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Votes make history

At 7:45 pm on June 3rd, Michigan United Methodists took a major step toward union.

Senior Editor-Writer, Michigan Area

Members of the 2017 Annual Conference came to Traverse City carrying 200 pages of legislation in their suitcases. In his pre-conference blog, Bishop David Bard said,What if we included compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, and discipline in the suitcases of our hearts? We have many decisions to make and what we decide matters.” That counsel nurtured conference members as they moved through eight hours of decision-making in legislative committee and plenary.

Rules of Order were passed Thursday night, June 1, that governed the business ahead. Important “housekeeping” items for 2018—pension, housing, benefits—were cared for that evening, as well. (Items #24, #27, #25, #29, #17, #28 all approved.)

Friday was a day for doing the small group work that produced a 12-item Consent Calendar to be approved Saturday afternoon. Using good humor and grace in the chair, Bishop Bard quipped at that moment, “I know I said don’t applaud, but we just passed a whole LOT of stuff!” Loud clapping ensued. (Consent Calendar items included #5, #13, #14, #15, #16, #18, #21, #22, #23, #32, #34, and #36.)

Two year’s of work on the part of the Michigan Area Design Team came to the floor of the 2017 Annual Conference in 130 pages of report and action items. Adopting the Plan of Organization on Saturday evening was the key piece of legislation that moved Michigan United Methodists closer to a one Michigan Conference on January 1, 2018. ~mic photo/Hannah Hazen

The single bit of legislation acted upon on Friday was Item #7, introduced by the Rev. Marsha Woolley, co-chair of the Design Team as “long-standing policies necessary for our lives together.” She shared a short rhyme: “West Michigan is orange. Detroit is blue. Soon by God’s grace, we will be something new”. Three of four of those items–#8 Human Resources Policy, #9 Parsonage Guidelines, and #10 Flexible Housing Policy—passed with one enabling motion. The Covenant of Clergy Sexual Ethics & Guidelines for Our Life Together, Item #11, was referred to the Michigan Area Healthy Boundaries Task Force, chaired by Revs. David Hills and Melanie Carey, to return for action later on Saturday.

A major part of the time spent in legislation on Saturday, June 3 dealt with proposals coming from the Design Team. Marsha Woolley, explained to conference members that Item #2—Plan of Organization–was being presented in its tenth draft.

The shift away from a representative model was a recurring point of tension throughout the long debate that ensued on the Plan of Organization.

A number of amendments were made from the floor (to add a Deacon to the Conference Leadership Team; to change composition of the Communications Commission; and to increase representation of youth and young adults across the entire structure). However, the Plan of Organization eventually passed without amendment.

Two factors enabled many members to move beyond their concerns: 1) trust in the hard work done by the Design Team, that listened well along the way and 2) the understanding that nothing can be done by an Annual Conference that cannot be re-done by a future Annual Conference.

Guest teacher, Rev. Susan Beaumont, introduced conference members to the concept of “liminality,” a state of being in-between. She noted that today the United Methodist denomination, Michigan’s two conferences, and many congregations exist between something that is ending and something that has not yet begun. Her teaching was referenced several times during debate. ~mic photo/Hannah Hazen

Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai voiced it this way: “We have ways to give the Design Team feedback over the next year. This 38-page Plan of Organization has been worked on and worked on. Let’s approve this today so that we have our new Annual Conference and can move on with all necessary details. The purpose of this plan is to get ministry off the top of the hierarchy into the grassroots.”

An historic moment came at 7:45 pm June 3, 2017 when the Annual Conference approved an organizational structure. This will enable the creation of the new Michigan Annual Conference on January 1, 2019, securing the cornerstone of a two-year process. Bishop Bard said, “We will tackle districts next and I feel like singing.” He led members in, “Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord, my soul, who leads us into life.”

The Design Team’s Item #3–Nine-District Recommendation– then came before the body. The word “faith” was heard repeatedly during the comments from the floor. Woolley noted: “We have an opportunity to do a new thing that allows for creativity, synergy, and opportunity.” Good faith prevailed; no amendments were offered and the plan passed almost unanimously. The Rev. Tara Sutton led the Conference in prayer for the Bishop and District Superintendents as they step up to implement of the plan.

Item #4–Creation of a Legal and Financial Task Force– was also approved to assist Bishop Bard during next steps of shaping the Nine-District Plan. As stated by the bishop in Item #3: “The final decisions are mine, but I will strive to make them ‘our’ decisions.” The bishop, in consultation with others, will define District boundaries, then district names and office locations will be determined. New districts are to be formed and functioning by July 1, 2018.

A comprehensive 9-point proposal for pension and health benefits, Item #6, was then adopted. Glenn Wagner, Design Team co-chair remarked: “If you have health care now, you will have excellent health care in this new arrangement. If you have pension now, you will have an excellent pension.” He also noted that “the most significant change is the blended rate for health care.” West Michigan currently has a blended rate; the Detroit Conference has a 3-tier rate. The plan includes subsidies paid out of reserves in order to bridge the cost differential and relieve local churches for the next five years.

The Covenant of Clergy Sexual Ethics and Guidelines–Item #11– was passed Saturday evening when the Michigan Area Healthy Boundaries Task Force explained how they would address a concern about family members of clergy referred to them during proceedings on Friday.

Members of both the Detroit and West Michigan conferences were present and voting throughout the four days. Voting was facilitated by colored cards … blue squares for Detroit members and orange circles for West Michigan. ~mic photo/Hannah Hazen

Earlier on Saturday, legislative work began with action on five amendments to the Constitution of The United Methodist Church, presented by Rev. Dr. Charles Boayue (Detroit) and Nichea Ver Veer Guy (West Michigan), chairpersons of the General Conference Delegations. Following questions and debate, clergy and lay members in full connection voted on the amendments by written ballot.

Subjects of the amendments are as follows:

  1. Gender Equality: declares men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God;
  2. Inclusion in Membership: amends Par. 4 to add gender, ability, age, and marital status to list of characteristics that do not bar people from membership;
  3. Delegate Elections: requires open nominations from the floor of annual conference for election of delegates to General, Jurisdictional and Central conferences;
  4. Election of Central Conference Bishops: must be elected at a regular, not an extra, session unless an unexpected vacancy occurs;
  5. Bishop Accountability: provides for Council of Bishops to hold individual bishops accountable. Currently complaints are handled in the region where a bishop is elected.

The ballots will be canvassed  by the Council of Bishops and the Detroit and West Michigan conference votes will be added to those of every other United Methodist Annual Conference. In order to become church law, a constitutional amendment must receive a 2/3s majority of all Annual Conference votes cast. The Council of Bishops will announce the results after all Annual Conferences have returned their ballots.

Also on Saturday’s legislative docket: The Detroit Conference members: 1) affirmed the biblical call to be peacemakers, including restriction of first use of nuclear weapons, through study, contacts made to legislators and prayer. Two other Items–#31 Supporting the Commission on a Way Forward and #33 Resolution regarding the Just Resolution Agreement with Rev. Michael Tupper—were not approved by the plenary session. Both items called for adherence to the Book of Discipline on issues of sexuality.

West Michigan members voted to not reconsider Item #20–Cooperative Ministry Accountability—which had received non-concurrence in the Legislative Committee on Friday.

The final legislative action to be taken was the approval of the 2018 budgets for the respective conferences. Area Treasurer, David Dobbs, acknowledged this is “an uncertain time” and stated that the budget-setting done by the Conference Council on Finance and Administration of both conferences considered the financial impact on local churches and took a conservative approach. In addition, he reported that General Church apportionments for 2018 were down 1.7%

  • Item # 37–The Detroit Conference budget—was set at $8,245,602, a 3.3% increase;
  • Item #26—The West Michigan Conference budget—was set at $5,645,541, a 3.18% decrease.

Responding to a question posed after the budgets were passed, Dobbs said, “These budgets are the last remnants of the old conferences. The Bishop is creating a task force that will look at things differently. It is a new day.”

A new day indeed as the Detroit and West Michigan Conferences leave Traverse City to move ahead through 18 months of additional deliberation that will give birth to the Michigan Conference on January 1, 2019.

Click here for the Legislation Book for the detail on all Items.