Instead of driving to the 51st Texas Annual Conference, attendees tuned into a livestream presentation this year designed to preserve safety and health during the coronavirus pandemic. The virtual session was watched by 1,548 participants on Zoom, and Bishop Scott J. Jones preached an inspirational Episcopal Address on the event’s theme, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.”
“We’ve never done it this way before,” the Rev. Kip Gilts, assistant to the Bishop, said.
In addition to the digital pivot, this was also the first Annual Conference with Gilts serving in his new position.
During the virtual annual conference, members celebrated retiring clergy and mourned leaders who have passed away. They recognized new pastors, awarded congregations for excellence, prayed together and bowed their heads in worship. Nominations to serve the conference were accepted, and new pastors ordained.
The consent calendar was approved. The Rev. Carol Bruse was elected as conference treasurer and Mark Hellums was named conference statistician.
The Board of Pensions report was also accepted with a 1,206 vote in favor and 14 against. The group health benefits report passed, with 1,077 voting for and 127 against.
The annual budget was approved with a 1,129 vote in favor and 88 against. The Rev. Deborah Vaughn, chair of the Conference’s Council on Finance and Administration, presented the proposal, which received a 94 percent approval rating in a pre-conference straw poll. These non-binding votes, taken at each pre-conference meeting, help determine approval of proposals.
“As a Council, we remain extremely grateful to every member and every church for every dollar committed to the on-going work of our annual conference,” Vaughn said.
The total proposed 2021 Budget is about $19.1 million, which is $1.9 million less than the 2020 budget.
According to conference treasurer, the Rev. Carol Bruse, the reduced budget fulfills the balanced budget recommendation and request passed at Annual Conference 2019. The council worked hard to align conference expenses with anticipated apportionment payouts.
“Reducing a budget is never easy,” Vaughn said. “This proposed budget positions our annual conference for a future of continued effectiveness, but it requires the financial support of every church – small and large. The faithfulness of every church in paying 100 percent moves us forward.”
A disaffiliation process was approved with a 1,157 vote in favor, and 99 against. The pre-conference straw poll expressed an 87% approval of the proposed process.
Kevin Benedict, chair of the board of trustees, explained that a task force was created to build a process for disaffiliation after the 2019 Special Session of General Conference and the 2019 Texas Annual Conference.
The Book of Discipline currently offers two paths by which a local church may disaffiliate and depart with its property and other assets. One is under paragraph 2548.2 and allows an annual conference to transfer the property of a local church to another evangelical denomination, after certain requirements are met.
The other is under paragraph 2553, which was added by General Conference in 2019, and allows local churches to disaffiliate for reasons related to church law on homosexuality, and only until the end of the year 2023.
“Both paths require the approval of the annual conference for a church to disaffiliate,” Benedict said.
The task force created a document, “Principles Regarding Local Church Requests for Disaffiliation,” which clearly establishes minimum requirements and steps to follow.
The process includes calculating apportionment and unfunded pension liability for the congregation, a vote from the local church, payment in full of the previous year’s apportionment and current year’s apportionment and coverage in full of their unfunded pension liability. The church would work with its district superintendent and complete all required forms for disaffiliation. A final vote from the annual conference is also necessary.
“We believe these principles provide a fair, simple step-by-step process which aligns with the paths offered in the Book of Discipline,” Benedict said.
Strategic Mapping Team Report
The Strategic Mapping Team’s proposal was approved with 1,021 voting for the plan and 254 against. In pre-conference meetings, a straw poll resulted in 89% approval of the proposed plan.
John Esquivel, a member of the team, explained that two years were spent developing its recommendations. “You authorized this team in May 2018 to determine whether or not our structure is aligned to efficiently support our objectives, to study the financial capacity of local congregations to support our budget and to make recommendations to the annual conference,” he said.
In May 2019, a vote passed to continue the work. The team developed a proposal and presented it at nine district listening sessions. Feedback mainly supported decentralization for the conference, the Rev. Vincent Harris, district superintendent of the South District and Strategic Mapping Team member, explained.
“We are called to focus on cultivating growing, vibrant, missional congregations, forming transforming lay and clergy leaders and investing in the young,” he added. “We know the world, our denomination, and our mission field have changed. This proposal, through your affirmation, confirms that we need to address disciplining differently.”
The recommendations will not be put into action immediately. Instead, they will be implemented on or before July 1, 2023.
The plan calls for reducing funding for programs, changing the number of TAC Centers and reorganizing staff. More administrative power will be placed in the hands of the districts and local churches.
“We are acutely aware that we live in extraordinarily difficult times,” team member the Rev. Tommy Williams, and senior pastor at Trinity UMC, Beaumont said. “It is a difficult year for our clergy and for our churches and ministries. And we face an uncertain future in our denomination. However, we believe this proposal will leave our conference streamlined, simplified, and more fiscally stable.”
Resolution to End the Harm
The Resolution to End Harm was withdrawn by the Rev. Diane McGehee and the vote was not taken. McGehee, senior pastor at Bering UMC proposed the resolution, asking the Texas Annual Conference to remove the incompatibility clause, and all related paragraphs, from the Book of Discipline to protect LGBTQ individuals.
In the pre-conference meetings, a straw poll resulted in a 67% vote against the proposed resolution.