Pictured, the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, representing the retiring class, passes the mantle to Rev. Joseph Daniel Kovas, among the newly ordained. Photo by Matt Brodie.
By Jessica Brodie
FLORENCE—South Carolina gathered in-person June 4 for the first time since before the pandemic to commission or ordain 22 new clergypersons and honor 38 retirees—a time for great joy and celebration.
“It’s a celebration of God, of believers and the church gathered together praising God and having the goodwill of all people in our hearts, said Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, resident bishop of West Virginia, who gave the evening’s sermon, “Original Blessing; Hewing Hope.”
But it is also a gathering that calls God’s people to remembrance.
For retirees, Steiner Ball said, it’s a time perhaps of remembering their ordination, their first appointments, their first time presiding at the communion table, as well as remembering those things they never taught in seminary, such as how to fix the air conditioning or how to navigate arguments about the color of the carpet.
“But it’s also a deeper remembrance, as we’re all called to remember where we came from, where we are going and to whom we belong,” she said.
After all, Steiner Ball said, everything began with God’s original blessing.
“The real message of Genesis is that God breathed, and God breathed life,” she said. “God made the plants and trees and vegetation, and God in God’s breath said ‘This is good.’”
Indeed, God said all of it was good, from the light and the stars to the sea and all the creatures upon the earth. But when it came to God’s special creation, humankind, God said it was not just good but “very good.”
God created a creature made in God’s image, one who could write poetry and masterpieces, who could care for people and all God’s creatures with medicine and with faith, and in doing so, God blessed us all.
“It’s a blessing that is yours and mine today, a blessing that has never ended, a blessing deeper than any human accomplishment, as deep as creation and old as the universe,” she said.
The struggle is that most Christian churches don’t start with our blessing, God’s breath of life. They start with Genesis 3 and the fall.
This focus on original sin is harmful and oppressive, Steiner Ball said. While it is important to talk about sin, what is far more important is focusing on the blessings of God and the good God has in store for us.
“Hear this, leaders of the church: The old advertisements really are true. We are what we eat. We are what we take in physically and spiritually. We become what we take in, what we allow to swirl and dwell inside of us,” she said.
She posed the question to all gathered: What are you taking in? What have you truly come to believe? And what are the words coming out of your mouths?
“Do they breathe life or something else? Where do your words reveal where you spend your time existing—in the realm of God’s original blessing, the blessing that hews hope, that enables both us and other persons to come face to face with Christ? Or are you so focused on sin … that you are slowly allowing the life to be sucked out of you?”
Focusing on original blessing over original sin puts the emphasis on God’s “more excellent way,” Steiner Ball said.
“God’s blessing is the foundation of transformed life, the avenue through which hope is hewn and through which we are made one in Christ,” she said.
It is the hope in a hopeless world.
“You were born to make manifest, to hew, to kindle, to spark the glory of God within each person,” she said.
This spark of God is in each one of us, not just some.
“The world is not our project. Is it our God-given opportunity,” Steiner Ball concluded. “So let God’s blessing shine. When we do so we give others permission to do the same.”
First service of Annual Conference
The evening service was the first at Annual Conference, held June 4-7 at the Florence Center. It began at 7 p.m. as incoming provisional and full elders and deacons joined their counterparts processing into the arena.
Led by Bishop L. Jonathan Holston, resident bishop, clergy entered singing “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”
Holston led the greeting and prayer, then reaffirmed the baptism and common call to ministry of all gathered.
Next, those to be commissioned and ordained were presented to the body by Barbara Ware, conference lay leader; the Rev. Morris Waymer, chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry; the Rev. Mary Johnson, chair of the Order of Elders; the Rev. Meg Jiunnies, chair of the Order of Deacons; and the Rev. Leatha Brown, BOM registrar.
Holston then conducted the general examination, confirming their calling and reminding them of the task before them.
“Remember you were called to serve rather than to be served, to proclaim the faith of the church and no other, to look after the concerns of God above all,” Holston said.
The candidates collectively affirmed their beliefs and accepted the covenant before all.
After the anthem, “Here I Am, Lord,” by the choir from Central United Methodist Church in Florence, provisional elder candidate Darlene Moore Richardson led the body in the Apostles’ Creed. Full elder candidate Louis Randolph Ashley led the first reading, from Genesis 1:26-31. Woongchul Daniel Ra, full elder candidate, read the Gospel, Matthew 5:1-12, in Korean.
Next, Holston introduced Steiner Ball, on “Original Blessing; Hewing Hope.”
22 commissioned or ordained
The service continued with the commissioning of provisional members—five preparing for ordained ministry as elders and two as deacons—including the prayer of commissioning and laying on of hands.
Next, the sole candidate to be ordained as deacon stood and faced Bishop Holston, who examined her for ordination, then offered prayer, a laying on of hands and their stole.
Next, the 13 candidates to be ordained as elders stood and faced Holston, who examined them for ordination as elder and offered a prayer. “As these persons are ordained by God and the church for the office and work of elders to which we believe them to be called by the Holy Spirit, let us pray for them,” Holston said.
Then came the laying on of hands. Each new elder also received his or her stole.
Lastly, Holston recognized the orders of one elder as he transferred from another denomination.
“After due examination of your call and ministry in another part of Christ’s holy church, we now welcome you to this communion, Holston said. “You have given assurance of your faith and Christian experience. You have renewed the vows of your ordination and embraced our own, committing yourself to accept and uphold faithfully the doctrine, liturgy and discipline of The United Methodist Church. We rejoice that you have been called to serve among us, and pray that God may guide your ministry.”
The 13 presented for ordination as elder were: Louis Randolph Ashley, Peter Kent Berntson, James Thornton Brown II, Carsten Aubrey Bryant, Mason Heyward Cantey, Scott Stephen Gilmer, Shirley Peterson Gordon, Alisha Christine Hansen, Joseph Daniel Kovas, Cameron Thomas Levi, Woongchul Daniel Ra, Amanda Geddings Richardson and Cynthia Anne Rumsey.
The one presented for ordination as deacon was Margaret Rosa Cantey.
The five presented for commissioning as provisional elders were Arthur Lindburg Gamble, Darlene Moore Richardson, Leo Wesley Roy, Billy Keith Stewart and Steven Matthew Turner.
The two presented as provisional deacons were Kim Moultrie Bryant and Laura McCoy Geloni.
And presented for recognition of orders in The United Methodist Church from another denomination: John Clarence Elmore Jr.
Honoring 38 retirees
Next, Annual Conference recognized the 38 clergy who retired in 2023. The Rev. Melton Arant read the names of the retirees as their photos displayed onscreen.
Holston offered a word of encouragement for the retirees, as well as a prayer for the ministry they lived.
“We give thanks for the ministry of these women and men, and for the ways in which you have ministered to us through them,” Holston prayed over them.”
The retirement class of 2023 is as follows: Emmanuel Bruce Adams, Debra Ann Armstrong, Joe Lee Blackwelder, Isiah Brown, Wallace Michael Burgess, Jimmy Lee Burks, Daniel Walker Chamblee, Raymond Frank Cook Jr., Lillie Kerns Davis, John Dicks, Frances Debra Dowdle, Elizabeth Burgess Drennen, Rebecca Lewis Forrest, Benjamin Graham, Susan Thurston Henry-Crowe, Ronald Alan Hoeksema, Lindora Flemming James, Sandra Smith King, Steven Michael King, Joe Nichols Long Jr., Susan Biggert Maddox, Robert Lee Malachi, Neal Alexander McDonald Jr., Daniel Gilbert O’Connor, Burton Lee Ott, Scott Wayne Petry, William Grover Putnam, Karen Jean Richmond, Timothy Julian Rogers, Deborah Luther Teagan, Charles Eugene Teal, Cheryl Dyke Toothe, Arthur Desport Vick Jr., John Henry Vickers III, James Timothy Whited, Charles Lionel Wilbanks, Michael Leonard Written and Ralph Conrad Young.
Beacons of light
The evening ended with the ceremonial “passing of the mantle,” in which a representative of the retiring class passes a stole, or mantle, from their shoulders to those of new class of ordinands. The Rev. Susan Thurston Henry-Crowe represented the retiring class, and the Rev. Joseph Daniel Kovas represented the newly ordained class.
Holston asked the retirees to gather around the ordinands as the Rev. Joe Long, representing the retiring class, prayed for the new class. “And now Lord we ask your blessing to be upon those who follow after us, those who will continue the race we have run, just as we continued the race ran by those who came before us,” Long prayed. “May their lives be beacons in a dark, dangerous and harsh world.”
In his sending forth, Holston expressed deep gratitude for what he called “a high and mighty time tonight,” as well as for the excellence of the Central UMC Choir.
The offering of the evening was collected for the South Carolina Seminary Students Scholarship, established in 1991. The scholarship fund gave two $6,000 scholarships this past year—to Christopher Charles Key and Elizabeth Scott Loughran.