Bishop’s State of the Annual Conference Address
The theme for this Annual Conference is “Rekindle the Gifts of God: Love, Power, and Self-Control.” It is drawn from the Apostle Paul’s words to Timothy. At the time he was writing, Paul suffered feelings of abandonment and confusion, humiliation and isolation. He suffered from betrayal and wrote from prison, not knowing his fate. If we find ourselves at a loss in our current situation, I remind us to look to Paul and the setting from which he wrote.
Paul encouraged Timothy to rekindle the gifts of God in him. Some translations use the image of a flame to symbolize those gifts of the Spirit. Rekindling a flame is no passive matter. It is easier to simply sit by and watch the flame die out and the embers turn to ashes. But imperatives like, “draw strength from the grace that is in Jesus Christ” and “accept your share of suffering” and “remember Jesus Christ who was raised from the dead” (2 Timothy 2:1, 3, 6 CEV) encourage us to action. When we look to Jesus Christ, we rekindle the flame.
And we look to Jesus Christ so that we may look within ourselves to find the gifts of God at work in us. These are the gifts of love, power and self-control. We look to Jesus to draw strength for the day. We look to Jesus to find inspiration for ministry. We look to Jesus to rekindle the gifts within ourselves.
One of the resources within the Body of Christ known as United Methodism is our Book of Discipline. Frankly, we too often overlook the most important parts of the Discipline. If you have never read ¶¶120-122, I urge you to do so. In fact, all of the paragraphs that are numbered in the 100s should be required reading and study in every church. The mission of the church is clearly stated in ¶120, which reads, “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Paragraph 121 states our basic beliefs: “The United Methodist Church affirms that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of all.” We build our church on the foundation of the Biblical texts to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We obey Jesus’ command to go into all the world and make disciples baptizing and teaching people to obey Jesus. We believe the mission of the church is “embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is experienced in the ongoing creation of a new people by the Holy Spirit.” (¶121).
Let us hold fast to our stated mission and tenets of faith. And let us recall, in the words of ¶121, “Whenever United Methodism has had a clear sense of mission, God has used our Church to save persons, heal relationships, transform social structures, and spread scriptural holiness, thereby changing the world.” Let us rekindle the gifts of God in us.
Another resource available to us as United Methodists is our own stories of faith. Our stories illustrate our experiences with God and express the many ways that we rekindle the gifts of God within us. One of the primary goals of this Annual Conference session is to tell our stories. In planning for this session of the Annual Conference, we made the intentional decision to devote a lot of time on the agenda to sharing stories of transformation and celebration. It is important that we not miss the stories and simply skip to the business.
We do not wish to be reduced to a transactional body. By that I mean that we do not gather to simply discuss business, vote, then go home. We gather to be and become a relational body. How can we be in relationship with each other if we will not take the time to listen and celebrate? Today may be the only opportunity we might have to nurture a relationship. I encourage you to be inspired by the stories of transformation and celebration you will be hearing at this conference. As you listen to them, may the gifts of God in you be rekindled.
The rekindling of gifts, just like the rekindling of a flame comes in the context of significant challenges.
Some of the challenges we face today mirror the challenges the world faces today. There is a lot going on in the world, including war in Europe, other wars and conflicts we hear little about, a developing world-wide shortage of food exasperated by wars, escalating inflation and economic struggles, a pandemic of disease from which we are beginning to emerge, and a pandemic of fear in which many people in the world still feel trapped. Racial, political and cultural divides are reflected in the world and nation, as well as in the communities we are called to reach. All of these issues are also found to impact the church and are found inside the church in one degree or another. May God have mercy on the world. May God have mercy on our communities. May God have mercy on us.
The UMC is also confronted with significant challenges today.
Over the past year, the church has increasingly wrestled with the question, “Can an annual conference vote itself out of the UMC?” Judicial Council Decision 1444 provided clarity to that question. I quote from the digest of that decision. “The General Conference is the only body that can regulate the process and set the conditions for an annual conference in the United States to leave the United Methodist connection. While an annual conference has the reserved right to vote on disaffiliation, the General Conference must first enact enabling legislation to establish the right to withdraw but has not done so for conferences in the United States.” Until there is a General Conference that passes necessary legislation, “There is no basis in Church law for any annual conference to adopt stopgap policies, pass resolutions, take a vote, or act unilaterally for the purpose of removing itself from The United Methodist Church.” (Digest of 1444).
These developments create an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety. I would like every church to remain in the UMC, but recognize that is simply not possible in this era. To create clarity amid a changing landscape, I have shared four values that the Conference aspires to practice as we work through the issues of the day. The Oklahoma Conference seeks to be fair, cautious, contextual, and Christ-like as we develop processes for congregations who disaffiliate and clergy who withdraw from the denomination.
In the quote from Decision 1444, the Judicial Council affirmed that an Annual Conference has the reserved right to vote on the disaffiliation of churches within the conference. Last year, I appointed Tish Malloy as the Director of Transitional Ministries. She led in the creation of the Oklahoma Denominational Transitions Team to help navigate the processes. The team is composed of persons from various theological perspectives. It seeks to answer questions, provide resources and support, and to reassure both churches and clergy on the journey. Excellent materials have been and are being developed to help. Be watching for an educational program, sponsored by the conference, that will be rolled out in July and August through your districts.
Because of the complexities facing the Church and Annual Conference, many of which are beyond our control, I have issued the call for a special session of the Oklahoma Annual Conference for October 21-22 at Church of the Servant, Oklahoma City in accordance with ¶603.5 of the Book of Discipline. The purpose of the called session is as follows:
- To worship together as an Annual Conference.
- To receive and act on a report from the Conference Board of Trustees on recommendations for disaffiliation. This report will likely include churches that have completed necessary steps for the disaffiliating process and require ratification by the Annual Conference.
- To receive and act on a report from the Conference Council on Finance and Administration. This will include the 2023 budget, which will take into account the churches that are eligible for disaffiliation in the fall.
- To receive and act on a report from the Conference Board of Pension and Health Benefits. This may include a recommendation dealing with the Retiree Health Supplement. A task force is currently studying options for that benefit and will report to the Conference Board of Pension and Health Benefits.
- To receive and act on a report from the Safe Sanctuary Task Force.
Business will be limited to the items in the call. The meeting will be held in person with 2022 annual conference members. There will be no offsite voting. Listen carefully to the reports given in this session of the Annual Conference and watch for more information about this important session.
We have a lot of work ahead of us and it is imperative that the work be done in the proper spirit. Derrek Belase, the Director of Connectional Ministries has offered this application and adaptation of the General Rules of the UMC:
“We will do no harm as a conference to churches which are staying in connection. By that, we are examining in detail how the conference budget will be underwritten by the apportionment and have appointed the taskforce on retired clergy health care.”
“We will do good to churches who feel that they must disaffiliate.” By that, we are legally suspending the trust clause to allow disaffiliating churches to keep their property, “meeting with leaders of caucus groups, continually refining our disaffiliation process under paragraph 2553 and asking the Denominational Transition Team to begin working in processes that will be available to churches after January 1, 2024.”
“We will attend upon the ordinances of God by continuing to practice them even in the midst of all these transitions as we rekindle the gifts of God in our lives.”
Members and guests of the Annual Conference, there is a lot happening in the church. It is easy to become overwhelmed, discouraged, and defeated. I remind you that Paul felt betrayed. He faced an uncertain future. He writes in 2 Timothy 1:15, “You know that everyone in Asia has turned away from me.” Yet, in the very next sentence, he finds reasons for gratitude.
One way to look at 2 Timothy is that it contains a strategy for dealing with difficult times in the church. His strategy was to encourage the younger pastor, Timothy, reminding him to rekindle the gifts of God.
The same strategy applies today. It applies to the Church Universal. It applies to every pastor, licensed or ordained. It applies to every church, regardless of the denominational affiliation in the future.
“Paul writes, “I’m reminding you to rekindle God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands. God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid, but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.” (2 Timothy 1:6-7 CEV).
As I was preparing this address, the words of a hymn written by Harry Emerson Fosdick kept coming into my mind. I share the words of the first verse with you as I close. “God of Grace and God of Glory, on thy people pour thy power; crown thine ancient church’s story; bring her bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of this hour.”
May the prayers for wisdom and courage expressed in this hymn be ours today, for the facing of this hour. Oklahoma Conference, rekindle the gifts of God in you!