2020 Holston Annual Conference

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The Holston Annual Conference gathered June 27 for a first-ever online session.  Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor, resident bishop, presided over the “virtual” session from Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. The theme was “I Love to Tell the Story.”

The Saturday presentation occurred three weekends after the previously scheduled Annual Conference date of June 7-10 in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. The meeting was rescheduled and recreated as an online gathering after the COVID-19 pandemic made it unsafe to gather in large groups, also closing church buildings to worship and other activities. 

Representing 864 United Methodist churches in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and North Georgia, about 1,900 clergy and lay members of Holston Annual Conference were invited by email to join the 1-3:30 p.m. meeting through Zoom webinar. About 2,400 total participants were counted, including viewers on YouTube Live and livestream. 

Condensed from four days in western North Carolina to 150 minutes over a screen, the session included an abbreviated business session. The Rev. Terry Goodman, conference secretary, explained that because debate and discussion were not possible during the online session, unfinished business would be addressed during an online Extended Cabinet meeting, later scheduled for July 22.

Other components of Annual Conference, including the memorial service and mission presentation, were recorded separately and posted online at Holston.org. An online clergy session was held June 8.

Taylor opened the June 27 meeting by preaching from Luke 24, an encounter of two disciples with Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

“This is the year of ‘not how we want it to be,’” she said, “but the story of Jesus and his love has not changed. So how do we tell the story during these days in which we’re living? ... We begin by expecting Jesus to show up every day.”

In her “State of the Church” report, Taylor addressed crises including COVID-19, racism and recent news from East Africa.

“There are many who believe that the pandemic is not a real threat and are going about their lives as if there is no health crisis,” Taylor said. Quoting Bishop Kenneth Carder, she said refusing to wear a face mask is a “recklessly selfish act that endangers others, especially the most vulnerable. Wearing a mask in public spaces is a simple act of compassion.”

Referring to recent widespread protests and cries to end racism – following the death of George Floyd and others – Taylor said, “I want to do more. I want you to do more to make justice and righteousness a reality for all God’s children in every way.”

Taylor announced that South Sudanese orphans supported by Holston Conference for a dozen years were recently removed by the Ugandan government from the refugee camp where they have lived since fleeing civil war in their homeland. She asked Holston members to “pray for our Grace Home children.”

In other actions, the annual conference: 

• Learned of a new initiative to dismantle racism in partnership with the denomination’s Council of Bishops initiative. The cabinet will participate in educational workshops. The communications staff will create a resource website and offer informative Zoom sessions for clergy and lay members this fall.

• Received a report from the Sexual Ethics and Boundaries Task Force. New guidelines were shared for digital communications and social media. Borrowed from a video concept produced by the North Carolina Annual Conference, a new video was shown featuring Holston male clergy reading aloud sexually abusive comments that have been said to Holston clergywomen.

• Learned that the annual Hands-on Mission Project was divided into two parts and downsized due to pandemic-related restrictions. In early June, local churches in five districts collected and shipped food buckets and health kits, valued at $39,268, to missions in Liberia and Zimbabwe. A second round of school and cleaning supplies will be collected for Africa by all nine of Holston’s districts in November of this year.

• Grieved with Camp and Retreat Ministries leaders over cancellation of the summer camp season due to the pandemic. The resulting projected deficit in the camp budget, including five camps (Bays Mountain, Camp in the Community, Dickenson, Lookout, Wesley Woods) is $630,000. A new “Together for Tomorrow” fundraising campaign is planned for the fall season with a collective goal of $899,000. 

• Learned the Annual Conference has experienced a 7.19% decline in giving between January and June, compared to the same period in 2019. A $1.1 million U.S. Personal Payroll Protection loan was obtained to support conference staff.

• Received a proposal for a 2021 budget of $8.74 million. (Budget was later approved by the Extended Cabinet.) The budget included a $204 salary increase for nine district superintendents and other cabinet members, for a total of $106,484 each. Cabinet members elected to donate their salary increases to the dismantling racism initiative.

• Received an Equitable Compensation Commission recommendation to keep 2021 minimum salary levels at 2020 rates: $43,496 (full member, M.Div.) to $32,095 (full-time local pastor, beginning studies).

• Received news from the Board of Pension and Health Benefits: Holston’s self-insured health plan experienced a $2.6 million funding shortfall in 2019. In response, the board approved rate increases for lay individuals and clergy families, each by $100 monthly (16% overall). The retiree health care stipend will be reduced from $77 per year of service to $50 per year of service.

• Received news that eight churches are closing, bringing the updated total of Holston Conference churches to 853. Closed churches include Creech’s Chapel, Whitesburg, Tenn.; St. Luke’s, Knox County, Tenn.; Chestua, Monroe County, Tenn.; Croft Chapel, Turtletown, Tenn.; Piney Grove, Athens, Tenn.; Lakeview, Russell County, Va.; Grassy Creek, Russell County, Va.; and Moore’s Gap, Heiskell, Tenn.

• Celebrated clergy session approval of 2 associate members, 4 provisional elders, 2 full-connection deacons, and 7 full-connection elders. (A commissioning and ordination service was later set for Nov. 21, 2020, at Concord United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.)

Thirty-one retiring clergy will be acknowledged in future publications.

• Learned more about opioid addiction in a separate mission presentation video led by the Rev. Barry Steiner Ball of the West Virginia Conference. The presentation kicked off year two of Holston’s mission emphasis on fighting opioid addiction. An offering of $46,013 was collected for distributing through grants to support Holston addiction-related ministries.

• Worshipped with Bishop Kenneth Carder in a separate memorial service video. Carder preached on Isaiah 43 and spoke of his wife, Linda Faye Miller Carder, who died in October 2019. “When I miss Linda the most, I do the simple thing,” he said, describing how he might call a lonely friend, write his congress representative, or take other justice actions as an extension of her love. “If there was ever a time in history when the circle of love needed to be expanded, it’s now.” Bishop Taylor read the names of those deceased in the past year, including Bishop Kern Eutsler, 39 clergy and 24 clergy spouses.

Membership stands at 157,199, down 1,662 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 54,370, down 2,247. Church school attendance stands at 25,220, down 3,970. Professions or reaffirmations of faith for 2019 numbered 1,376, down 80 from 2018. Adults and young adults in small groups for 2019 numbered 33,120, down 2,127 from 2018. Worshippers engaged in mission for 2019 numbered 34,485, up 232 from 2018. 

— Annette Spence, editor

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