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Four awards given at 2024 AC

Woman receiving an award

Faithful Michigan United Methodists committed to Christian ministry and mission were honored with special awards during the 2024 Michigan Annual Conference.

Francis Asbury Award — Connie Swinger

Named for Francis Asbury, the early American Methodist bishop, this award honors his call to establish a school near every church. “We must,” he said, “. . . give the key of knowledge to your children, and those of the poor in the vicinity of your small towns and villages.”

Today, the Francis Asbury Award, given by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, recognizes United Methodist individuals who have significantly contributed to fostering United Methodist ministries in higher education at the local, district, or annual conference level. It is awarded annually to one honoree per annual conference.

Connie Swinger received the Francis Asbury Award for her dedication and commitment to faith formation and discipleship as dean of Mission u, an annual event sponsored by United Women in Faith. Mission u centers around curricula designed to inform, enrich, and prepare United Methodists for faithful Christian living and action in the world. Last year, over 100 United Methodists of all ages met for a time of study, fellowship, and worship focused on the Lord’s Prayer and the “Living the Kin-dom” theme.

John Buxton Award — Andy Wayne

Each year, the John Buxton Award honors an individual in our annual conference who offers creative leadership in overcoming difficult challenges. There was a time when all annual conferences had sizable unfunded liabilities for clergy pensions. When John Buxton learned of this, he devised a unique plan to resolve the shortfalls, leading Michigan to become the first conference in The United Methodist Church to fund unfunded liability fully.

Man presenting budget at conference
Andy Wayne, a lay member of the Council on Finance and Administration, presents the Michigan Conference’s 2025 Annual Budget. ~ MIphoto/Jonathan Trites

Andy Wayne received the 2024 John Buxton Award for Creative Leadership. Attendees of Annual Conference may recognize Andy for his role in worship and his encyclopedic knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order, the Conference’s Plan of Organization, and the Book of Discipline. After several years on the Council on Finance and Administration, he is transitioning to the role of Legislative Coordinator, where his experience and knowledge will continue to benefit the entire conference.

Beyond his leadership roles, Andy brings a unique perspective to all that he does. His grace-filled ability to disagree without being disagreeable is especially important in our current social context. He is not afraid to have difficult conversations and supports group decisions with integrity, even when he disagrees. His deep faith, shared generously and graciously with others, is the foundation of that ability.

Harry Denman Award for Evangelism — Pastor Matt West and Rev. Rodney Gasaway

Each year, the Harry Denman Award is given to people who have shown a passion for and fruit from evangelism. This year’s awards were presented to Matt West and Rodney Gasaway.

Matt West is the pastor of Milan: Marble Memorial UMC. Under Matt’s leadership, the church adopted a new vision: “To be a welcoming neighborhood, so that all may experience God’s love and grace.” The church is living into that vision. One Sunday, when the power was out at the church, Matt reached out to the owner of a local coffee shop that was not open on Sunday mornings to see if they might worship there. Since then, they have continued to schedule occasional worship services in the coffee shop and are reaching new people.

On another Sunday, almost the entire town was without electricity. The church hosted a breakfast open to the whole community and later took leftovers to the workers restoring power.

Pastor giving a children's sermon
Pastor Matt West gives a children’s sermon during a recent worship service at Milan: Marble Memorial UMC. ~ photo courtesy church Facebook page

Matt has gone where the people are rather than trying to get the people to come where he and the congregation are gathered. He has led his people to be the church outside the walls of the church building. As a result, Marble Memorial has seen a steady stream of new attendees, including 15 to 20 children each Sunday, lowering the average age of their congregation. Matt’s philosophy is “to be in the community with the people, to develop relationships and then help them strengthen their relationship with God.”

Rodney Gasaway serves as a deacon in the areas of missions and community outreach at Livonia: Newburg UMC and Chelsea First: UMC. He is called to word, service, compassion, and justice. He believes in the need to step outside the comfort of the church to meet people where they are and accept them as they are.

Three years ago, Rodney started riding his motorcycle with his community’s Veterans of Foreign Wars riders’ group. The need for a chaplain was evident to him. As soon as he put on the leather vest with combat patches on one side and “Chaplain” on the other, individuals started approaching him at veteran events, charity rides, motorcycle rallies, and car shows, telling him their stories, good and bad, and discussing their faith journeys. Rodney realized the majority do not attend church and struggle with organized religion. Some have been hurt by the church, others find the church judgmental, while others find the church unapproachable.

Man standing next to motorcycle
Michigan United Methodists are thinking outside the box and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ in new ways. Deacon Rodney Gasaway started a Fresh Expression ministering to motorcyclists and is making a difference. ~ photo courtesy Rodney Gasaway

To better relate, Rodney enrolled in a certificate program for PTSD Counseling at Michigan State University. He also started “Fresh Expressions” training with the Michigan Conference to discover how to better serve and minister to those he meets in the motorcycle ministry. The training helped him form a nonprofit called “Pro Allies,” a support organization designed to bring active military and military veterans, law enforcement, fire and emergency medical professionals, and their immediate families together in safe environments to offer support to one another. That has led to connections with hundreds of people, bringing them closer to a new relationship with God.

One Matters Award — Grace UMC in Lansing and Rev. Leslee Fritz

Discipleship Ministries presents this award to the pastor and lay leaders of a congregation that has done significant work to grow their ministry, turning zeros from previous years into positive numbers.

“With the One Matters Award,” said Rev. Jeff Campbell, general secretary of Discipleship Ministries, “we want to lift up the importance of discipleship and help interpret across the connection what zeros in professions of faith and baptism mean and what moving away from the zeros means. Each ‘one’ in those categories represents a transformed life — a life that matters to God, and a life that should matter to us.”

Lansing: Grace UMC and Rev. Leslee Fritz, their pastor since 2021, received this year’s One Matters Award. The church’s website boldly declares, “Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves.” Grace UMC strives to live out that call daily through worship, discipleship, mission, fellowship, and more.

Two women talking
Rev. Leslee Fritz (left) enjoys a conversation at the 2024 Michigan Annual Conference. Leslee and her congregation, Lansing: Grace UMC, received the 2024 One Matters Award. ~ MIphoto/Jonathan Trites

Working together as a strong pastor/laity leadership team, Grace has grown as a place in Lansing where kids, youth, and adults can learn about God’s great love. They are an open and welcoming congregation, with everyone encouraging each other to grow in faith. The outcome of this commitment has meant a near doubling of membership in just a few years. In addition to growing through baptism and professions of faith, the congregation has grown by embracing groups of people who found themselves without a church home due to disaffiliation or closure.

The Missions Team at Grace UMC believes they should be “out of our seats and into the streets sharing the love and teachings of Jesus Christ.” They support local organizations such as Haven House, Loaves & Fishes, Christian Services, food banks, and many others. As an EngageMI church, they support missions locally, nationally, and globally. Mission Teams from the church travel domestically and internationally.

Grace UMC practices radical hospitality, which has made it a healthy place — relationally, spiritually, and financially.

Last Updated on June 17, 2024

The Michigan Conference