The 2016 Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference was held June 12-15 in Montgomery, Alabama, with the theme, "The Great Commission: Sending Disciples." Bishop Paul L. Leeland, presiding over his eighth annual conference session since becoming the resident bishop, welcomed clergy and lay members to Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church in Montgomery.
Alabama-West Florida Disaster Response & Recovery Ministry is the beneficiary of the 2016 missional offering. Churches from within the conference collected money and presented their offerings at opening worship. The Rev. Michael Lawler delivered the offertory prayer. Lawler is the pastor of Elba First United Methodist Church in Elba, Alabama, where severe flooding occurred in late December of 2015. He has been active in the flood recovery efforts in the area. He took a moment of personal privilege to express how the love of Christ came to Elba and touched so many lives. Amelia Fletcher, director of this ministry, explained the process of disaster response and recovery and the connectional system at work. She emphasized partnership and the importance of funding to help those in a critical time of need. A total of $40,356.82 was collected at conference.
A capacity crowd attended the Opening Worship Service Sunday evening, June 12. Bishop Gregory Palmer of the West Ohio Conference preached the sermon based on John 20:19-23 entitled, "The Recovery of Sentness." He passionately told of instances where Jesus continues to show up in our own ministry and lives. He explained that his presence pierces a tense and anxious atmosphere and said, "God never quits on us!!" He continued, "You will never have any ministry that is worth anything unless that ministry takes on flesh and blood. Ministry will mean taking on flesh in every situation and every circumstance." At the conclusion of his message, the congregation affirmed his words with a standing ovation. A mass choir from around the conference, and led by Wayne Sigler of Frazer, provided inspiring music for the service including moving renditions of, "All Creatures of Our God and King," "I am Not My Own" and "Send Me."
The Gospel lesson was read by the Rev. Sheila Bates. Bates returned home to the AWF Conference from Nashville, Tennessee, where she is serving as the Director of Student Faith and Leadership Formation, Collegiate Ministries Office at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Robert McMichael and Jarvis Wilson, talented worship leaders from the Atlanta area, returned to conference this year and led an inspirational and spirit-filled worship medley.
Bishop Leeland paused for a moment before the opening prayer to reflect on the tragedy that happened early June 12 in Orlando, Florida. He reminded the conference that we have a rare opportunity to be agents of God's unconditional love in this world. Click here to read a statement on this mass shooting from Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Annual Conference. The Opening Worship Service also celebrated the 20th anniversary of the ordination of the deacons in the United Methodist Church. Deacons in the conference participated in various parts of the service and processed into the service together.
On Monday, many gathered in the early morning hours for a time of prayer in response to the tragic Orlando shooting. Music, poems, silence and scripture were woven together in a time of reflection and intercession. One participant shared, “I wish we knew all of the names and stories of each person as we pray for God’s presence and peace.” An invitation was also shared for people to walk the labyrinth, receive a prayer shawl, and register for spiritual direction.
Thirty clergy and clergy spouses who passed since the 2015 annual conference session were remembered during the Service of Remembrance and Holy Communion. Bishop Leeland offered the opening prayer and the Rev. Rurel Ausley of Crosspoint United Methodist Church delivered the inspiring and uplifting sermon entitled, "Jesus Wept" based on John 11:21-35. He specifically recalled several who had passed he personally knew, including the late Bishop William Morris, who served the Alabama-West Florida Conference. The Rev. Amy Persons Parkes read the Gospel lesson. A capacity crowd remembered those who gave many years of service to the conference. Robert McMichael and Jarvis Wilson, guest musicians and worship leaders at this year's conference, provided comforting music through their rendition of, "My Soul Has Been Anchored in the Lord." As we continue to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ordination of Deacons in the UMC, they, along with the district superintendents, served communion to those in attendance. Surviving family members were hosted at a special luncheon by the conference Commission on Archives and History.
Eighteen clergy were recognized upon their retirement by Dr. Jim Sanders during today's order of the day. Together, the following clergy have over 400 years of service in our conference. The Rev. John McCullough spoke on behalf of the retiring class. Back by popular demand was the "passing of the torch." McCullough presented a stole to the Rev. Lisa Pierce, who was ordained as a deacon in full connection this evening, signifying new leadership in the conference. The retirees and spouses were honored at a reception after the conclusion of the ceremony.
The Service of Commissioning and Ordination was held Monday evening in the sanctuary of Montgomery First United Methodist Church. The congregation represented family members and special friends of those being commissioned and ordained. Prior to the start of the service, the cathedral choir of Montgomery First United Methodist presented worshipful music led by James Seay. The service included the commissioning of one provisional deacon and four provisional elders and the ordination of one deacon in full connection and five elders in full connection. Bishop Palmer of the West Ohio Conference preached a sermon entitled, “Sent to Serve and Build Up” based on Ephesians 4:11-16. Over $2,200 was collected for the Ministerial Education Fund.
Bishop Leeland delivered his Episcopal address to the body of the conference on Monday afternoon. He recapped the theme the conference has adopted the past quadrennium, "SEND" (Seek, Engage, Nurture, Deploy). He emphasized that, "every congregation can be invitational and missional regardless of size." Leeland also mentioned the Four Areas of Focus, which guides the work of the conference. Communities of Transformation was recognized for their work with ministry with the poor and he thanked the conference for their dedication to raising $1 million for Imagine No Malaria. Bishop Leeland also invited everyone to a visioning day on October 3, 2016, in Pensacola, FL, to explore a new way to engage in ministry called "Fresh Expressions." He also highlighted the Antioch Project that works with healthy and good churches, that could be great churches, by focusing on people within their zip codes.
Prior to hearing the General Conference report, Bishop Leeland took a moment to honor Dr. and Mrs. Lawson Bryan. He offered a prayer for Dr. Bryan as the conference episcopal nominee. At the conclusion of that special moment, Dr. Bryan and Dr. Steve Furr (AWF conference lay leader) summarized General Conference, which was held in Portland, Oregon, on May 10-20, 2016. Bryan and Furr thanked the delegates for their dedication and reviewed legislation that came before the voting body. Furr reported that a petition that came from the AWF 2015 Annual Conference was passed at general conference relating to withdrawing from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. To read daily updates from general conference, click here. Dawn Wiggins Hare, COSROW General Secretary, brought greetings from Chicago and also reported about general conference and challenged the clergy and lay leaders to offer their pulpits to someone who doesn't look like them. She also celebrated the 60th anniversary of full inclusion into The United Methodist Church. After hearing the laity report, Beverly Maddox, the incoming AWF lay leader, honored Dr. Steve Furr for his eight years of service to the conference as lay leader. The conference body applauded his work and dedication.
The Alabama-West Florida Conference celebrated a significant milestone earlier in 2016. The conference raised one million dollars in cash, therefore reaching our goal of saving 100,000 lives for Imagine No Malaria. We celebrated this in today's afternoon business session through a responsive litany and the singing of, "We Are Marching." Bishop Tom Bickerton, chief spokesperson for the campaign and bishop of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, thanked the conference via video for our dedication to this initiative. The Revs. Paula Roane, Pam Barnhardt, Emily Kincaid and Mike Owenby, deacons in the conference, led this joyful time.
The conference was honored by the outstanding leadership of several guest speakers. Dr. Kevin Watson, assistant professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, led two teaching sessions. Bishop Palmer preached the opening worship service and the Service of Commissioning and Ordination. We welcomed President Cam West from Huntingdon Colleges as well as Blake Horne, director of the United Methodist Children's Home and Christopher Tomlin, director of the Methodist Homes for the Aging. Coach Tim Hutton gave the Mary Ellen Bullard Leadership Address at this year's laity banquet.
Several awards were given to recognize outstanding leadership and service in the conference. Dr. Frank Buckner received the Francis Asbury Award and Ruth Goff Penton of Enterprise First United Methodist Church received the Alice Lee Award. There were four winners of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award. The clergy winner is the Rev. Rurel Ausley of the Crosspoint United Methodist Church. Lay recipients are Kristen and Ben Wallace of Dothan First United Methodist and the youth recipient is Riley Newton of the Auburn Wesley Foundation and Wesley Parish. Lynn Hamric was honored with the second annual Susanna Wesley Leadership Award at the Laity Banquet. The Venture Crew from Foley United Methodist Church received the Bishop's Scouting Award of Excellence. Pam Baker accepted this award on behalf of the church and troop.
As a result of a motion from the floor of the 2014 Annual Conference, a task force was formed to explore the number of districts in the Alabama-West Florida Conference. Dr. Shirley Woodie recognized those on the committee and updated the conference that they have have examined many factors such as the number of churches and clergy in each district and how many districts are in other conferences. The group obtained systematic and broad-based input from clergy and laity in the conference via an online survey. Early on they concluded that a reduction in districts would not be beneficial for our conference. They also looked at increasing districts to allow superintendents to be chief missional strategists. The conclusion was that eight districts was adequate. Their focus was improving current structure and taking fuller advantage of programs our conference has available (COT, Antioch Project, ACE, MissionInsight, etc). They have listed 14 items they recommend to strengthen the work on pages 43-44 in the Brochure of Reports. A motion was made and approved that a status report will be given in 2017 on the progress.
Three resolutions were presented to the annual conference voting body at annual conference. A Resolution Calling for Death Penalty Reform in Alabama was passed with an amendment. A Resolution Concerning Healthcare for the Poor in Alabama in 2016 was approved by the delegates on Wednesday. A motion was made to refer A Resolution Supporting Harm Reduction for LGBTQ Teens to the conference Board of Church & Society. This committee invited members of the body to join them in discussions and report back to the 2017 Annual Conference. If you are interested in joining this discernment process, click here.
The conference established a $10,952,221 million budget for mission and ministry for 2017, a 0.4 increase from 2016.
Membership stands at 139,871 down 47 members from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 62,646 down 1 percent. Native American and Hispanic attendance increased by 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively. Some areas that showed increases were confirmation preparation participants, small groups, VIM (Volunteers in Mission) teams and participants and persons served by community ministries and outreach. Children, youth and adults in Christian formation increased again this year. There was a 2.86 percent increase in missional giving, which was at its highest level since 2001.
The conference collected 2,929 UMCOR kits. The conference welcomed approximately 202 health plan participants to wellness screenings,
The clergy appointments for 2016-2017 may be found online here.
The 2017 session of the AWF Annual Conference will be held June 4-7, 2017, at Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Montgomery First United Methodist Church will host the Ordination Service.
A downloadable pdf recap that can be used in your upcoming church bulletins can be found here. Full coverage of the 2016 AWF Annual Conference may be found at here. To see photos taken by Luke Lucas, click here.
-Mary Catherine Phillips, Alabama-West Florida director of communications
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