Officiating bishop: Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey
For the second consecutive year, the 2021 Louisiana Annual Conference was held virtually, via ZOOM webinar with a theme of “Story” grounding the work.
The May 20-22 annual conference began Thursday with a laity session on Facebook. Participants heard from lay director Jennifer Swann and others, including updates from United Methodist Women, United Methodist Men and the Louisiana delegation
The clergy session was held Friday morning and it included the celebration of a new class of ordinands and the recognition of 25 retirements across the conference, including the Rev. John Edd Harper, a deacon who has faithfully served as director of the board of ordained ministry for 17 years.
The Celebration of Ministry Service was held on Friday evening at First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, with a limited in-person audience. A full live stream was available on Facebook.
The Louisiana Conference ordained the following four persons into full connection:
• Lenda Faye Matthews (Deacon)
• Erik Lewis Rasmussen (Deacon)
• Timothy James Barnes (Elder)
• Tiffanie Certrina Postell (Elder)
The following persons were elected as provisional members:
• Megan McGuirt Stuermann (Deacon)
• Carol Shelton Twyman (Class of 2020, Deacon)
• Brian Eric Coplin (Elder)
• Mary Rachel Moore (Elder)
• Megan Birdwell Twyman (Elder)
The conference also received Luke Michael Palermon as an associate member:
In her ordination sermon, Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey used Matthew 13:1-3, 9 as the backdrop. In it, she reminded the audience of the power of story.
"This is a story of healing hurts," she said, "A story of reconciliation, grace, mercy, justice and love – it is the Gospel story – it is the story of God at work in the lives of ordinary people that produce extraordinary fruit."
She continued, "In a time of uncertainty, when the world is upside down and the United Methodist Church is facing such challenges, God is still calling people to proclaim the good news to a world desperate to hear a little good news. And not only is God calling — even more amazing — you are listening, and you are responding."
"You are saying 'Yes!' Not just to ordination but 'yes' to the work of discipling and of transformation. You could say, ‘Not now, God, we are in a pandemic. Not now because this race stuff is really hard. Not now, we have no idea whether there will even be a UMC. Not now, call somebody else.’” You have not said not now; You have said ‘Yes, now! Yes for such a time as this.’”
The annual conference plenary session was held on Saturday and included moving opening worship featuring a series of litanies written by Louisiana’s own Britney Winn Lee, author of “Rally: Communal Prayers for Lovers of Justice and Jesus.”
Harvey invited us to discern the difference between hearing and listening in her episcopal address.
"The difference between hearing and listening is distinct," she said. "Hearing is the act of perceiving sound, say the experts. Listening, however, is something you do consciously. Listening requires a willingness to be fully present, to pay attention, to hear not just the words said, but the meaning, the feeling and the spirit behind them. Listening requires intentional attentiveness."
She emphasized that our call today and every day is to listen to the stories of Jesus unfold in our lives. "The stories of people — the stories of the young, the old, the black, the white, the brown, the Asian, the rich, the poor, the stories of straight people, gay people, the stories of Republicans and Democrats," she said, "Listen to the stories of Jesus that are being lived each and every day in ourselves, in our world and in our neighbors."
She reminded delegates that, as Wesleyan Methodists, we believe that Christ gave us a ministry of reconciliation that binds us together despite our differences. "Friends, this is hard work, and it is sacred work. I still long for a United Methodist Church that will move us towards new forms of connection. I ask that we recommit ourselves to strengthening our churches where the Word is proclaimed, Christ is offered and where the table is set before all who hunger and thirst for righteousness."
Office of Congregational Development and Transformation
The Rev. Gloria Fowler, director of the Office of Congregational Development and Transformation, reported on the work that the office has seen over the past year, and it's nothing shy of amazing.
"Not only have we endured a worldwide pandemic, but hurricane after hurricane, and now floods, have hit our area," she said. "But as we know, we are Louisiana strong, and all of this has not stopped us from living out the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And I commend you for your faithfulness and pressing forward to live out the mission of the church even if you had to pivot and do things that you had never done before."
The Rev. Sam Hubbard reported on the vast number of churches that launched and saw growth during the pandemic.
"Before the pandemic, we had five churches that were in various stages of the launching process, as well as employing different strategies for reaching new people," Hubbard said.
"Much like all churches, and people for that matter, they were dramatically impacted by the pandemic. And much like you, and the world they adapted, they innovated," he added.
Conference Anti-Racism Taskforce
The Rev. Tiffanie Postell, who co-leads the Louisiana Anti-Racism Taskforce Committee, reported on the conference's work to dismantle and address racism. Last year Harvey asked for clergy and laity to explore ways to engage the critical conversations in Louisiana about racial injustice.
The goal of the gatherings was to hear the hearts of the people and to arrive at the next steps organically. Postell shared that Harvey cast a vision but that that vision did not have specific actions in mind, but instead for it to be organic in nature.
"She left it in our hands," Postell said. "And we began to have the hard conversations. The goal was twofold. First, we needed to train. What does it look like to be in a space where you are asking folks to engage, and you yourself are not even comfortable? It's OK to ask the question, and it's okay not to have the answer. Secondly, we wanted to develop a methodology to share what we have learned with the conference."
Postell shared a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. that summed up their work. 'If you can't fly, then run. If you can't run, then walk. If you can't walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward."
"This work needs all of us", Postell said. "We need you to be open to listening. We may not have all of the answers and we might not be flying about or even running in Louisiana, but we might be crawling. By all means, I ask to you today is that you help us to continue to move forward."
Jennifer Swann, conference lay leader, shared the laity report. In it, Swann discussed the power of story and specifically the difference between stories we find in Hollywood and Scripture.
"I think movies touch us because they are finding a way to connect with those universal truths, but I don't think that alone is the reason why they sell," Swann said. "I think the reason they sell as they do is that they are fiction. These stories allow us to explore themes of good and evil and community and integrity and bravery in very abstract ways, never having to actually be good. Never having to question whether we have been complicit in evil, never having to be in community with other misfits, never having to exercise integrity or bravery."
Swann continued, "The story of God as revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus is a powerful thing. We can tell the story of the first Easter. It will reach out and touch us in powerful ways. It will tap into universal truths about what matters most and about good and evil and community. But I hope instead that we, both lay and clergy, are willing to take the role of the laity seriously — to make it our mission to show people that the Gospel message is not something that happened a long time ago and that it does matter — to find our role in God's story right here and now in our homes and in our workplaces and our communities, and even in our churches.”
In the afternoon, the delegates received two petitions.
The first petition was submitted on behalf of the Louisiana Conference Anti-Racism Taskforce. It called for the chair of all conference councils, boards, agencies, commissions and committees to designate a member to serve as an anti-racism advocate to help the members do their work in an intentionally anti-racist manner.
The petition also called for members of the Louisiana Conference Anti-Racism team to provide training for the chairs, and anti-racism advocates and members of all councils, boards, agencies, commissions and committees to equip them for this work.
The petition passed by a vote of 294 in favor (69.7%) to 128 (30.3%) against.
The second petition, called "A Resolution of Open Meetings," called for the Louisiana Annual Conference to adopt policies in keeping with the spirit of openness and accountability described in the Book of Discipline.
Bishop Harvey pointed out several instances where the petition was voted non-concurrence. She asked the Rev. Donnie Wilkinson to clarify what might be missing and what he was trying to accomplish.
The petition passed by a vote of 281 in favor (59.4%) to 192 against (40.6%). However, it was later ruled out of order.
After the passing of the petition, Harvey took a moment to address some questions that arose during the discussion of the petition. She offered to meet with the petitioner and discuss ways to address the spirit of the petition.
Board of Trustees Report
The Board of Trustees recommended seven churches be approved for closure:
• Grand Chenier United Methodist Church, Grand Chenier — Lake Charles District
• Little Creek United Methodist Church, Mangham — Monroe District
• Bayou Scie United Methodist Church, Zwolle — Shreveport District
• Lacombe United Methodist Church, Lacombe — New Orleans District
• Arizona United Methodist Church, Shreveport — Shreveport District
• Beulah United Methodist Church, Calhoun — Monroe District (exigent circumstances)
• Chatham United Methodist Church, Chatham — Monroe District (exigent circumstances)
Council on Finance and Administration
The Council on Finance and Administration presented its proposed annual budget and modifications to the reserve plan. The complexity of the budget in this season in the life of the conference continues to foster thoughtful questions.
In the final moments of the 2021 annual conference, Harvey shared a word of sending forth.
"We have done the hard and beautiful work today of understanding, sharing and writing the story of God and the story of us," she said, "There have been moments of inspiration and times of writer's block. We have witnessed cliffhangers and character development. We have gotten lost in the details of the setting and remembered the bigger picture of the plot again."
Bishop Harvey then thanked all of the delegates for attending the virtual session and for sharing their stories.
"Your stories are ours; We hold them with you," she said. "And you do not write the coming days alone."
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