AC 2020: State of the Church Address
Editor’s note: This address was originally given during a virtual meeting of the Annual Conference. The names of each speaker are given before their remarks, sometimes jointly. Visual references for the live event have been removed for easier reading in print; facts and statistics have not been changed.
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Greetings in the Name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! May the peace of Christ be with you.
The pandemic has been a catalyst for disruption, although it is not the sole cause. Who would have thought that this disruption would hit our families, jobs, communities, and churches as hard as it has? The spiritual and emotional energies spent in responding is all consuming.
Our society is experiencing disruption at every level. Disruption moves through our lives like a rushing river that floods its banks and goes where it will. Disruption carves out new pathways for raging waters to flow. Nothing is safe in the pathway of disruption.
Our clergy and churches are among the people and groups responding. While we may not get the headlines, the effort is genuine, consistent, and extends the love and care of Jesus Christ to the world around us. Thank God for each of you.
In the Book of Acts, every disruption opened the way for the church to go beyond itself. In Acts 4, the arrest of early leaders served to multiply the witness beyond its beginnings. In Acts 6, a justice issue coupled with severe persecution resulted in people being set apart for ministry and the gospel message moving beyond the boundaries.
In Acts 10, God’s dream and the work of the Holy Spirit woke Peter to a broader vision that propelled the gospel beyond the Jewish people. In Acts 13, the Spirit moved the church at Antioch to send Barnabas and Saul to extend the church beyond itself to all humanity.
In our theme text, Philippians 2:1-4, Paul is experiencing disruption as he wrote the letter while in prison. He wrote, “If there is any encouragement, any love, any sharing in the Spirit, and sympathy…” I want to pause and think about that last word: “Sympathy.” It seems out of place. What does it mean?
In this case, it is not used to express sympathy to someone who has experienced loss. Instead, Paul uses the word this way: “an affinity, association, or relationship between people or things so that whatever affects one affects the other or others.” Similar concepts are “to be in agreement” or “to approve something harmoniously.”
The concept of sympathy as affinity simply expresses the idea that we are in a spiritual relationship with each other. The theme of this conference is “To Affinity and Beyond.” Its point is that we have an affinity, or a spiritual relationship with each other. And it is out of that affinity with each other that we go beyond ourselves and embrace the mission of the church, which is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
We come together because of our affinity with one another. We move beyond ourselves to fulfill the mission of Jesus Christ. One without the other is incomplete. Hence, “To Affinity and Beyond.” When we come together and move beyond, disruption does not have the last word. Innovation overcomes disruption, just as light overcomes darkness.
I am so very proud of our pastors, leaders, churches, and agencies. You have stepped up in so many ways. I want to share some stories where people have come together, then moved beyond themselves to serve.
Tish Malloy and Randy Compton: Extension Ministries
As the Bishop said, our churches and extension ministries have gone beyond, even beyond what they thought they could do in responding to this pandemic.
(Let us) take you on a journey around this annual conference to let you in on how our churches have made a difference in their communities during this last year.
Our first stop is in the Northern Prairie and the community of Waukomis. They have traditionally spearheaded a drive to purchase school supplies for every child enrolled at Waukomis Public Schools, culminating in a cookout where supplies are handed out.
This rural church was not deterred in their mission to support the school during the pandemic. The request went out and the funds came in, just like clockwork. The supplies were gathered in the church sanctuary. The teachers gathered the supplies for their students and handed them out, as if this was what they had always done!
Many of our churches found that normal worship was no longer possible when the virus became so prevalent. In the Heartland District, Pauls Valley and pastor Diana Pruitt thought creatively of ways to meet both the guidelines and the congregation and community’s need to connect safely.
They utilized the enclosed park adjacent to their property and practiced safety protocols for the worship and glory of God. The pastor took her authority to not allow folks in who would not follow the guidelines. The services and related ministry went on effectively until the congregation was able to return indoors.
The same could be said of Rev. Tim Trujillo and the people of Antlers in the Lake Country District. They quickly began online worship but did not stop there. They began developing new ideas for continued ministry to children and youth. They engaged them through Facebook live on a weekly basis. Pastor Tim and his wife, Vicky, conducted the sessions and created strong bonds.
In the Crossroads District, Rev. Carlos Ramirez at Putnam City UMC has led both English and Spanish speaking congregations throughout the pandemic with an excellent online presence.
In addition, he has been creative in being responsive to spiritual needs of the church. One church member’s testimony: “I recently mentioned to a church friend that I sure miss having communion at my church. Today, I received such a sweet visit! Pastor Carlos Ramirez came to my front sidewalk, prayed for me and my family and gave me communion! My last communion was the first Sunday in March!”
There were other ways churches dealt with sacraments. Green Country’s Kip Heately at Muldrow-Roland Trinity hosted “drive by” communion, having blessed the elements online, an outreach that had people from other churches coming through from as far away as Ft. Smith, AR.
For other churches, mission and outreach has been impacted but with tremendous creativity. Lawton-Centenary in the Wichitas District has engaged their youth group by continually preparing and delivering blessing boxes to people in need. They all follow safety guidelines offered by CDC and the Conference. They have delivered over 1,000 blessing boxes since they began.
In the Council Oak District, Owasso Public Schools started a Virtual School Campus (VSC). When the pastors at Owasso-First heard that OPS would begin the school year with online learning, they began praying and imagining a way to provide a safe place for the children of church members who needed their kids to engage in online learning.
They had the space and wifi capacities, and they recruited servants to coordinate, feed, monitor, and shepherd the students through their days. A retired school administrator immediately volunteered to run the ministry. This continued until Owasso returned to in person learning.
Turpin and Baker in the Oklahoma panhandle’s Cimarron district led the way in live-streaming interactive services on Facebook, housing drive-in and drive-up communion, hosting outside church services and recording a Bible Study Series which airs each week on Wednesday Night called “Wednesday Night in the Word.”
Their pastor, Reece Player said, “each piece of this has been expressed by some at different times to be encouraging, needed, and helpful.”
These are eight examples and represent only a small fraction of what has happened across the 77 counties of this great state. We are indebted to your work and affirm all you have done.
Derrek Belase: Pandemic Response
At the conference level, we did not stop new initiatives during the pandemic.
The Rural Church Commission, along with our partners at the Oklahoma United Methodist Foundation, gave out nearly $15,000 in technology grants to help churches as they have navigated technology needs and updates to move online. These dollars went to assist over 25 churches in the conference.
We undertook three significant online training initiatives: a six-week worship planning series hosted by Marcia McFee for 81 unique churches in the conference; suicide prevention training and a series of one-hour webinars with our partners at Crisis Care Ministries; and a virtual mission and education program called “Branching Out.”
Our disaster response program has been active in the northeast part of the state for many months. As of today, they are working cases in 27 counties involving over 100 communities. To date, 117 households have achieved their recovery plans; 220 cases are closed, 320 remain open. This work will continue through June 2021.
In addition to that major project, the Oklahoma Conference Disaster Response team obtained and distributed 125,000 masks and 1,320 gallons of hand sanitizer to schools, churches and health care facilities throughout the state.
Family Camps allowed families to spend a weekend at one of our conference’s three camp grounds during the month of July. Each family that registered stayed in their own cabin to help maintain a safe social distance from other campers, and meal times were staggered when safe distancing was not possible in the dining hall. Around 160 people participated in this program.
Thanks to the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Tulsa Area COVID-19 Response Fund and state CARES Act funds, Restore Hope Ministries in Tulsa was able to pay the past due rent for more than 800 families with pending eviction cases in Tulsa County. That’s 1.8 million dollars. As executive director Jeff Jaynes said, “We had a crisis before COVID-19 ever hit,” referring to the 14,000 evictions the previous year.
In the area of new work, we celebrate Charis Alive and an initiative in south Oklahoma City as well as the Kingdom Fellowship in Tulsa.
At Charis Alive, Rev. Victoria Lee developed an English class in conjunction with OU Wesley Foundation to reach 125 participants and started 2 Meet Me Mom groups with over 90 women signed up. They began a new online worship service called Family Blessing on November 8.
Rev. Michael Long and Rev. Gwendolyn Derrick were appointed July 1, 2020 to lead an African American led church in Tulsa which is preparing to observe the 100th Anniversary of the Race Massacre. It is called Kingdom Fellowship. Their Vision Statement is: “Kingdom Fellowship seeks to build a community of faith for the Northside in North Tulsa one life at a time by the Holy Spirit’s power through hand-to-hand partnerships that promote sustaining health, education, economic and spiritual transformation.” May it be so at this crucial time in the city of Tulsa.
Finally, in south Oklahoma City, Rev. Josue Araujo and Rev. Kevin Tankerson are developing a new, multiethnic church anchored at Lambuth and The Christ Experience. The ministry would reach the south Oklahoma City area and downtown. This is a challenging task, but having their leadership on the ground is helpful in identifying ways to initiate a new ministry.
Initiatives such as these and so many more allow us as United Methodists to minister to groups that we have not been effective in reaching, making disciples and transforming the world.
Joe Harris: Conference Initiatives
The Annual Conference has responded in several ways to the changes in our churches brought about because of COVID, the unrest in our land and the unsettled nature to life as we have known it. We created two web pages that provided resources at the beginning of the pandemic and additional resources and guidelines that outlined what churches should consider when planning reopenings. Most of the content was created by Oklahomans for Oklahomans. These resources are continually updated to provide our leaders with the most current information.
The reopening guidelines were crafted by conference staff in conjunction with doctors from several of our local churches, the CDC recommendations and the Oklahoma Center for Non-Profits.
We also created weekly communications email blast updates that keep the conference informed with the latest information to help local churches ministries during this pandemic.
The conference has also responded to the demonstrations and heightened racial awareness across Oklahoma. We created a web page that contains resources, curriculum, videos and articles that help us deal with racism and discrimination where we find them in our communities and in our churches.
The extended cabinet has joined with leadership of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference to jointly study the book “CASTE” by Isabell Wilkerson. This book examines the history of racism and discrimination in the world as well as in our country. It offers in-depth challenges to everyone and opportunities to move forward in fair and equitable ways. Plans are to expand this study to clergy and laity.
Rev. Bessie Hamilton has assumed the position of conference coordinator of multi-ethnic ministries. Her experience as co-pastor of OKC-Quayle, leadership at the Langston University Wesley Foundation and her 20 years’ experience in community development brings needed skills in empowerment to our ethnic ministries.
The conference has changed it structure to include the new Minority Local Church Committee brought together by various groups in the conference sitting at a common table. We are also looking at Tulsa next year to have possible Orders meeting in May to observe the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre.
The Conference Communications Ministry continues to work to bring news from around the conference weekly. The ministry helped produce the TV special seen throughout the state this spring. It was put together in two weeks by Communications staff and funded by donors to the conference. Broadcast in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Lawton and Chickasha, the special told stories of conference partners OCU, OIMC, Circle of Care and the OKUM Foundation. More than 22,000 watched the special with another 1,905 viewing it on YouTube, 1,964 on Facebook and 126 on Instagram.
The Communications Ministry also worked closely with GNTV to provide the virtual conference.
The 2021 budget for the Oklahoma Annual Conference was approved with the removal of conference coverage for CCLI/CVLI. Individual churches will need to add this cost to their 2021 church budgets. Renewal information will be sent out in January 2021. Information about CCLI, CVLI and OneLicense were sent to ministry leaders by email on Dec. 8. If you have additional questions after reading the provided information, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.