On Saturday, Sept. 26, North Alabama United Methodists gathered in front of computers, tablets, cell phones and other internet-connected screens for their first virtual annual conference
The previous Sunday afternoon, Sept. 20, clergy members gathered online for the Clergy Executive Session.
Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett presided over her eighth annual conference in North Alabama. The theme of the 2020 annual conference was Singing God’s Song with the Forgotten. The focus was on one of the conference’s four ministry priorities: Ministry with the Poor.
The session began with opening worship. After a prelude by Dr. Anthony Powell, an ensemble led the conference in singing the traditional opening hymn of “And Are We Yet Alive.”
Bishop Leonard Fairley, guest preacher, offered an opening sermon based on the theme verses of Luke 4:18-19. In discussing ministry with the poor, Fairley encouraged North Alabama United Methodists by reminding them that, "You are both called and anointed to be bearers of God's grace and love and peace and justice. North Alabama, that calling remains the same even in the midst of fear — even in the midst of racism and polarization and anxiety. The calling remains the same, even in the face of COVID-19 and news cycles filled with sensational soundbites. Our calling remains the same even in the midst of hatred and division that is being spread through social media. We are called and anointed by God as passionate, spiritual disciples."
During opening worship, Conference Director of Ministry of the Poor, Dr. Adlene Kufarimai, said a prayer of thanksgiving for the special offering designated to support the conference's QuadW Missional Internships, a potentially life-changing mission experience for young adults, ages 19-25 that allows them to experience ministry with the poor. The conference has sponsored 40 young adult interns over the past three summers. The generosity of local churches to this year's offering will provide for 2021 interns and beyond.
Following opening worship, Conference Secretary Dr. Dedric Cowser led conference members through its organizing work and adopting the consent agenda. Members used an online voting system to cast their votes. The voting totals were close to the largest number of votes cast last year during the 2019 Annual Conference using an in-person electronic voting system. (And much higher than the vote totals cast on the final day of the 2019 Annual Conference.)
The conference then began to work through the business that was not a part of its consent agenda. During this time:
- The conference voted to postpone indefinitely the discussion of changes to its standing rules with a stated intention of holding that business until the annual conference could once again meet face to face.
- After much discussion, the conference failed to vote to suspend its standing rules to allow for nominations for conference lay leader from the floor of conference. Current rules state that the nomination of the conference lay leader comes from the nominations team.
- The conference overwhelmingly adopted the nominations team’s Spiritual Leaders Report of those to serve on conference teams and committees.
- After hearing a report from Camp Sumatanga outline the work of the Sumatanga Action Team, the conference voted to approve the new Sumatanga Board of Trustees. The conference also approved the sale of 58.23 acres of camp land previously leased by the buyer.
- The conference approved the closing of seven churches.
- The conference heard the report of the Ministry with the Poor Team, which included ways local churches and districts could participate in this conference priority.
- Steve Lyles presented his last laity address as conference lay leader. He has served the annual conference since 2011. His address focused on the past, present and future of the church.
- The conference then affirmed the nominations team's nomination of Northwest District Lay Leader Lisa Keys-Matthews to be the new conference lay leader.
- Business closed with the report from the Board of Ordained Ministry, which highlighted new pastors, 20 retiring clergy and the 12 clergy who have died since last annual conference.
Halfway through the business, Bishop Wallace-Padgett invited the conference to pause from its work as she and the director of Ethnic Ministries led conference members and viewers through a time of guided prayer specifically focusing on the church's response to the coronavirus pandemic and racism.
The annual conference plenary closed with a time of closing worship. The service began as new appointments, most of which took place on July 1, were officially fixed. District superintendents read the names of those clergy who had moved to new appoints as all appointments scrolled across the screen. The district lay leaders then joined in a prayer of blessing for the clergy, churches and their ministry together.
Bishop Fairley shared another message with the annual conference, focusing how individuals who purposely reached out to his family living in poverty made a difference in his life.
"It's amazing what happens when you are in ministry with the poor. I would not be here with you now if there had not been people who took seriously what Jesus said on that day in that synagogue, as was his custom, that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to preach good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release to those who were oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. And the acceptable year of the Lord is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and share words of health, healing and hospitality," he said.
On Sunday, Sept. 27, two special worship services were held and livestreamed so all in the conference could be a part. During the Service of Licensing and Commissioning, the conference presented licenses to 12 new local pastors. The conference commissioned one provisional deacon and two provisional elders. (The average age of the provisional clergy is 35.
Later that afternoon during the Service of Ordination, the conference ordained five new full-connection elders. (The average age of the newly ordained clergy is 41.)
Names of delegates for the 2021 General Conference (elected in 2019):
• Clergy: Glenn Conner (Huntsville First United Methodist Church)
• Laity: Steve Lyles (Alexander City First United Methodist Church, Conference Lay Leader)
• Clergy: Dedric Cowser (New Beginnings United Methodist Church)
• Laity: Pat Meadows (Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church - Bessemer)
• Clergy: Kelly Clem (Northwest District Superintendent)
• Laity: Precious Kufarimai (St. Paul-Triana United Methodist Church)
• Clergy: Robin Scott (New Church Development & Palmerdale United Methodist Church)
• Laity: Ann Lee (Guntersville First United Methodist Church)
Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference:
• Clergy: Sherri Reynolds (Southwest District Superintendent)
• Laity: Michael Wilder (Guntersville First United Methodist Church)
• Clergy: Tiwirai Kufarimai (St. Paul Triana)
• Laity: Gail Hiett (Geraldine First United Methodist Church)
• Clergy: Vaughn Stafford (Clearbranch United Methodist Church)
• Laity: Liz Bowlin (Sheffield First United Methodist Church)
• Clergy: Mary Henley (Helena United Methodist Church)
• Laity: Randall Ham (Fort Payne First United Methodist Church)
• Clergy: Sheri Ferguson (Ministry Health Coordinator, Board of Ordained Ministry)
• Laity: Scott Selman (Canterbury United Methodist Church; Conference Treasurer)
• Clergy: Paul Lawler (Christ Church)
• Laity: Howard Rew (Athens First United Methodist Church)
• Clergy: Brian Erickson (Trinity United Methodist Church - Homewood)
• Laity: Jacqueline Riggs (Christ Harbor United Methodist Church)
—Danette Clifton, director of communication, North Alabama Conference