Sixty voting delegates — 30 laity and 30 clergy — logged in to this virtual meeting with several major crises serving as a backdrop to their time together. There were also nine non-voting members who attended the conference through the Zoom webinar platform. GNTV, a media ministry out of Macon, Georgia, facilitated the meeting. YouTube analytics show that 45 viewing units also followed the proceedings.
The COVID-19 pandemic meant that the conference could not meet in-person out of an abundance of care and caution. Efforts in dismantling systemic racism, with important discussions of race and justice, have been taking place in our churches as they have been at the fore of national news. While our churches are not gathering in their buildings, discussions of “Reimagining Life Together” have enabled churches to ask important questions of what it means to be the Church at this time. And, most recently, forest fires ravaging sister conferences in the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area were on the hearts and minds of all attendees with the strong connections that bind the three conferences.
Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, presiding from her office in Seattle, welcomed attendees and led a worship service that celebrated the collective work across the episcopal area over the last three years. The emphasis over this quadrennium has been “Do This And You Shall Live” from Luke 3 and 10. With this, the 49th session of the Alaska Conference was called to order.
Because the conference was held online, business was limited only to those items deemed “essential” for the work of the Alaska Conference. Only a few items on the agenda needed votes.
The following items were approved by an overwhelming majority:
• A rules change for the Alaska Conference to allow for an online annual conference and voting online.
• A 2021 budget of nearly $800,000.
• A 2021 equitable compensation base salary of $45,300 was approved.
• Two pension petitions: Approving the ministerial pension rate/local pastors pension rate and accepting the annuity responsibility for the conference’s lone retiring local pastor, Janice Carlton.
• The nominations report, which extended the quadrennium of service for many until 2021 when the conference hopes to meet in person.
This year the Alaska Conference has one clergy approved for full membership and elders orders (The Rev. Emily Carrol — PNW), one clergy approved for retirement as a local pastor (The Rev. Janice Carlton), and four clergy approved for transfer into Greater Northwest Area conferences (the Revs. Jim Doepken — OR-ID, Bob Jones — PNW, April Hall — PNW, and Dan Wilcox — PNW).
Superintendent the Rev. Carlo Rapanut brought to the conference a motion for the closure of First Samoan United Methodist Church of Anchorage, Alaska. He began: “A local church is a living, breathing incarnation of Jesus in the world. And like any living organism, it has its life cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and faithful completion of its mission and ministry.” First Samoan United Methodist Church was chartered in 2004 after nine years as a fellowship. During its time in ministry, this church served the larger Samoan population of Anchorage, both in its own church building and while meeting in the facilities of First United Methodist Church in downtown Anchorage. This summer the congregation discerned that they no longer can serve the purpose for which their church was organized and incorporated. With celebration of their 25 years of faithful ministry, the church closure motion was approved.
JoAnne Hayden, head of the Alaska Conference delegation to General Conference 2021, gave a report of how the Alaska delegation is working with individuals from across the ideological and theological divides of the denomination to work for the future of United Methodism.
The delegation created a four-part strategy that is being addressed in a “Restructure, Renew, and Reform” workgroup with 35 participants from all five U.S. jurisdictions and the Philippines. “The strategy from that group includes the following items: Early adoption of The Protocol, Regionalization of the conference connectional structure of the post-separation United Methodist Church, regionalization of the episcopacy, and harmonization worldwide of the episcopacy by changing to limited tenure for all bishops.”
The episcopal address from Bishop Elaine Stanovsky was also different this year. Originally, Alaska planned to join with Oregon-Idaho and the Pacific Northwest conferences in Washington this summer. But that did not happen. Therefore, as she thought about what the essential work of our conferences should be over the next year, she presented an episcopal address sent out in three letters to the episcopal area with three emphases for our work together.
Part One of Bishop Stanovsky’s address was called “Do No Harm: Fighting COVID-19.” Here she encouraged churches to use this time of unoccupied building and online discipleship to “deepen relationships of spiritual depth and care.”
Part Two called on churches to do the hard work of anti-racism and was called “Do Good: Dismantling Racism.” She wrote: “In faithfulness to Jesus’ model of inclusive love and justice, as bishop of the Greater Northwest Area of The United Methodist Church I am committed to leading United Methodists in the Alaska Conference, Oregon-Idaho Conference and Pacific Northwest Conference to make dismantling systemic racism within the church and throughout society a long-term missional priority.”
Part Three, “Stay in Love With God: Reimagining Life Together,” was presented at the Alaska Annual Conference session. Here Bishop Stanovsky listed some of the great ways our three conferences have coordinated (disaster response, district superintendents, communicators, the Innovation Vitality Team) and asked whether it might be time to consider to merge into one conference.
She closed her last letter this way:
So, my friends, my siblings, and cousins, my neighbors and you who may be strangers — I invite you to be the hopeful, faithful, loving, courageous, audacious, humble people that God, in holy scripture, invites us to be. We can stop the spread of a deadly virus. We can root out racism and create beloved community. We can and we will recover from flood, earthquake, storm, and wildfire. We can be a “big tent” church, where people can journey with each other, in the presence of Jesus, toward a future where everyone has a place, and the parts all fit together. We might even be able to save the planet and all the teaming creatures that call it home.
When faced with a very difficult assignment that the disciples did not feel capable of, Jesus said to them, “truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)
The annual conference closed with a memorial for those lost in each of our churches and a worship service which proclaimed “And Are We Yet Alive.”
The number of professing church members within the Alaska Conference as of the end of 2019 was 2,967, down 186. Worship attendance decreased by 76 to 1,644. Sunday church school average weekly attendance stood at 633 with an increase of nine. The number of people participating in Christian formation groups totaled 1,362, a decrease of 100. Last year there were 68 professions of faith, an increase of 19. The number of community ministries for outreach, justice, and mercy in the Alaska Conference stands at 127, an increase of 27 from last year.
— Jim Doepken, director of communications for the Alaska Conference