For the fifth time, I had the honor of representing this congregation as one of your lay delegates to the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The conference—which is an annual gathering of United Methodist clergy and laity from throughout the conference for mission, worship, policy-making, administration, and fellowship—was held in Roanoke from June 15th through the 18th. It was presided over by our bishop, Bishop Charlene Kammerer.
Following up on last year’s theme of ‘Let’s Get Growing’, which put a focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ and establishing 250 new faith communities over the next 30 years, this year’s Annual Conference theme was ‘More Young People’. It is an unfortunate fact that Methodism in Virginia is being affected by a trend that is also affecting the broader Christian movement in the United States: the average age of our congregations is going up, and the number of youth and young adults participating in church life is dropping.
But you wouldn’t have known it at Annual Conference.
There were many times when, visiting the Roanoke Civic Center, you might have thought you had stumbled into a rock concert. Music on Monday was provided by a Christian rock band called ‘Crave’ from Asbury United Methodist Church in Harrisonburg, and Tuesday’s music came from the ‘Keith Elgin Band’ of Christ Church in Fairfax Station. Both bands put a different spin on conference music, which has traditionally tended more toward organ and choir-led hymns. We were also blessed with music by Elizabeth Cumbest, a high-school age singer-songwriter from Mississippi who’s album sales benefit Seashore Mission UMC—a church that was completely destroyed during Hurricane Katrina.
Like in past years, worship was a central part of the conference. There was a Service of Remembrance and Holy Communion, celebrating the lives of annual conference members who have passed away in the last year. There was a Service for the Ordering of Ministry, where new pastors were ordained. There was a wonderfully upbeat service celebrating the ministry of young people, led by newly-ordained elder Chris Bennett who encouraged conference-goers to help lead young people out of chaos by living up to our baptism vows to raise children in the faith. Our former bishop, Joe Pennel, led the closing service on Wednesday and encouraged us to focus less on increasing our numbers, and more on increasing love, mercy, forgiveness, and justice. The numbers will follow.
But, wonderful as worship is, a more important part of Annual Conference is doing the business of the church—and I’m not talking about reports and resolutions, at least not yet. The primary business of the church is doing some concrete good in the world.
- Every year the conference collects kits—health kits, school kits, sewing kits, flood buckets, and more—for people in need. This year, over 38,000 kits were donated by the people and churches of the conference. They have an approximate monetary value of almost $600,000.
- The annual conference offering this year benefits a hip-hop ministry in Brazil, an orphanage in Mozambique, the global HIV/AIDS fund, and the rebuilding of the Seashore UM Assembly Center in Biloxi, Mississippi. As of Tuesday evening, the conference offering had raised over $220,000.
- At 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, over 300 volunteers gathered in the Civic Center parking lot for a Society of Saint Andrew potato drop. The volunteers bagged just over 40,000 pounds of sweet potatoes for distribution to nearby food banks and food pantries. Those sweet potatoes provided about 121,000 servings of food to people in need. The Society of Saint Andrew also celebrated its 25th Anniversary and recognized the retirement of co-founder Ken Horne. Speakers, including my father, described SoSA’s ministry and explained how in those 25 years over 12,000 volunteers have helped recover nearly 400 million pound of food for the hungry.
This is where conference, in my opinion, really demonstrates its worth. You can see, on a scale we rarely see otherwise, what kind of impact the church can have in the world.
But the mundane tasks before the conference needed to be addressed as well. On Monday, we accepted the report of the ‘250 Task Force’, the group tasked with revitalizing existing congregations and growing the United Methodist Church in Virginia. Now re-named ‘All Things New’, the group’s lengthy, detailed written report and its recommendations were accepted by the conference.
We also considered three resolutions, each of which passed by wide margin. The first encourages the Virginia state government to restore voting rights for convicted felons who have served their time, the second calls for accountability in our state prison system for the health and well-being of prisoners, and the final resolution called for churches in the conference to minister to soldiers and families affected by armed conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The conference closed on Wednesday following worship with the fixing of appointments, which is when we find out who our pastors will be for the coming year. I’m happy to report that both Pastor Rob Vaughn and Assoc. Pastor Rocky Shoemaker have each been re-appointed to Community of Faith.
I want to again thank this congregation for entrusting me with being one of your representatives at conference. This report, like my reports in past years, is just a very quick overview. I encourage you to visit the Virginia Conference web site, vaumc.org, which has all kinds of information and detail beyond what I’ve described here—the full Book of Reports in PDF format, which includes the ‘All Things New’ report, the full text of the resolutions, daily news reports, and more. You’re also welcome, as always, to ask me or anybody else in our delegation if you have further questions.