This month I have chose to share about Annual conference as part of my monthly message. As we came together in Traverse City on May 30th for Annual Conference many of us were concerned on how we would navigate our conference time in the midst of disagreement about how the United Methodist Church will go forward. The big realization for many to discover was that we as an Annual Conference really were unable to change anything to do with what had happened at General Conference in February. Arriving in Traverse City this year for Annual Conference most of us could say we were more comfortable entering the lobby of the Grand Traverse Resort. Time and routine have a way of helping us find that comfort. The time factor that helped us was this is our third year meeting at the Grand Traverse Resort for Annual Conference, and now we are officially the Michigan Annual Conference. Routine helped us as we knew how to navigate the hallways and elevators, we knew where to check in to receiving our name-tags, tote-bags, handouts, the usual stuff we need for conference. It was the same and a different time all in one. Most years Annual Conference is a once-a-year coming together of members for “Christian conferencing.” We’ve been doing this in Michigan for 51 years as a United Methodist Church. Though it is not surprising that everything doesn’t seem like things are the same as usual; we knew that something is clearly different this year. Much has happened between the 2018 Session of the Michigan Annual Conference and the 2019 Session.

A new staff model and new districts began operation on July 1, 2018. The Michigan Conference became “official” in every way on January 1, 2019. Then the Special Session of the General Conference took place in February 2019, causing United Methodists around the globe, of every theological persuasion, to look deeper into what it means to be a follower of John Wesley and of Jesus Christ. Looming over this Michigan Annual Conference is the space between the 2019 General Conference of February and the next General Conference held in Minneapolis, May 5-15, 2020. The 2019 Michigan Annual Conference opened on Thursday morning, May 30, in high spirit. The past was present during the Memorial Service as saints gone on to glory were named and remembered. Hymns long-cherished were sung: “And Are We Yet Alive?” and “The Church’s One Foundation;” reminding members of their spiritual roots. All “a vision glorious” in the words of the song just named. But the “right here, right now” and the future of The United Methodist Church were very much in focus in the words of Bishop David Bard. He started on a humorous note, leading the gathering in the Scarecrow’s song; “If I only had a brain;” from the Wizard of Oz, which all of us joined in and sang with him. He continued, “How dare I be funny! Don’t I know what’s going on in the world? Maybe you are thinking, if we only had a better time in which to be the church!” The bishop went on to acknowledge that, “The church is kind of a mess. The world is kind of a mess.” He asserted that reaction is not the appropriate response to the situation we are in today. “We are where we are, and in this time, we need leaders.” Building on the 2019 Conference theme of Bold and Effective Leaders, Bishop Bard then encouraged local churches to be “greenhouses” providing light, water, and warmth. “If this is something of what leadership of wisdom, heart and courage looks like, and our church and world need this kind of leadership. We need to be places that plant seeds that are skills necessary for such leadership; skills in listening well, skills to tolerate ambiguity and not knowing, skills that help people grow in their self-knowledge in light of knowing that they are loved by God, skills in working with difference and conflict, skills in reading and learning together.” The Bishop encouraged us not to wait in this effort. Bishop Bard challenged us to “Be leaders of wisdom, heart and courage right here, right now so we can be about the mission of God to be disciples of Jesus Christ so that the world can be different because the world needs to be different.” Yes, we need to be the church right here right now.

We were encouraged to remember we are children of God. On Thursday afternoon three persons, present in St. Louis in February for the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, provided us with information of actions taken and implications for The Michigan Conference. Rev. Dr. Charles Boayue, delegation co-chair, outlined the actions taken by the General Conference and Judicial Council on proposals from the Commission on a Way Forward. He noted that those parts of the Traditional Plan passed by GC 2019, deemed constitutional, will take effect on January 1, 2020 in the U.S. The parts of the Discipline affected are those regarding same sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQIA+ individuals. A plan for disaffiliation from The United Methodist Church is in effect now. Nichea Ver Veer Guy, Michigan’s co-chair, spoke of responses in the wake of General Conference. “Delegates from around the world began to try to understand the new reality for The United Methodist Church,” Guy said. “There will be restructuring. There will be negotiated separations,” she added. She encouraged Michigan United Methodists to, “not let the distraction of a broken system derail our capacity to live into our covenant with God.” Bishop David Bard thanked the Michigan delegates for inviting him into their spiritual community. “We are in a difficult time,” he said. “As best I can I want to speak honestly about that. In the midst of that we still have choices to make about being church together.” While at Annual Conference, the bishop encouraged members to “Express your passionate viewpoints,” and “Take a breath and listen.”

Another new piece at Annual Conference this year was voting devices. Once everyone became educated on how to use these devices it made the voting much more efficient and helped us to know quickly the end result. There was one election on the first ballot taken before lunch on Friday, May 31. Laura Witkowski, the morning’s preacher, was chosen by the laity in Governors’ Hall. By the end of the day, members of The Michigan Annual Conference had elected all but three of its delegates for the 2020 General and Jurisdictional conferences. The Michigan delegation for the 2016/2019 General Conferences was a combined group of persons elected by the West Michigan and Detroit conferences. The 2020 delegation is the first to be elected by the new Michigan Conference. General Conference will be held in Minneapolis, MN, May 5-15, 2020. Ft. Wayne, IN is the site of Jurisdictional Conference, July 15-18, 2020. We need to begin praying now for the important work ahead of The Michigan Conference delegation.

The aspects of Bold and Effective Leadership; Wisdom, Courage, Heart; provided the focus of daily worship at the 2019 Michigan Annual Conference. Bishop David Bard spoke of wisdom on Thursday and courage took the stage on Friday. The preacher for morning worship was Laura Witkowski, the Michigan Conference Assoc. Director of Lay Leadership Development. She talked about ordinary courage and vulnerability, using three examples: Global Mission Fellow, Grace Okerson, serving NOAH Project in Detroit; the disciple Peter getting out of the boat when he saw Jesus as told in Matthew 14:22-33; and wives of sanitation workers on strike in Memphis, TN in 1968. Laura encouraged members to claim their courage. “If you’re hanging out in your boat and aren’t sure how to take that first step. #1: Ask Jesus to invite you out on the water. # 2: have conversations with those who have stepped out of the boat. # 3: Take the step!” She concluded, “The water is where Jesus is; the water is a task too big for us to do alone. Be ridiculous like Peter. Be more like Jesus. Find your ordinary courage. Get out of the boat.”

In the afternoon, the spotlight remained on courage as members welcomed a daughter of the conference, Becca Farnum. A peace building educator, who has taught in 20 countries, Farnum is currently based at Syracuse University in London. Her lessons in courageous leadership offered perspectives from her experiences from Scandinavia to Morocco and places between. Her points about effective leaders: Collaborate, Open minds and doors, Understand own privilege and bias, Respect other journeys, Act in abundance, Give generously, Evangelize. What does it spell: COURAGE. She thanked Michigan United Methodists for their nurture. “I am a product of the leadership greenhouse that Bishop Bard talked about.” However, she reminded her listeners, “You cannot expect every plant to thrive in the same greenhouse. She encouraged us to “Plant different kinds of seeds. See the beauty in other kinds of plants.” In the midst of the global debate on the future direction of The United Methodist Church, members to the Annual Conference indicated a need to test the waters to learn where those in attendance stood on decisions made during the General Conference in St. Louis, MO last February. Three times, clergy and laity members voted on measures that would provide Bishop Bard and conference leadership with aspirations for the direction of the Michigan Conference. The body approved GCR 2019-2. Aspirations for The Michigan Annual Conference; “The Michigan Annual Conference aspires to live into an expression of Methodism that includes LGTQIA people in full life and membership of the UMC.” By more than a two-thirds margin, 819 (68%) to 377 (32%), the measure aspires to promote reconciliation, and focus resources on mission not trials and investigations based on sexual orientation.

A declaratory decision on the constitutionality of this resolution was requested and will be acted upon by Bishop Bard within 30 days. The members also approved the taking of a non-binding straw poll, GCR 2019-3. Prior to talking the vote, Amy Mayo-Moyle, chair of the Conference Leadership Council who brought the resolution to take a straw poll, said, “We are in a hard place; but we are at a place where we must best discern how to go forward.” At the conclusion of the vote, Bishop David Bard made clear this straw vote was only one indicator of where members stand. “It does matter how this poll is interpreted.” He said, “This is a vote of the people gathered, lay and clergy, in this particular place in this particular time.” The Bishop acknowledged the pain and difficulty of taking the poll and the importance of caring for everyone’s feelings, saying “Jesus of the parables cares as much about the 70% as the 30%. I encourage us to continue to do the hard work.” Finally, by a nearly identical margin, the members also approved GCP #2019-4, a resolution that recommends to General Conference 2020 the creation of a Central Conference in North America. The resolution was referred to General Conference by a vote of 705-336. If adopted by GC 2020 this would “provide for the creation of a Central Conference encompassing North America,” allowing more contextualized ministry and mission. A bold and effective preacher; and a bold and effective preacher’s kid shared the word on Saturday morning. Rev. Dr. Jennie Browne, Conference Director of Clergy Excellence, began with a spirited retelling of the story of Esther. With children at her feet and the members of the conference in their seats supplying sounds that brought characters to life in her talk. She related how Esther; stomach muscles tightening and breath going short; “went to the heart of an empire to save her people.” Browne described how God “shows up in the gaps” then offered a challenge to God’s people in the hall. “Esther did not have everything, but she had enough. So do you. She used what she had; courage, spiritual discipline, patience, strategy, community. So can you. God needs you. Christ needs you. The church needs you.” The day’s teaching moment followed, bringing to the stage a woman, Kristen Grauer, who grew up in the Michigan Area. Making clear that she was speaking as the daughter of the Rev. Charles and Pat Grauer, and not as a Foreign Service officer of the U.S. Department of State, Grauer related cherished moments in her life in the parsonage. Baptism, CROP walks, VIM trips, and summer camp. She shared a quick trip around her tours of service, starting in Benin as a 23-year-old to her next assignment in France.

She concluded with “Six reasons why being a PK in small-town Michigan gave her skills to succeed anywhere on earth.” 1) Its a Calling. 2) Internal Community is our strength 3) External Connections. 4) Communications must be Continuous. 5) Coping with Crisis and Conflict. 6) Character is everything. Other highlights: there were 1,960 clergy and laity in attendance; the budget was set at $14,700,910 which is $124,723 less than 2019. Annual Conference offering totaled $40,444.00 which goes toward Children’s Hospital Haiti- Bishop Craig’s children’s Home Michigan Disaster relief & Recovery. Bishop Bard re-emphasize that leadership in our day needs to be leadership rooted in personhood. If our congregations are going to be greenhouses of such leadership, you need to lead with mind, heart and courage.” I understand that courage is crucial for the church today and everyone has a level of that courage to expend. It is the leading of Jesus Christ into this time in all of our lives that is also crucial. We cannot stand dormant, we are empowered by the love of God through the grace of Jesus Christ to impact our surroundings and live; yes live for today in Christ.

Peace and grace
Pastor Ed