This month-by-month review of 2020 in The Michigan Conference reports many challenges of COVID-19. It also tells the story of how God’s people met those challenges with determination and grace.
Senior Content Editor
A year ago, The Michigan Conference entered New Year 2020 with General Conference in mind. Bishop Bard shared views on the newly announced “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace,” and the possibility of a split in the denomination consumed the energy and thinking of many across the connection. Who knew that the 2020 General Conference would not be held in Minneapolis in May as scheduled? Michigan’s delegates to the General and Jurisdictional Conferences endorsed the Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai for the episcopacy, little knowing that the North Central Jurisdictional Conference would also be postponed.
Life in the church–global and local–continued, as we had come to know and expect, through the first ten weeks of 2020. However, a special called session of The Michigan Annual Conference was certainly outside the normal pattern of things. On March 7, 2020, members voted to advance “the Protocol” to General Conference, becoming one of three annual conferences to do so; the only conference in the U.S. Who knew, as they sat in the pews of Goodrich Chapel, that six days later, Michigan United Methodists would begin a journey on an extraordinary path. On March 13, in light of actions by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Bishop Bard would ask congregations to refrain from all in-person gatherings through the end of the month. As COVID-19 advanced around the world and across the state, that recommendation stretched well past Easter. It was the Michigan Annual Conference that was next to be postponed and shifted to a virtual format.
By June 1, Conference leadership had provided guidelines for safe re-opening of churches, and, for some, life returned to normal, albeit a “new normal” with masks, social distancing, and a variety of outdoor worship venues. Others continued with online discipleship. Conference leadership developed concepts, tools, and resources to support pastors and local churches. The Virtual Michigan Annual Conference was the ultimate expression of hundreds of Zoom experiences happening around the state.
As harsh weather returned to Michigan and coronavirus continued to take its dim toll, congregations went online again with their efforts to make disciples and transform the world. It was announced that Annual Conference 2021 would again be virtual for Part 1, with a Part 2 in October yet to be determined. Conference leadership moved forward with plans to address systemic and personal racism at all levels of United Methodist life in Michigan. The year ended with Conference staff providing original and engaging Advent-Christmas resources for local churches.
Perhaps this line from the hymn, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, characterizes the feeling of many who came through ten months of laying aside tradition and learning perplexing new things. “O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.” Bishop Bard ended 2020 with an invitation to clergy to “Come to the Well” for a time of renewal. In his final blog of 2020 he said, “Even if differently, the story will be told, the story of a census, and shepherds, and angels, and Mary and Joseph, and the baby in the manger, and it will be meditated upon. ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us … from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.’ Grace upon grace for trauma upon trauma … Grace to restore a sense that we are not hapless victims of difficult circumstances but can act with thoughtfulness and kindness, can respond with care and intelligence, can offer compassion to others who are also traumatized thereby bringing some healing to them and us.”
This month-by-month summary captures the news-making events of 2020. (Note that dates are approximate, determined by when the story appeared in MIconnect.) Click on the links to return to the “rest of the story.”
January 3: Yesterday, January 2, I participated in a conference phone call with ninety members of the Council of Bishops. We were briefed on The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation that has been released today. While I am still reading and digesting the entire document (download) and the accompanying FAQs, my initial impression is that this is an extraordinarily hopeful development.
January 6: Bishop David Bard names two new district superintendents: John Kasper, Central Bay District, and LuAnn Rourke, Heritage District.
January 7: The Michigan Area Board of United Methodist Camping announced they were suspending operations at Judson Collins Camp & Retreat Center for 2020.
January 14: The Michigan Conference delegation endorsed Kennetha Bigham-Tsai for the episcopacy.
February 4: a new young adult missionary, Lauren Norton, moved to Detroit to serve at Motown Mission.
February 10: Michigan Area UM Camping names Nicole Holton the new site director at Wesley Woods Camp & Retreat Center.
February 17: announced that David Dobbs would leave his role as Treasurer and Director of Administrative Services for The Michigan Conference.
February 27: a “Gratification Exchange” took place in the sanctuary of the former Saganing Indian Mission United Methodist Church in Standish, Michigan. The Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church returned two acres of land to the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan.
March 1: Christy Miller White joined the Michigan Conference staff as the Coordinator of Youth Initiatives.
March 7: In a special session held at Albion College, The Michigan Annual Conference became the 3rd annual conference to advance a petition, “Reconciliation and Grace through Separation and Restructuring,” to General Conference. It was the only U.S. conference to do so.
March 13: Bishop David Bard recommended that Michigan United Methodist churches refrain from all in-person gatherings for the remainder of March. A Health Crisis Management web page and Tool Box was created to aid local churches struggling to stay in ministry and mission during a pandemic.
March 27: The Conference Board of Pension and Health Benefits provided financial relief to congregations through a six-month Benefits Ministry Shares Holiday starting April 1, 2020
April 6: An “Easter Watch Page” is shared on Michiganumc.org, offering a worship service with Bishop Bard along with a state-wide listing of how to access virtual worship in United Methodist churches.
May 4: We continued to celebrate the persistence and resilience of congregations to be faithful servants.
May 4: Michigan Area UM Camping announced that there would be no youth camping in 2020 in consideration of campers’ safety.
May 4: Conference leaders provide guidelines in anticipation of the eventual reopening of in-person activities in churches.
May 19: Bishop Bard announces that Annual Conference will be virtual, rather than in-person, with essential business to be done July 26-29.
May 20: dams burst in mid-Michigan after torrential overnight rain. The Michigan Conference response begins immediately with prayer, the request for a $10,000 emergency grant from UMCOR, an appeal for monetary gifts from Michigan Ums, and the collection of cleaning and hygiene kits. Accounts of flood response. More accounts.
May 20: Conference leaders provide resourcing for summer activities. When traditional programs are not possible, work a new plan.
June 1: As Governor Whitmer lifted her Stay at Home/Stay Safe order, Bishop Bard thanked churches for their patience and encouraged a safe and careful return to in-person activity.
June 8: The Full Cabinet issued a statement responding to protests created by the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Dion Johnson, and the systemic patterns that brought these tragedies about.
June 11: Michigan Area UM Camping reports a strategic plan to move into the future focused on three facilities: Wesley Woods Camp & Retreat, Lake Huron Retreat Center, and Lake Michigan Camp & Retreat.
June 15: Michigan Conference leaders offer witness and resources to help local churches prepare for persistent antiracist action in communities across the state.
June 22: The Michigan Conference Committee on African American Ministries supported the commitment to anti-racism and suggested Pathways To Justice For All. The Conference Leadership Council also stated commitment to address systemic and personal racism.
July 1: Dr. Mathew B. Johnson begins service as the 17th president of Albion College.
July 7: The North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops announced a plan proposed to and approved by the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church. The plan addressed the need for episcopal leadership for 2021. Bishop David Bard continues to serve The Michigan Area and will become the Minnesota Conference’s interim bishop on January 1, 2021.
July 26-29: The Virtual Michigan Annual Conference did essential business with efficiency and grace. Voting was done by paper mail-in ballot with results to be announced on Labor Day. Clergy Session balloting was done electronically to facilitate proper credentialing of pastors.
August 11: Mini-grants from the Conference Leadership Council were distributed by the Conference Board of Global Ministries to churches and ministries to provide resources for those at risk from COVID-19. More mini-grant reports.
August 17: Two more Global Mission Fellows area commissioned by the General Board of Global Ministries and come to Michigan: Emily Palm (NOAH Project) and Michael Bennett (Kalamazoo Wesley). Shiree Fetterly, who calls Port Huron 1st UMC home, travels to Tampa, FL as a community organizer.
August 19: With the help of a $100,000 grant from The United Methodist Committee on Relief, The Michigan Conference hires six Case Managers. Trained by UMCOR in late July, they report on their first days on the job helping survivors of the flooding in mid-Michigan.
August 31: Bishop David Bard commented on Adrian College’s announced changes in their humanities program.
September 9: Bishop David Bard announced the results of votes taken at the Virtual Annual Conference.
September 9: Churches and members of the 2020 Virtual Michigan Annual Conference supported the yearly mission ingathering at record-breaking levels totaling $62,355. Ministries in Haiti, Liberia, and mid-Michigan are grateful.
September 21: Bishop Bard announced a transition in leadership. With the Rev. Benton Heisler’s retirement, the Rev. Paul Perez would assume the role of Michigan Conference Director of Connectional Ministry on October 1, 2020.
October 5: The Michigan Conference Council on Finance and Administration hired the Rev. Don Emmert as Interim CFO as they pause their search in collaboration with GCFA.
October 12: The Rev. Darryl E. Totty, Senior Pastor of Detroit Second Grace UMC, interviewed as the new chair of the Conference Leadership Council.
October 18: The Rev. David Berkey begins ministry as the Executive Director of Michigan Area United Methodist Camping.
November 7: Judson Collins Center, closed since the end of 2019, was decommissioned as a United Methodist camp in ceremonies led by Bishop David Bard.
November 10: The Commission on the Annual Conference announced a two-part annual conference plan in 2021. A virtual session to be held June 3-6 and a gathering in October yet to be determined as in-person, virtual, or hybrid. Theme: “How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Song…?”
November 17: In response to “emerging priorities and pandemic realities,” The Michigan Conference announced staff changes to take place in July 2021: the Rev. Dr. Jennifer Browne becomes Clergy Assistant to the bishop; the Rev. John Boley, Special Assistant to the Bishop; and the Rev. Dirk Elliott, Director of Congregational Vibrancy and Leadership.
November 17: Camp Michigamme welcomed a new director, Pete Stahlbrand.
November 17: Conference staff provided Advent resourcing for local churches, including a statewide Christmas Eve Social Media Campaign.
November 23: Bishop David Bard named a working group with the primary focus of anti-bias and anti-racism. Meeting monthly, they will “cultivate resources and move to encourage our whole community to do the difficult yet lifesaving work of being anti-racist.”
December 17: an invitation issued to Michigan clergy to “Come to the Well” on January 12, 2021, a gathering for renewal in the face of how leaders have been “challenged and stretched in recent months as we seek to engage in ministry in the midst of a global pandemic.”
December 24: The ABC’s of Christmas, an online Christmas Eve Children’s Service, was offered for local churches. A four-minute message by Bishop Bard was also available online, among many other resources curated and created by Conference Staff.