June 6-8, in Grove City, Pennsylvania
The 2019 Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference session held June 6-8 at Grove City College included spirit-filled worship, inspiring messages and celebrations, as well as times of tension as ballots were cast for delegates to the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences and a petition was approved asking the General Conference “to begin the process of an amicable, fair and mutually agreed upon process of dissolution of The United Methodist Church.”
Petition 13, which was approved late in the Saturday plenary session, called for the General Conference “to direct the Connectional Table to create a task force of laity and clergy to prepare a process of structurally dividing the denomination into two or more unique expressions of Methodism which congregations and clergy could freely affiliate. Along with that process, we ask the task force to evaluate whether we can establish a theological vision from which we can continue to share ministries, general boards and agencies, and work for common goals as separate expressions of Methodism. The Connectional Table will present a full process of dissolution at the General Conference 2024.”
The language in the approved petition was substituted for the original language and removed a request to defer action on all petitions on human sexuality at General Conference 2020 “in order to focus on a fair, equitable structured settlement to our current, irreconcilable differences.”
Despite the differences that were evident at various times during the annual conference, there was much to celebrate during the gathering:
• Three lively morning Bible study sessions led by the Rev. Yung Suk Kim, who explained an approach to Bible study he called “Reader-Response Criticism.” It involves reading the scripture and responding by “observing” what and who is involved in the text, and asking questions. The scripture from Luke 5:11 was the basis the basis for the theme of the gathering — WPA Chic: Dressed for Fishing -- and for Kim’s sessions. It is the passage where Jesus gets into Simon’s boat to teach the crowds and later asks Simon, who had caught no fish all night, to go out into the deep and cast his nets again. This time there was an overwhelming catch of fish. Questions might involve why Simon’s boat was used. Did Simon overhear Jesus teach and “get it?” What was he really saying when he says “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man?” Kim gave conference members “homework” to read the text and “look around” at the people, places, scenes and events in the passage. What questions would you ask?
• During opening worship on Thursday evening, three new deacons and six new elders were ordained, five provisional members were commissioned, and one elder was received into full membership from another denomination. The average age of 32 among the new deacons and elders and 29 among the provisional members may provide a counter to recent trends toward an older average age among clergy.
• On Ministry Night, 22 elders, two associate members and 17 local pastors, representing nearly 870 years of service, were honored and a new Mission Partnership Covenant with the Methodist Church of Fiji was signed.
• The Rev. Donald Struchen, 96, traveled from New York City to be recognized as the oldest clergy member with the most years of service. In accepting a Thoburn Cane, which symbolizes the honor, he delighted conference members with tales of his ministry, including time spent as heading the Education Commission of the Erie Methodist Conference and on the staff of the Board of Global Ministries.
• A new connectional apportionment formula based on the concept of tithing, which had been suggested several times in the past, was approved and will support an apportionment budget for 2020 of $8,847,347. The budget is $652,177 less than the 2019 connectional budget.
• The conference honored and celebrated the lives and ministry of clergy and laity who passed away since the 2018 annual conference. Members also joined in a litany recognizing the ministry of 10 congregations who closed their churches in the past year. Preaching at the service on Saturday afternoon were Erie-Meadville District Superintendent Dennis Swineford and his daughter, the Rev. Rebekah Clapp, a newly ordained deacon. They shared God’s word in a sermon entitled “What the Next Generation Saw” using 2 Kings 2:1-5 as the Scripture.
• Presentations centered around the Five Areas of Focus highlighted effective ministries that are making a difference by reaching new people in new places, ministering with those living in poverty to effect change in individual lives and in systems that trap people in a cycle of poverty, efforts to promote abundant health, including recovery ministries and efforts to address addiction; the continuing efforts to address systemic racism and promote understanding of implicit bias and micro-aggression; and leadership development ministries including clergy communities of practice and camping and retreat ministries.
Amid the celebrations, though, tension was evident. Reaction to the election of clergy and lay delegates to the General and Jurisdictional Conferences, as well as social media posts before and during the balloting, illustrated the divisions within the Western Pennsylvania Conference. All but a few of those elected were on a slate promoted by the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The WCA advocated for the Traditional Plan approved at the 2019 special session of the General Conference. The plan, among other things, maintains language in the Book of Discipline that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, prohibits ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, forbids marriages of same-sex couples in United Methodist churches or by United Methodist clergy, and mandates penalties for violations.
The WCA endorsed 12 lay candidates and 12 clergy candidates as General/Jurisdictional candidates. All 12 WCA-endorsed laypersons were elected. Of the 12 clergy elected, only two — Butler District Superintendent Eric S. Park and Assistant to the Bishop Renee Mikell — were not endorsed by the WCA. Alternates elected to the delegation included some who increased the racial and theological diversity of the group.
Elected as delegates to the 2020 General Conference were:
Clergy: the Revs. Alyce Weaver Dunn, Robert Zilhaver, Janet Lord, Duk Hee Han, Steve Cordle and Keith McIlwain.
Laity: Nancy Denardo, Paul Morelli, Vicki Stahlman, Holly Fugate, Richard Hoffman and Katherine Fehl.
Clergy Alternates, who will be part of the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference delegation, are the Revs. John Seth, Eric S. Park, Randall Bain, D. Renee Mikell, Laura Saffell, Joseph Stains, William B. Meekins Jr.,and Anais Hussian.
Laity alternates are William Patrick, Jerry Rectenwald, Alexander Hoffman, Sherry Meterko, Joseph Emigh, Kayla Schwanke, Andrew Chung and Denise-Nicole Stone. Two of the delegates to General Conference and five Jurisdictional delegates and alternates are under age 35.
During balloting, Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi was asked to determine whether the results violated a conference rule aimed at encouraging diversity in the delegation. The rule states: “Throughout the election process, care shall be given to select a slate of delegates who reflect our inclusive nature in regard to theological diversity, race, age, gender and disability.”
Although among General Conference delegates there is only one who is not white, the bishop ruled that the process was transparent, care was taken to remind members of the rule and the results reflected the choices of those voting. The ruling was appealed to the body and a vote sustained it.
Read more about the balloting and see election results here.
State of the Church
For her State of the Church address, Bishop Moore-Koikoi donned fishing waders and carried a net as she again told the story from Luke 5:1-11. While urging Conference members to, “Go Deeper!”, she provided examples of how some had done just that over the past year.
“But fishing,” she said, “can be hard work. It can require great patience and a little bit of skill to reel in the fish that nibbles at the bait. This world and our region in particular needs churches filled with disciples who are willing to do the back-breaking, risk-taking, unrewarding, unceasing, self-sacrificing work of catching people for Jesus Christ.
“Some of us have been fishing for a long time,” she said. “While we aren’t catching as much as we once caught, we are still catching people for Jesus. Our conference membership is about 155,000. On any given week almost 46,000 persons gather for worship in a United Methodist Church in Western Pennsylvania. Last year 576 persons who were already Christians joined a United Methodist Church in Western Pennsylvania. 704 persons professed their faith in Jesus Christ for the very first time. And 1207 persons were baptized. We need to thank God for what God has done through this annual conference.
At the same time, she said, there are many more people who need to know the love of Jesus. To reach them, some things will have to change, the Bishop said.
“I need you to hear me. Brothers and sisters in Christ, what you post on Facebook matters! How you behave in church meetings matters! We have gone deep by empowering our laity, pastors, and District Superintendents to confront bad behavior when they see it. To confront racism when they see it in the church!
“Do you know that the KKK actively recruits in the church in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference?” she said.
Raising her voice, she continued: “I’m going to declare right now, in the name of Jesus, that the devil will have no more hands on any of our lay people, on any of our clergy. Racism has come — and it will go from this annual conference.
"In the name of Jesus, No more will anyone say they won't accept a Korean pastor or a black pastor. You won’t say that to this black bishop anymore. Your behavior matters.” she said.
"And so, if you say that, we're going to ask you to step down from leadership, because that's not a representation of what Jesus Christ has called us to be. We’re going to confront racism and we’re going to confront bullying in our churches,” she said. “You cannot threaten people just because the vote doesn’t go your way.
“The ways in which our lay leadership and pastors interact in the community and in the church impact our ability to catch men and women for Christ. If our bait is rancid the fish will swim the other way.”
Acknowledging growing turmoil in the denomination since the 2019 Special General Conference, she noted that “some are advocating for United Methodists to put a pause on their ministries, including paying their apportionments, until General Conference 2020.”
Before offering thanks for those who faithfully continue to live out their call and do ministry, she said, “To cease to do ministry and take a wait and see attitude, I do not believe is of God.”
“While we wait and see, men and women and boys and girls are literally and spiritually dying. They’re dying of addictions and gun violence. While we wait and see, young people and elders of the village are slipping into despair. They don't really care what our denomination is going to do. ... They need somebody to tell them about a God who loves them unconditionally." Watch the Bishop’s State of the Church address here.
In addition to the petition for dissolution of the United Methodist Church and the approval of the budget and apportionment formula, the annual conference members approved legislation to petition the General Conference to amend P 161 in the Book of Discipline related to abortion to say: “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us unwilling and unable (rather than reluctant) to approve abortion."
The legislation supports a legal option of abortion if the mother’s life is in danger, but another resolution called for the end of late-term dilation and extraction procedures. Instead it proposes that the "baby be delivered so as to decrease the risk of further endangering the life of the mother, while preserving the life of the child. Whenever the unborn child may be capable of surviving outside his or her mother's womb, every reasonable effort should be made to preserve both lives." It also called on the church to offer ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies and nurturing ministries for those who terminate a pregnancy, as well as those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy and to those who give birth. Those who proposed the changes said the current language “has been treated by some United Methodists as a means for one-sidedly advocating for public policies advancing elective abortion.”
An additional petition called for asking the General Conference to publicly reconfirm the church’s opposition to late-term abortion currently stated in the Book of Discipline and that the Board of Church and Society make clearly know the church’s position on late-term abortion if a bill allowing it comes before the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
Members adopted a revised sexual ethics policy that was supported by the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, the Board of Ministry, the Board of Laity and the Coordinating Cabinet. Read the policy here.
Changes in conference rules eliminating the position of conference treasurer, chancellor and director of connectional ministries as ex officio lay equalization members of the annual conference. It also said persons may not serve at the same time as a lay equalization member and a lay member from a local church or charge.
Conference members also approved additions and changes to Conference policy on maternity or paternity leave, granting up to one-fourth of year with full compensation, and to the data policy regarding mailing lists. Personal information will not be shared with any outside group. However, where appropriate as determined by the director of connectional ministries or the conference secretary, information may be shared with United Methodist agencies and organizations. Mailing lists will not be made available for individuals to distribute information to members of the annual conference.
Members of the annual conference approved Paul Morelli, Christine Zimmerman and John Zimmerman as full-time conference evangelists, Ken Wilson as part-time evangelist, and also approved Luella Krieger, who announced her intention to retire as a full-time evangelist, as evangelist emeritus.
Nine special weekends, some with offerings were approved, including: Disability Awareness Weekend in February; Golden Cross/Red Stocking weekends in May and December; Rural Life Weekend, Retired Clergy Weekend, Camping Weekend, Volunteers in Mission Recognition and Awareness in October, Youth Service Fund weekend in November and Doorways to Hope at Home in December.
The annual conference approved minimum cash base compensation for clergy at $42,803 for a full member (elder or deacon); $41,491 for an associate member, $39,019 for provisional members and $38,441 for full-time local pastors. The legislation encouraged churches to consider merit increases for the pastor based upon faithful, effective and fruitful service.
Other approved legislation, submitted by the chair of the conference poverty team and the president of Conference United Methodist Women, encouraged churches to learn about the living wage campaign for all and talk to businesses in their area about how the living wage could benefit everyone.
The conference also approved a revision of the bylaws of the United Methodist Foundation which would allow it “to continue to serve organizations that share common bonds and convictions with The United Methodist Church and that have historical connection to the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference.”
The conference also adopted several petitions to the General Conference dealing with administrative and legal procedures submitted by Robert Zilhaver, who often serves as an advocate in cases involving misconduct charges. One addresses the rights of bishops facing charges to request a trial and outlines the procedures; another restores paragraphs in the Book of Discipline dealing with remedial action and disposition of administrative responses for clergy facing charges. A third deals with procedures for clergy suspension by a committee on investigation. Another petition called for asking the Judicial Council to rule on the legality of district superintendents, members of the Board of Ordained Ministry, or others voting in clergy session on final disposition of leaves, involuntary retirements and similar matters with which they may have been involved.
A petition calling on the General Conference to enact term elections for bishops worldwide, proposed by the Rev. Joseph Stains, was approved. Currently U.S. bishops have automatic life tenure, while those elected and serving in other areas have terms.
The annual conference also approved a resolution opposing gerrymandering, which had been approved twice previously. It calls on the Pennsylvania General Assembly “to immediately enact legislation that would create an independent citizens’ commission to design political districts which would represent our voting population. These districts should have population equality, be compact, contiguous and respectful of county and municipal boundaries. The district boundaries should be free of political considerations.”
Other resolutions called for various legislative leaders to prioritize and pass legislation to implement the #MeToo campaign to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and in schools and to prevent human trafficking, to enact effective campaign finance reform, invest in and encourage education for inmates to reduce recidivism, and facilitate the use of evolving forensic evidence in legal matters. Amendments to the legislation empowered Rev. Dai Morgan of United Methodist Advocacy in Pennsylvania and Roger Thomas to advocate for passage of the legislation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. All of the legislation can be found here.
Note: Additional photos, including albums from the Prayer Room and Healing Service, are available.
Conference membership is at 155,472, down 5,259 from the previous year, with an average worship attendance of 46,000. There were 1,207 baptisms, down 234 from the previous year, 704 professions of faith, down 101, and 567 joined in membership, down 179. Participation in Volunteers in Mission was 1,723.
— Jackie Campbell, communications director