The Baltimore-Washington Conference has been answering the two pandemics of the coronavirus and racism with a Spirit-filled response of hope. On Sept. 12, at the 236th session of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, hope was center stage, with the word even sitting before Bishop LaTrelle Easterling as she presided over session.
Because of social distancing and the need to privilege health and life, the four-day conference was condensed to one day as 1,330 lay and clergy members went online to consider matters of stewardship and the essential business of the church.
But the session started with members joining in a portion of the study, “Who Are We: A Journey from Head to Heart,” an 18-week small group exploration of our identity as the people of God, as United Methodists and as the people of the Baltimore-Washington Conference.
The study lifted up the origins of the conference, which is the cradle of American Methodism, and how it evolved into the most diverse annual conference in the denomination.
A clergy session was held in the morning. In the afternoon, during the plenary session, members approved a $17.7 million spending and income budget for 2021. Of that $17.7 million, just over $13 million will come from local churches in Mission Shares, a reduction of $1 million from 2020.
The reduction stems, in part, from wanting to assist local churches with financial challenges they might be facing as part of the coronavirus pandemic.
Conference leaders have provided several measures of assistance to help local churches make it through these unprecedented times.
In March, the Board of Pensions announced a three-month waiver of benefit payments that was complemented by Small Church Grants for local churches with no benefit obligations. This gesture of grace, in conjunction with the federal Payroll Protection Plan, has enabled most conference churches to continue to do important ministries, even in this challenging season.
To assist with ministry and outreach to area communities, the conference’s Connectional Ministries team awarded microgrants of $43,350 to 90 churches for Peace with Justice work. In addition, the BWC’s New Faith Expressions ministry gave out $184,900 in microgrants to 187 churches for technology and worship.
In other business, the conference voted to close seven churches and celebrated the more than 1,000 years of collective ministry these churches brought to their communities and the world. The money raised from the sale of the buildings is earmarked for continued mission and ministry.
One of the most profound and robust ministries of the conference this year has been its work addressing racism and white supremacy, especially following the violent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the shooting of Jacob Blake. Through a series of videos, members learned about a wide array of efforts throughout the BWC to assist individuals and congregations as they commit to becoming anti-racist churches. The BWC’s delegation to the General and Jurisdictional conferences also issued a statement on racism and their efforts to be leaders in the struggle against white supremacy.
The delegation’s statement noted that the reason for speaking now was to provide leadership by giving “voice, witness, and action to the insidious acts and existence of racism that continue to infect the society and the church, our nation and the world, and to give impetus to fresh vision and ways of re-imagining a church structure, governance, and way of existing in which all of God’s people are treated fairly and justly, and are fully valued.”
Another highlight of the session was the Service of Ordination and Commission held on the front lawn of the Mission Center, so that family members could watch from the parking lot. Eight elders were ordained, two provisional deacons and four elders were commissioned, a child was baptized, and two deaconesses and a home missioner were commissioned.
In her sermon, Bishop Easterling remarked on the historic nature of entering into church leadership at this unprecedented time in the history of the nation and church.
This is the year “where in the blink of an eye, everything that we called routine and normal and familiar was stripped away,” said Easterling to the class. But, “you have answered the call. You have set your hand on the Gospel plow. You have committed your entire selves to the work of set-aside ministry. You have launched into the deep. You have committed to give yourselves away. You have chosen the way that leads to the cross.
“Hear me clearly as I say this,” she said. “We can continue to have services of repentance and lament as a denomination — they have their place. And we can continue to amass large sums of money to spearhead major initiatives, which in our capitalistic culture is often confused with tangible change.
“But real transformation takes place when the head and the heart grasp the central message of the cross,” she continued, “that God created all beings, all beings are created equal and, as reconciled beings, we are called to work together to lift, liberate and love!”
But even when the need for social distancing diminishes and churches are permitted to re-enter their buildings, Bishop Easterling said she hopes congregations will remain outside of the walls.
“Get in some trouble — some good and necessary trouble,” she urged, echoing the famous words of late Congressman John Lewis. “Trouble that stands at the margins with the oppressed; trouble that marches with those who are being unjustly profiled and murdered and jailed and separated and beaten and neglected and abused.”
The bishop encouraged church leaders to model the crux of the cross, “to give sight, heal, welcome the vulnerable and offer acts of love.”
Conference statistics indicate some decline. Membership stands at 144,831, down 6,985 from 2018; worship attendance stands at 48,339, down 3,044 from the previous year. Church school attendance stands at 13,574, down 1,148 from 2018, and professions or reaffirmations of faith for 2019 are 2,007, down 394 from 2018. However, a renewed sense of hope has led to a spirit of creative and innovative ministry.
During the session, members saw 16 short videos that highlighted mission and ministry.
The BWC’s Camping and Retreat Ministries are thriving. At the session, members heard about how this past summer, online camping opportunities were created for youth. The camps are offering outdoor and adventure activities to individuals, families and small groups this fall.
Project Transformation, a partner of the BWC that empowers children to become better readers, reported how lessons learned this summer are leading to year-round online after-school ministries, claiming “a virus can’t cancel community.”
And, the BWC is piloting a training program, with Path One and Discipleship Ministries, for Lay Planters to create new ministries and faith communities.
On Nov. 14, at a special Laity Session of Annual Conference, even more ministries will be highlighted, training will be held that centers on difficult conversations and race, and members will explore the theme “We Are One: Going Out in Mission.”
For more information about the 236th Session of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, visit https://www.bwcumc.org/events/2020-annual-conference/.
— Melissa Lauber, Director of Communications