Virtual Annual Conference goes smoothly, finishes early
By Jessica Brodie
COLUMBIA—South Carolina’s first—and some hope only—all-virtual Annual Conference took less than three hours to complete.
But by the end of the day Oct. 17, the conference passed a $16.5 million budget for 2021, elected hundreds of members to non-quadrennial boards and committees, passed three changes to conference Standing Rules, approved a resolution against predatory lending, closed three churches and merged some charge lines, and heard reports from various conference entities.
“We all went kicking and screaming in into this virtual atmosphere while trying to live through a pandemic,” Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston said toward the close of the day, noting the number of changes necessitated this year because of COVID-19 and the closures of schools, businesses, churches and other large gatherings worldwide.
“We gather to do this not in our own power but in knowing God has already gone before us and given us the Christ we need to be the people we need to be.”
Held Oct. 17 at Journey United Methodist Church, a handful of conference leaders and staff attended in person, with roughly 1,000 more laity and clergy joining online from every district across the state. It was a pared-down, partial-day version of what is typically a four-day affair complete with elaborate videos, worship experiences, service projects and fellowship luncheons.
This year’s agenda was centered mostly on business matters the United Methodist Book of Discipline mandates must come to a vote each year, such as passage of the budget.
Some were eager with expectation about how efficiently the partial-day event would go. Others dreaded the prospect of an online event, concerned about voting glitches or lack of participation.
But the day went smoothly overall, organizers said, with no major glitches and even a few lighthearted moments of laughter. In fact, the day was slated to end after 5 p.m., but the bishop finished his Sending Forth Service at 4:41 p.m.—well in time for supper.
Annual Conference officially started at 2 p.m., though a training on the virtual voting platform was held at noon, followed at 1 p.m. by the showing of all the video reports for conference.
Bishop Holston called the session to order precisely at 2 p.m., expressing thanks not only to GNTV, who made the virtual event possible, but to the people of the South Carolina Annual Conference, who have had to make a great many adjustments over the past year.
“This is one of adjustments we’ve had to make,” Holston said. “Thank you for your willingness to embrace a new normal.”
After lifting up a prayer that the Holy Spirit unite the body as one church and for wisdom and discernment in collective decision-making, Holston turned the stage over to Columbia District Superintendent Dr. Cathy Jamieson and Journey UMC Pastor Dr. George Ashford. Jamieson and Ashford offered greetings and heartfelt expressions of welcome.
Next, Conference Secretary the Rev. Ken Nelson brought several organizational motions before the body, all of which were approved, allowing them to conduct business electronically and in an expedited manner. Prior to Annual Conference, conference leaders had distributed a large number of materials to help lay and clergy members review and be able to vote on matters that would come before the full body that day.
Because the quadrennium was extended with the postponement of General Conference 2020, the nomination and election of the conference secretary was taken off the agenda; Nelson, along with the bishop and others with quadrennial offices, will stay on until that extension has ended. (See full story, here.)
Standing Rules approved
Next, the Rev. Michael Hood, chair of the Committee on Standing Rules, presented his committee’s report for approval. He moved that the body adopt the full report, with several changes to the Standing Rules, in its entirety.
The body voted to approve these changes:
Standing Rules 27.d and 28.e: Alternate lay and clergy delegates elected to Jurisdictional and General Conference will be paid the same per diem and travel expenses as other delegates elected to those conferences.
Standing Rule 48: Multiple revisions to bring the rule into line with the current practices of Connectional Ministries.
Standing Rule 57: Moves the nomination process for the Board of Trustees of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate under Connectional Ministries instead of the Conference Committee on Nominations.
Resolution against predatory lending approved
After presentation of the Consent Calendar and the Committee on Nominations, the body next heard from the Rev. Bernie Maczyck on behalf of the Advocacy Committee of Conference Connectional Ministries recommending a Resolution On Predatory Lending.
The resolution passed overwhelmingly with no questions or amendments.
Referencing God’s directives in Exodus 22:25 and Deuteronomy 23:19 regarding fair moneylending, the resolution urges the General Assembly and Congress to pass legislation capping usury fees and interest rates for small dollar loans. It also urges that the UMC use its “collective voice of justice” to encourage lawmakers, financial institutions, funders and decision-makers to address the unjust effects of high-cost lenders, including consumer finance, payday lending and auto title lending.
The resolution notes payday and car title loan lenders have a negative impact on the lives of the poor and marginalized residents of South Carolina and often target the poor, communities of color and those who cannot access the traditional financial system.
Body passes $16.5M budget
Next, Council on Finance and Administration Chair the Rev. Mitch Houston presented his committee’s report, which lays out a $16,470,816 conference budget for 2021.
Houston thanked Budget Subcommittee Chair Walter Cantwell and Conference Treasurer Beth Westbury and her team for their excellent work, as well as churches and pastors across the conference for their commitment to being God’s church. Houston said CF&A put together an initial budget in February, but after the pandemic and some economic changes in the church, they revised the budget in July. The final recommended budget is $358,034 lower than the 2020 budget, a 2.1 percent decrease.
At the end of the Annual Conference session, Houston returned to the podium for the called vote. There were no questions or amendments, and the budget passed.
Also of note: The Conference Administration Fund was set at $1.6 million for 2021, up 4 percent from 2020, and the Conference Benevolences Fund was set at $2,458,709 for 2021, up 0.4 percent.
Churches closed, charge lines changed
Annual Conference also approved resolutions for the closure of three churches—Christ UMC, Carolina Forest; Greeleyville UMC, Greeleyville; and Piedmont Park UMC, Taylors—and changes to charge lines in five districts. (See full story, here.)
Other reports also approved
Annual Conference also approved the reports of several boards, commissions and other entities.
The Rev. Fran Elrod brought the report of the Board of Ordained Ministry, which passed. Elrod lifted up the 20 men and women commissioned or ordained as provisional members, provisional deacons and full elders at a socially distanced, limited-attendance ordination service held Aug. 8.
Next, Valerie Brooks-Madden brought the report of the Board of Pension and Health Benefits, which was also approved. The BPHB proposed a continuation of the HealthFlex Exchange, which is the managed health care plan of Wespath Benefits and Investments for active participants and eligible dependents.
Skipper Brock offered the report of the Commission on Equitable Compensation, also adopted, which passed for full-time clergy appointments a 2 percent increase in minimum base compensation over what was approved for 2020. It also established equitable compensation for new church starts, mission situations and more.
The Rev. Stephen Love next presented the report of the Cabinet, also approved, which detailed the work of the Cabinet and Extended Cabinet over the past year, from mission work and Forward Focus support to district work days and other events and efforts
And Barbara Ware, conference lay leader, presented the Lay Leader report, which lifted up their key moments and opportunities over the past year, as well as praised the work of the youth and the conference’s three largest lay-led groups, United Methodist Men, United Methodist Women and Lay Servant Ministries.
Next year’s Annual Conference
Prior to the sending forth service, the date and location for the 2021 South Carolina Annual Conference was set. AC2021 is scheduled for June 6-9, 2021, at the Florence Center in Florence.
Bishop lifts up courage, witness in his ‘sending forth’
In the abbreviated Sending Forth Service, Holston led with Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, calling for power, love and spiritual maturity in the church as they fulfill their work (Ephesians 3:14-21).
Then he expressed words of gratitude and encouragement for United Methodists in every district of South Carolina for their courage to take risks and step out as God’s church in today’s “new normal.”
“Whenever you step out to do something bold and fearless, you need faith and resolve,” Holston said. “Whenever you step out beyond caution, you need grace and mercy. Whenever you step out to take a risk, you have many challenges you have to overcome.”
It takes courage to step out into the unknown, Holston preached, and we must continue to take the next faithful steps in life.
“(God) will bless us, seek us out if we only call upon him,” Holston said. “He’s opened doors which we can no longer close.”
For, he said, we are connected together by the love, grace and saving power of Jesus.
“You must open yourself to God’s witness so the empty places within you are overflowing with God’s overwhelming abundance and glory,” Holston said to applause. “May we be God’s people here in South Carolina and beyond, and may that which we do be faithful and God be grateful for the witness he will see in each and every one of us.”
To read the approved reports and other resolutions in full, go to https://www.umcsc.org/ac2020.