2020 Michigan Annual Conference

The word “monitor’ took on a whole new meaning for the Michigan Annual Conference in 2020. In the past the word referred to a panel of persons observing conference action and reporting levels of participation. In 2020 it described the dozens of screens of all sizes used by producers, leaders and viewers to engage in holy conferencing together.

In fact, the Commission on the annual conference, chaired by Nichea VerVeer Guy, planned three annual conferences since the 2019 session adjourned. The first six months focused on a traditional session to be held again at Grand Traverse Resort in Acme, Michigan, May 28-31. Then came the weeks of organizing a special session. Members gathering at Albion First United Methodist Church on March 7, advanced a petition “Reconciling and Grace through Separation and Restructuring” to the fast-approaching 2020 General Conference.

Then came coronavirus. Annual conference and General Conference sessions scheduled for May, 2020, were postponed. For these last four months, the commission pivoted from working their plan for an in-person conference to creating an altogether different plan for a virtual session.

How do you “do” an annual conference measured in square miles rather than square feet? Such a turn-around involved change of agenda and procedure to focus on the “essentials” of what an annual conference does. Informing and equipping members to engage with that essential work was set in motion, involved old-tech like the U.S. Postal service and telephones, and new-tech like ZOOM. Conference leaders, used to standing before a microphone on a stage in real-time, were coached on what was needed for online reporting and decision-making. Times for recording, rehearsal and training were added to the calendar. A monumental effort indeed. Then there was careful masking and social distancing during on-site gatherings just to add to the complexity.

A typical annual conference agenda includes around 27 hours of reporting, legislating and celebrating. The printed agenda for the virtual conference was pared to 11 hours. With early adjournment both of the July 27 plenary and July 28 Clergy Session, the total face time of interaction was 9 hours.

Todd Price, chair of the conference Rules Committee, spoke to the framing of the agenda. “Our agenda has been prepared in accordance with ¶605.2 by the Commission on the Annual Conference Session in consultation with the bishop, district superintendents, and conference lay leaders,” he noted in the guidebook mailed to all members. “The agenda provides for addressing items necessary for the ongoing functioning of our conference, or our conference plan of organization and rules of procedure first, and only addressing other business as time permits.” Price added, “I am deeply grateful that so many persons were willing to withdraw their resolutions in the interest of facilitating our work in meeting virtually.” Fifteen of 23 resolutions were so withdrawn.

During opening moments of the July 27 session, Bishop David Bard echoed Price’s statement, expressing gratitude for this cooperation. Bard said, “While meeting virtually works well for many things, it is not particularly helpful for robust conversation, particularly about topics where there are important differences of opinion.” He thanked authors of resolutions for their “kind and generous spirits and your selflessness” in withdrawing those items that went beyond the essentials.

Though the agenda was significantly shortened, the 2020 conference followed the original theme and focus: “Sowing Seeds: Rooting, Tending, Reaping.” Opening worship was celebrated on July 26. The Rev. Dr. Margie Crawford, superintendent of the Midwest District, served as liturgist. Her first words, “Apart, yet together,” well described the extraordinary nature of the virtual experience. The tradition hymn, “And Are We Yet Alive?” was especially poignant at a time when over 6,200 Michigan residents had died of coronavirus. Other hymns, the Service of Remembrance, and the sermon all followed the agrarian theme of the conference.

The Parable of the Sower provided the scripture foundation for Bishop David Bard’s sermon, “Dancing in a Mine Field.” Last fall, his original inspiration for the sermon was the game Minesweeper. “I thought I would be preaching … a couple of weeks following General Conference. I would have been preaching about mine fields of potential division within the denomination,” he began. Bard then noted that new mines had been laid since. “Wow. Has the coronavirus laid mines and changed the landscape … The brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has seared our consciences. It has brought to the fore deep racial divides and exposed painful wounds.”

“Prepare good soil,” the bishop urged, even in the context of, “an ongoing pandemic, ongoing divisions about human sexuality and likely division in The UMC, and tough work of anti-bias and anti-racism.” Virtually dancing at the podium, Bard cited scripture and poetry to, “Picture the sower in the joy of the work, feet moving rhythmically, dancing about the field to sow seeds … Our task from Jesus is clear. Keep sowing seeds. Keep dancing the dance. Keep your hand on the plow! Hold on!”

The Rev. Brad Kalajainen, lead pastor of Cornerstone Church, picked up the “Sowing Seeds” metaphor during opening devotions on July 27. Kalajainen described six seeds “that will bear fruit if planted, nurtured, and tended over time.” He invited viewer “to pursue them relentlessly.” Kalajainen described the Relational Seed: "Being relational is so much more than saying, 'Hi,' to a new person, or swarming them after church and inviting them to lead middle school … [Here's] God's 20/20 vision for the church. Gather for worship together, then meet house to house in smaller groups. That's relational. Church is less about business and more about caring for people's souls."

Nichea VerVeer Guy opened the session celebrating, “the diverse pathways and legacies of the people of The Michigan Conference.” She honored First Peoples of the area for “caring for this abundant place … The harvest of these Great Lakes and their fertile lands would go on to nourish expanding cultures.” The review of the state’s history included a call for justice in the present. “The slaves that found freedom in this place, stood firm for their rights even when they were beaten and treat unjustly … To all our siblings, we apologize for the past atrocities that were inflicted upon you out of racism and doctrinal abuse. At this time when we come together as Michigan United Methodists, we humbly ask forgiveness. We honor you.” 

The voting on all resolutions before the annual conference on July 27 were done by paper ballot. Those ballots will be tabulated over the next weeks and vote counts will be announced by Bishop Bard by Labor Day weekend. Therefore, the legislation mentioned in this overview, are resolutions presented and voted upon by those marking ballots during the virtual session; results of those votes remain unknown at the time of this report.

Health and benefits

Work on the essentials began with a report by Director of Benefits and Human Resources Don Emmert, along with a series of annual benefits-related resolutions. He remined local churches that the Benefits Ministry Shares Holiday, instituted in April for financial relief during the pandemic, ends Sept. 30, 2020. Pension and Benefits resolutions addressed: Authorization to address claims; Housing/Rental Allowance; Comprehensive Benefit Funding Plan; Past Service Rate; and Equitable Compensation.

Plan of organization and nominations

The bishop recognized Amy Mayo-Moyle, chair of the Conference Leadership Council (CLC), Brad Bartelmay, chair of the Conference Council on Finance and Administration (CFA), and Jim LeBaron, chair of the Conference Trustees, to present resolutions on the Plan of Organization. The three resolutions seek to add persons to those councils and board. Janet Larner moved acceptance of the Nominations Report.

Finance report

Bartelmay was called upon to share the finance report. He began, “There is no way to soft-peddle the financial challenges we are facing.” He then went on to describe the central challenge around remittance of Ministry Shares. “Payment of Ministry Shares is weakening each year.” In 2018 $11.4 million was by churches for ministries of the conference and general church. That number dropped by $800,000 in 2019. Further dramatic decline has happened during the COVID-19 outbreak. Bartelmay said, “At the end of May, payment of Ministry Shares is 23.1% behind where it was on the same date last year.” He added that a Paycheck Protection Loan received by the conference “will not be sufficient to address the deficiency.” The 2020 Conference, first reduced by 15%, now “has grown to 30% in many areas.”

The CFA chair explained that in 2019 only 59% of Michigan churches paid their Ministry Shares in full. Such chronic deficiency in payment “is simply not just,” he stated. Bartelmay said CFA is forming a task force and outlined anticipated future study and strategies. “Absent a renewed commitment to Ministry Shares, the conference will need to take dramatic steps which will fundamentally alter and contract the way we do ministry,” Bartelmay cautioned.

Report by Lay Leaders

John Wharton and Anne Soles shared perspectives as they leave their role as co-leaders of Michigan Conference laity. Wharton praised the vital role of laity-clergy partnership. “Even the early disciples knew the importance of increasing the number of people performing ministry,” he said, quoting Acts 6:1-14. Anne Soles picked up the report with the statement, “The church, when you get down to it, is 98% laity!” She continued, “Each disciple is called to action. It might be sharing a conversation. It might be sharing a chainsaw.” Soles encourage laity to follow the model of Jesus. “He didn’t send a mass mailing or tweet” but relied on one-on-one connections. Her advice to all laypersons was, “Keep your tool kit with you.”

Corporate Session

Jim LeBaron, chair of the Conference Trustees, began their report with a work summary. He gave special emphasis to the transfer of title of the Saganing Indian Church to the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe. “We asked Bishop Bard to be the one who executed the deed on their behalf,” he noted. “And that is something that is a real accomplishment in terms of what we’ve done.”

Secondly, the chair spoke of the growing relationship between the trustees and board of Michigan Area United Methodist Camping regarding the disposition of properties. He turned to Stuart Smith, board chair, for a report. Smith reviewed the strategic plan recently adopted by the board that focuses on a faith formation model at three sites: Lake Huron Retreat Center, Lake Michigan Camp & Retreat Center, and  Wesley Woods Camp & Retreat Center. “The closing of any camp is not taken lightly and is not to detract from the great ministries and wonderful experiences enjoyed by campers over the years.” (Five camps have been shuttered since February 2019.) He expressed excitement about the future growth of a life-changing camping ministry. “COVID-19 and the subsequent loss of revenue this spring and summer,” Smith said, “adds a layer of challenge but does not weaken our determination or enthusiasm for the future.”

LeBaron mentioned Dowry Reports. The 2019 annual conference approved a minimum of $250,000 for each of the nine districts of the Michigan Conference. Districts were to “utilize their Board of Missions and apply those monies in missional support and extended grants.” Time did not allow these reports to be made. But they will be printed in the 2020 Conference Journal and made available in MIconnect.

Elizabeth Hill, dean of the appointive cabinet, was called on to read the legacy reports of four churches whose closure was voted on at this session: Owosso: Burton, Ubly, Muskegon: Unity, and Mulliken UMCs.

LeBaron then presented three Michigan congregations for disaffiliation with The United Methodist Church. He explained, “Bishop Bard has said, ‘I will honor the work that the trustees have done on this,’ and what we have done is modify the process [¶2553 under review by Judicial Council] and call it withdrawal.” The three churches brought to the annual conference for vote to affirm their withdrawal are: Shabbona United Methodist Church, East Boardman United Methodist Church, and North Adams United Methodist Church.

With prayers for the seven congregations, Bishop Bard presided over questions and the voting on closures and withdrawals.

2021 Conference Budget

Monday afternoon Bartelmay returned to the microphone to present the 2021 conference budget. The $12,617,521 total budget is a 14.7% decrease from 2020. With no questions asked, members approved the 2021 conference budget as presented. Bishop Bard spoke words of encouragement. “We do believe that by the grace of God and the power of God’s Spirit, we can respond to the challenges we face as a church. Decline is not inevitable.”   

Report by Dean of Cabinet

The Rev. Elizabeth Hill, outgoing superintendent of the Heritage District, has served as the dean of the cabinet since the close of the 2019 annual conference. “What a year it has turned out to be!” She spoke of the first nine months that ensued. “We left the 2019 Michigan Annual Conference with mixed emotions regarding the actions of the conference and the uncertainty of the next General Conference around issues of inclusivity of the LGBTQI community.” After a winter full of “promise and hope” with Local Church Assessment underway, coronavirus changed the ministry landscape dramatically. “Through hard work and the grace of God, the church did not close!” Hill exclaimed. “It was amazing to see how creative the churches became,” she observed. Noting that there is still much to be done to dismantle racism, she asserted, “The work of being an anti-racist white person needs to be active in the life of our churches.”

Names and faces

United Methodists across The Michigan Conference join Bishop David Bard in saying, “One of the things I really miss about not being together in person is celebrations.” While hugs and handshakes and congratulations could not be offered face-to-face, God’s blessing surely rests on those persons in transition in 2020.

Last year’s honoree, Don Emmert, presented the John Buxton Award for Creative Leadership to someone who knew John well “because they were married.” Susanne Buxton has served faithfully and ably at annual conference sessions for 35 years, as head usher and facilitator. Sue leaves the facilitator’s table this year. Jennifer Peters now steps into that important role.

Two cherished events of the annual conference – Celebrating the Journey of Ministry and the Service of Recognition, Commissioning and Ordination – were not able to be included in the 2020 session. Still the clergy session was held on July 28 and voting electronically, the session welcomed 19 persons into conference membership. These included one deacon in full membership and five elders in full membership; one deacon into provisional membership and 12 elders into provisional membership. They also celebrated the retirements of 52 clergy. Bishop Bard noted, “These are moments when we would stand and applaud. Know friends that we are doing that in our hearts.”  

Delegates to the 2021 General Conference are as elected in 2019: Laura Witkowski (Chair,Lay), Kennetha Bigham-Tsai (Chair, Clergy), Joy Barrett (Clergy), Diane Brown (Lay), Paul Perez (Clergy), Jennifer Peters (Lay), Nichea VerVeer Guy (Lay), and Meghan Walther (Clergy). One Delegate, Meghan Walter (33) is under 35 years of age.

Conference statistics:

  • Membership stands at 118,347, down 3% from 2018
  • Worship attendance stands at 59,416, down 3% from 2018
  • Church school attendance stands at 15,922, 12% decrease from 2018
  • Professions or reaffirmations of faith for 2019 was 2,115, 12% decrease from 2018
  • Adults and young adults in small groups for 2019 was 30,506, 7% decrease from 2018
  • Worshippers engaged in mission for 2019 was 36,342, 3% increase over 2018.

—Kay DeMoss, senior content editor.

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