Officiating bishop: Bishop Hope Morgan Ward
The 2021 North Carolina Annual Conference convened virtually on June 17 around the theme "Like a Well-Watered Garden." As we continue to journey through this parched time, this reflection from Isaiah 58:11 reminds us that Christ offers the living waters that restore and strengthen us to fulfill the ministry where we are called.
The day began with worship and remembrance for 39 clergy and 45 clergy spouses who have died since the last in-person annual conference in 2019. The Rev. Edie Gleaves offered a sermon based on the Isaiah 58 text. "Is there anyone among us who could use a drink of refreshing spring water today? God’s got it for you. So are you thirsty? Drink up. Are you parched? Drink up. Discouraged? Cheer up. Asleep? Wake up. Dishonest? 'Fess up. Sour spirit? Sweeten up. Closed hearts? Open up. Dried bones? Fatten up. No matter what, don't give up. Most of all, lift Christ up."
After a short break, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward called the conference to order, presiding over her last annual conference before entering retirement on Sept. 1. In his opening remarks, Conference Secretary Jerry Bryan announced his retirement from the position after serving 25 years and working with three bishops.
The conference re-elected the Rev. George Speake as conference statistician. Attorney Eric Stevens was elected conference chancellor. Upon the retirement of Bryan, Bishop Ward announced a new configuration for the conference secretary's office, which will include the Rev. Paul Woo-Il Lee as the associate conference secretary. The Rev. Gray Southern was elected conference secretary.
The Christian Unity and Interreligious Relations report offered a ground-breaking, ecumenical highlight with the proposal of a covenantal relationship between Christ Community United Methodist Church, Greater Heights United Methodist Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. If approved, Christ Community and Greater Heights would be classified under the Book of Discipline as a "union" church, meaning one church with a unified membership roll but related to two denominations. The conference affirmed support for this covenantal relationship.
Highlights from the Financial Reports:
• The proposed budget for 2023 reflects a .51% reduction (-$78,170) from the approved 2022 budget. The requested 2023 budget is $15,394,544.
• At the request of the cabinet, there is no proposed change to the 2022 salary for district superintendents.
• There will be a 3% increase in the 2022 health insurance monthly premiums. Life insurance, dental and wellness programs will continue at the current benefit level and cost.
• The proposed past service rate will increase 2.5% over the 2021 pre-82 pension plan.
• Retiree Health Reimbursement Accounts will increase by 3%.
• The 2022 minimum salary for full-time elders and local pastors will increase by 1.6% to $47,373; student pastor salaries will increase by 1.6% to $30,792.
The conference approved the financial reports.
The Rev. Gary Henderson, chief relations officer at United Methodist Communications, presented Conference Communications Director Derek Leek with the Epikoinonia (Epi) Award for excellence in communication ministry.
North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Mandy Cohen, addressed the conference on the ways churches can help the fight to end the COVID-19 pandemic. The conference special offering is designated for the UMCOR COVID-19 disaster response. As of July 10, $6,130 had been received.
Bishop Ward fixed the 2021-2022 appointments with 163 churches receiving new pastors. The conference expressed gratitude for the service of district superintendents Gray Southern and Gil Wise as they have been appointed to other ministries and welcomed David Blackman and Chris Brady to the cabinet as district superintendents.
The conference ended with a time of reflection on the ministry of Bishop Hope Morgan Ward as she moves towards retirement. Video messages from colleagues and family were presented, including her husband, Mike Ward. A bloopers/outtakes video taken from her weekly video messages had people laughing. Ward was then presented the Order of the Long Leaf Pine by former North Carolina superintendent of public instruction June Atkinson, and Gov. Roy Cooper. This award is the highest honor bestowed on a citizen of North Carolina and honors persons who have made significant contributions to the state and their communities through exemplary service and exceptional accomplishments. Cooper said, “I am inspired by how you have led the Methodist community with compassion and grace. You’ve built bridges, bringing together people from all backgrounds. Your generosity has helped so many North Carolinians in need, whether it’s helping rebuild from a natural disaster or fighting for our public schools. You’ve always been someone in the community who we could count on to make our state more just and fair. I’m so grateful for your service to the Methodist Church and to North Carolina.”
The Clergy and Laity Executive Sessions were held virtually on June 16.
Following the COVID-19 safety protocol of small gatherings, four ordination services were held on June 18 at Fuquay-Varina United Methodist Church. Ward's sermon, "Small Boats and Vast Seas," was based on Mark 4:35-41, the story of Jesus calming the raging sea. Her words challenged and encouraged the ordinands, "Take thou authority. Take authority in the storms of life; to live with the questions, the holy questions, the deep, probing questions. Take authority to sit with people and not be afraid of their questions or your own. Take thou authority to know that God will come amidst us as we sit in these kinds of circles. Take thou authority to know that in the life and spiritual journey of your parishioners, God is present and speaking to them and to the whole body in the congregation. Take thou authority to order the life of the church, to preside over the sacraments, to preach the Word. And do this as Jesus lived among us, with the humble authority of one who knew who he was, who knew his tethering to the eternal God."
Key statistics from 2021:
• Number of people ordained, commissioned, or licensed for ministry and average age:
Two deacons, 38 elders ordained (average age = 41).
One provisional deacon, 8 provisional elders commissioned (average age = 35),
Twenty-three local pastors licensed (average age = 38).
• Three new deaconesses were recognized — Sharon Brignon, Annette Greer and Effie McGill.
• Number of clergy retiring: Class of 2020 = 35. Class of 2021 = 36.
• Membership stands at 218,982, down 4,726 from the previous year.
• Average attendance at the principal weekly worship service(s) was 51,886, a decrease of 15,020 from 2019.
• The number of persons worshiping online increased from 9,960 in 2019 to 66,086.
• While participation in United Methodist Youth and United Methodist Men was down, participation in United Methodist Women increased by almost 10%.
• Six churches have merged and five churches have closed since the 2020 Annual Conference.
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