.
Just as the disciples realized when they were able to feed thousands with five loaves and two fish, we are far more blessed than we have ever thought, he said. And because of Jesus, we are far more capable than we give ourselves credit for. “We have an opportunity to be who God calls us to be if don’t allow our eyes to be fixed on our surroundings but allow our eyes to be focused on God,” Holston said.
Day One: Welcome, all
Day One of Annual Conference—Sunday, June 4—reflected a change from years past. After the clergy session and laity orientation, Annual Conference kicked off with an evening Service of Commissioning, Ordination, Recognition of Orders and Retirement presided over by Holston with guest preacher Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, resident bishop of the West Virginia Conference.
Steiner Ball emphasized the transformative hope of God in a service celebrating 22 new clergy and honoring 38 retirees, including the symbolic passing of the mantle, conducted by the Rev. Susan Thurston Henry-Crowe, representing the retiring class, and the Rev. Joseph Daniel Kovas, representing the newly ordained. (See article, here.)
Day Two: Two new resolutions, 31 new local pastors
Day Two—Monday, June 5—began with a rousing opening worship service preached by Holston that emphasized letting God have God’s way in God’s own perfect time.
“We’re living in the midst of unresolved tension, that tension of who we are, who we say we are and who we want to be. In the midst of our fast food, drive-thru, one-day-Amazon-delivery world, we recognize patience is hard,” Holston said.
God wants us to pause, even though it can be so difficult to cultivate that kind of patience. Sometimes the chaos threatens, and we can’t seem to see past it.
“Like an unrelenting, unwavering, unyielding storm that seems like it will never end, it seems like everything goes on and on and on, and we try to make sense of it, try to take control of it, but the more we try, it seems to escape us even more,” Holston said.
But today, and for this Annual Conference session, let’s all try to breathe and believe, Holston said, and let God hew a stone of hope in each one of us.
After opening worship, Holston called the business session to order, then recognized Conference Secretary the Rev. Ken Nelson, who offered organizational motions.
Florence District Superintendent Terry Fleming brought warm welcomes on behalf of the churches and people in his district, noting how great it feels to gather again in person as thousands lift their voices together in song.
“Most are aware this Annual Conference will be difficult, and none of us knows what our connection will look like when we are through,” Fleming said. “But, my friends, when we are through we will all, every one of us, still be a blessed and beloved child of God.”
Nelson introduced the consent calendar, and the Rev. Michael Hood brought the report from the Committee on Standing Rules, noting their report was so short he didn’t even bring his harmonica on stage like he normally does. The only change was the removal of all references to The Methodist Oaks because it was sold several years ago.
Ed Roper, of Bethel UMC, Spartanburg, asked from the floor if the conference would provide a list of the churches wishing to separate, and Holston explained it would be provided the next day when the business was slated to be included as the report of the Conference Board of Trustees.
After a lunch break, Joseph James introduced the slate of names for various boards and agencies from the Committee on Nominations, which would be voted upon on the final day of Annual Conference.
Then, the Rev. Mitch Houston, chair of the Conference Council of Finance and Administration, presented the budget for 2024, recommended at $13.2 million. That number is a $2.4 million cut in the budget, 15 percent down from the $15.6 million 2023 budget, based on an anticipated financial shortfall because of the number of churches wishing to separate from the denomination.
Next, the Rev. Steve Simoneaux brought the report from the Committee on Resolutions and Appeals. Of the six resolutions in the pre-Annual Conference packet, only two were valid, Simoneaux said. Four—the ones from South Carolina Reconciling Ministries Network—were ruled out of order because they were proposed by an unofficial conference group and not an individual.
The other two—a Resolution to Unequivocally Oppose the Death Penalty and a Resolution on Gun Violence—the committee recommended support as they generally reflect UMC principles. The death penalty resolution passed as-is and the gun violence resolution passed with an amendment after debate. However, there was much discussion and dismay expressed when the body learned four resolutions before them had been ruled out of order. (See article, here.)
After a break, the body heard from the new president of Claflin University, Dr. Dwaun J. Warmack, and the new director of Epworth Children’s Home, Beth Williams.
The Rev. Stephen Love then brought the report of the Cabinet.
“We’re in this together,” Love said, lifting up the work of the Extended Cabinet behind the scenes to do God’s mission in South Carolina.
He said that in spite of all that is happening, from separating churches to any other obstacles, we’re all on the same team and we all have the same leader—our episcopal leader and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Next, Barbara Ware brought the Lay Leadership report, introducing the new executive team: Lisa Fusco, Cassie Watson and Jeff Fogle.
The Board of Ordained Ministry celebrated in a brief service 31 men and women who recently completed the Licensing School of Pastoral Ministry, and Jim Salley gave an update on Africa University, what he called “a United Methodist dream come true” on the cusp of hosting its 29th graduation ceremony.
The day ended with a Service of Praise and Prayer led by the Rev. Kim Bryant.
Day Three: ‘We are one body’
After a service of communion and a morning Praise and Prayer service, Day Three, June 6, began with a report from the Commission on Equitable Compensation. On their recommendation, clergy will see a 6 percent cost of living increase in 2024 because of the large amount of inflation recently.
The Rev. Chris Lollis and Dr. Valerie Brooks-Madden shared changes from the Board of Pension and Health Benefits next (see article, here).
Next, Nelson shared results of the two offerings held at Annual Conference. The collection Sunday night raised $6,680 for the South Carolina Seminary Students Scholarship, and the collection Monday morning raised $8,465 for The Bishop Joseph B. Bethea Scholarship
The Rev. Millie Nelson Smith and the Rev. Ross Chellis gave the report of Conference Connectional Ministries, detailing the wide variety of things all who are part of the group do to be stewards of the vision of the annual conference.
Next came the report of South Carolina’s elected delegation to General and Jurisdictional conferences. Delegation Chair the Hon. Jackie Jenkins informed the body of their work at the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, electing three new bishops including South Carolina pastor Dr. Robin Dease, now appointed as bishop of the North Georgia Conference of the UMC.
South Carolina is represented by 32 people elected in 2019—half clergy, half laity—who represented the conference at SEJ; 16 (half clergy, half laity) will also represent South Carolina at General Conference, scheduled for April 23-May 3, 2024 in Charlotte.
Jenkins also lifted up South Carolina’s episcopal nominee, Nelson, who was not elected as bishop at SEJ.
Nelson, who is both conference secretary and Orangeburg District superintendent, expressed profound appreciation for the tremendous support he received from South Carolina United Methodists. He especially thanked a few people: Bishop Holston, the delegation, Jim Salley, Martha and Dave Braddon, his brother Lewis, and Bishop James Swanson.
“There is work to be done in our church that we are to be the body,” Nelson said to a standing ovation. “We don’t have time to play small or to be petty. We don’t have time to be bitter when we can be better. So let me be clear: We are one body. We will not be divided by small issues or small mindedness. We will be defined by who we are as baptized Christians living into the fullness of our faith.”
Next, Dr. Roger Gramling, retired elder, proposed a motion from the floor that would ask the Standing Rules Committee to consider amending Standing Rule 70 given the difficulty Monday over the rejection of four out-of-order resolutions, in spite of the fact that they were submitted before deadline. Prior to Annual Conference 2024, Gramling moved, the Standing Rules Committee would consider an amendment to SR70 that would authorize the conference secretary, in consultation with the conference parliamentarian, to review all resolutions submitted under the provisions of SR70 to determine if such resolutions are properly before the annual conference for consideration. If not, Gramling motioned, they would advise the resolution submitters that the deadline for the resubmission of corrected versions would be extended to March 25. The committee would report their consideration of this amendment to the 2024 session.
After a second, Gramling’s motion passed overwhelmingly with a hand vote.
Body allows 113 churches to separate
At 2 p.m. Tuesday, annual conference reconvened for perhaps the most anticipated part of this year’s session: a vote on the churches who wished to separate from the UMC over sexuality and other concerns.
These churches, whose name and total number were kept confidential until that day, had gone through the Local Church Discernment Process earlier this year and voted with a two-thirds majority to separate from the denomination. The process was open to congregations who believed the denomination has not upheld its stated doctrine on issues of human sexuality, which is that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” though the church “implores families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.”
After both dialogue and deep prayer, the body approved the separation of the 113 churches, which represent almost 12 percent of the 958 South Carolina UMCs.
(See article, here)
AC remembers 49 souls
Day Three concluded Tuesday with a poignant memorial service conducted by the Rev. Tim Rogers, recently retired Marion District superintendent, who brought a message of deep honor and remembrance as South Carolina United Methodists celebrated the lives of 49 clergy and spouses who died in last year.
His sermon was titled “They Were Sent—And It Was Beautiful.” (See article, here.)
Final day: Budget approved and appointments fixed
After a communion service and a morning Praise and Prayer, the fourth and final day of Annual Conference 2023 began at 9:30 a.m. with the adoption of the consent calendar, followed by three non-separation-oriented church closings (Lockhart UMC, Union; Bowers Chapel, Florence; and Unity UMC, Union) and the changing of 36 charge lines. (See article, here.)
Next the body approved the CF&A’s proposed budget for 2024 of $13.2 million.
In his report, CF&A Chair Houston celebrated the achievement of 89.2 percent of apportionments paid by churches in 2022, as well as recognized the district who achieved the largest percentage point increase (Hartsville District, with a 3.83 percent increase over the year prior) and the district with the highest percentage of apportionments paid (Orangeburg District, at 98.23 percent).
Houston said CF&A doesn’t have exact numbers, but they believe approximately $2.3 million will be lost in apportionment dollars because of the 113 separating churches who have left the South Carolina conference.
However, Houston noted, these churches were required to pay an additional year of apportionments as a condition of the separation, which will help offset the loss as they work to adjust and respond financially.
Various people spoke from the floor asking that local churches consider additional support of advance special ministries, campus ministries and Epworth Children’s Home, including Anne Walker, director of the Alston-Wilkes Society.
The Rev. Bob Huggins made a motion that the conference trustees set aside funds for Epworth given the loss he suspects they will incur because of the separating churches, but the motion was ruled out of order because the annual conference is not permitted to direct the Board of Trustees in this way.
Andy Morris, lay member, made a motion that, given the anticipated financial shortfall, the conference eliminate two districts of the 12 across South Carolina. Discussion ensued, and Houston and Holston explained dialogue about this is already in the works but that it will take some time over this next year to assess properly which districts, whether this is the best option and how this can be implemented effectively without negatively impacting current ministry.
Morris said he would withdraw his motion if he could get assurance that a report will be given next year on such a reduction.
While the motion could not be withdrawn because it was already properly before the body, Holston offered that assurance, noting, “I appreciate the tenor of your request because it is important in this season, and please know that this is what we will be doing.”
The motion to immediately reduce the districts was defeated.
Holston noted that in addition to apportionment payments, it is imperative all South Carolina United Methodists “check our own selves” to make sure we are not only tithing but going above and beyond when possible.
“We all took the same vow: to renounce the evil forces of wickedness, accept Jesus Christ as lord and savior and to support the church with our time, our talents, our gifts, our service and our witness,” Holston said to applause. “Let’s be true to what God’s called us to do. We’re all still in this together.”
The business session closed as Nelson announced the date and location of Annual Conference 2024, set for June 9-12, 2024, at the TD Center in Greenville.
After a closing sending forth worship service, Holston and the 12 district superintendents fixed the appointments, noting they are correct with exception of the 113 churches that separated during this session of Annual Conference and a few editorial changes.
(See appointments, Page 14-18 of the print or full online edition.)
More on AC2023 next month.
For photos from Annual Conference, visit https://www.flickr.com/umcsc.
For the full packet, agenda and other conference materials, visit https://www.umcsc.org/ac2023.