From June 3 to June 6, 2021, the Virtual Michigan Annual Conference traveled through a strange land toward a new day singing songs of joy, peace, justice, courage, and hope.
Senior Content Editor
June 8, 2021 | LANSING – The Virtual Michigan Annual Conference was broadcast from the Lansing Public Media Center, June 3-6, 2021. Bishop David Alan Bard presided over his second online session. At the beginning of his sermon during opening worship on Thursday evening, Bard commented, “The is the third session of the Michigan Annual Conference, and we will now have had more sessions for this newly created annual conference virtually than in person. Strange.” Throughout the session, traditional elements of the Annual Conference were made possible by technological innovations.
Mark Doyal, Michigan Conference Director of Communications and Executive Producer of the Annual Conference, remarked, “Last year’s event was a 19-hour blend of recorded and live-action. This year’s Virtual Annual Conference provides 37 hours of legislative committee work, worship, plenary sessions, and teaching. It is the most challenging video project in my 40 years in the business. It was a remarkable effort.” More than 180 people contributed to the effort that spanned six weeks of shooting over 300 segments of video.
The highest priority, according to Doyal, was “for the technology to not get in the way of the Holy Spirit. Our objective is that Annual Conference feels like what members are accustomed to experiencing.” Click here for more about the production of the 2021 Virtual Michigan Annual Conference.
Of course, all of that was done with COVID-19 safety protocols in place. Pre-taping and live segments were filmed on a giant, well-ventilated sound stage at less than 20% capacity, using robotic cameras. Low tech measures like masks, soap, and significant “elbow room” paid off. “We succeeded in our efforts. We had zero COVID,” Doyal reported.
Preachers and teachers
Members of the AC 2021 were blessed by the prophetic, wise, and passionate words shared by God’s messengers.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Wilson taught on the topic, “Intentional, Intergenerational Discipleship through Worship,” on Friday afternoon, June 4. Wilson is the Executive Director of Worship Resources at Discipleship Ministries. With multi-cultural and historical references, she talked reflected on the conference theme, “Singing the Lord’s Song.” “I have a feeling,” Wilson said, “that if we really get serious about the ways in which we can sing the Lord’s song, even in strange times, even in COVID, we can sing and never get tired.” Read more here. Wilson came back to the stage on Saturday morning to lead opening worship. She reminded members that this is a challenging time, similar in some respects to the period of Jewish exile in Babylon referenced in Psalm 137. “There are times you just don’t feel like blessing the Lord
This is just the time to reach into our souls, reclaim our song, even in the valley of the shadow of death!” Wilson proclaimed. Read more here.
This year the Laity Event was focused on inspiration and teaching rather than orientation. The guest keynoter was Derrick Scott lll, Campus Minister for the Campus to City Wesley Foundation in Jacksonville and St. Augustine, FL. His theme, “More than JUST a lay person,” was an invitation to the laity to be what the Book of Discipline calls them to be. Calling laity “the gospel on the ground,” Scott said laity “are the ones who can go to places that our clergy sometimes can’t get to” … in an algebra classroom … as an accountant … to government and public service … foodservice … the board room … the hospital room … in construction. He added, “Friends, if we are not living out our evangelistic call to be the gospel on the ground for the sake of the world, to be the hands and feet and heart and life of Jesus, then how will people ever, on a regular basis, know that there’s a God in Heaven who loves them?” Conference Lay Leader Annette Erbes, and Associate Director for Lay Leadership Development, Laura Witkowski, helped lead the presentation. Read more here. See also the report of the Conference Lay Leader shared Friday, June 4.
Four conference preachers – Bishop David Bard, Rev. Jonathan Mays, Pastor Anna Moon, and the Rev. Paul Perez – all shared thoughts on Psalm 137 and the difficulty of singing the Lord’s song in the strange land of 2021. In Opening Worship on Thursday night, the bishop noted, “We live in that tension between every place being a little strange and every place being home. And we live in extraordinarily strange times now. In this time, in this place, we are to follow Jesus in ways that amaze and astonish, that lead people to new shores and help calm the seas along the way.” On Friday morning, the pastor of Greensky Hill UMC, the Rev. Jonathan Mays, asserted, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song? By first listening, really listening, to the Lord’s song in everyone else. By hearing and recognizing the voice of Christ in every song. Every human. Every people. Every song. … It could be good.” The Rev. Anna Moon explained in her sermon on Friday afternoon, “Jesus physically came down to this strange, foreign land teaching us to sing the Lord’s song so we can remember whose we are, where we are from and where we are headed!! Jesus teaches us to sing the Lord’s song and let our lives be songs to the Lord as we have marks of Jesus Christ, so others will know that we are his disciples.” On Saturday afternoon, the Rev. Paul Perez pivoted from Psalm 137 to Psalm 98, issue a challenge, “Can we yet, be a church that not only sings the Lord’s song in a strange land, but a church that sings to God a brand-new song? The answer is simple. But it is not easy. What new song would you sing?” Read more here.
Main actions of AC 2021
How did the 2021 Michigan Annual Conference make a big difference? Sunday, June 6, was named a Day of Action, launching an initiative for food security for children across Michigan. As of this writing, a total of $27,488 had been raised by those walking, running, and biking around the state. Individuals, groups, and entire congregations participated in the second annual “Virtual 5K.” On Saturday afternoon of the conference, Bishop Bard answered the question, “Why do all the bibs have the number 26?” He said, “26 appears on all bibs because 26% of the children in Michigan experience food insecurity. So we walk, we run, we move to make that number smaller.”
And now the total raised is $26,127 and growing. Read more here. See photos submitted by 5K participants on Facebook at #MIUMC5K. If a psalm were to be chosen to describe this incredible effort, it would be Psalm 128:1 … “Happy is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways.”
Saturday, June 5, was a day given largely to legislative action. Members approved three resolutions that supported the Anti-Bias/Anti-Racism Working Group (ABAR) formed by Bishop Bard last November “as essential to our journey with Jesus Christ.” R#2021-10 Affirmed the purpose, membership, organization, and amenability of the group. R#2021-11 Directs the Board of Ordained Ministry and Cabinet to create and implement training and support for clergy and congregations in Cross Racial/Cross Cultural appointments. R#2021-12 Makes ABAR education and training a requirement for active clergy, conference, and district staff to begin in 2022. ABAR co-chairs, the Rev. Dr. B. Kevin Smalls and the Rev. April Gutierrez, presented the work of the group on Friday. The Rev. Darryl Totty, Chair of the Conference Leadership Council, also reported on Friday morning. He announced four points of the Strategic Direction of the Annual Conference, which included “Building the Beloved Community: intentional inclusion and the dismantling of systemic racism.” Totty thanked Bishop Bard and the Anti-Bias/Anti-Racism Working Group for helping the conference “confront institutional racism and our racism in the community and the church.” He called the work “essential to our journey with Jesus. Racism is antithetical to the gospel.” Read his remarks here.
AC 2021 acted on the Covenant between Michigan and Liberia annual conferences. The relationship began in 1999 with the Detroit Conference. Covenant Ministry Chair Jon Reynolds stated, “It is unclear whether Michigan and Liberia conferences will end up in the same denomination after the next General Conference. … I am thankful for the relationships that we have built with our sisters and brothers in Liberia. I celebrate that we can find common cause in ministries addressing basic human rights and essential community development.” Members agreed with his perspective, approving R#2021-18, the Covenant and working understandings, by a 98% vote of affirmation in Legislative Committee, placing it on the Consent Calendar adopted Friday morning. Bishop Bard noted, “This is a gift of our global Church. It is a relationship that will continue to bear fruit. The Michigan Conference has the opportunity to give and to learn and receive. In that, there is grace.”
After much passionate debate, clergy and laity in the virtual plenary approved a statement supporting overcoming Christian Nationalism (R#2021-17). This to be done by condemning attacks on the U.S. and Michigan State capitols, studies of Christian Nationalism, and signing on to the movement, https://www.christiansagainstchristiannationalism.org/statement. Conference members voted to transfer camping funds from a designated account administered by the Michigan Conference to the Michigan Area Board of Christian Camping’s account with the United Methodist Foundation of Michigan. (R#2021-15) Passage of R#2021-7 created a working group to explore the reduction of districts by at least one, effective no later than January 1, 2023.
The General Conference of 2020, now to be held in 2022, cast a shadow on the 2021 Michigan Annual Conference. The debate of two resolutions included reference to the denomination’s legislative assembly and the Book of Discipline that it produces.
A resolution titled, Inclusiveness of the Michigan Conference (R#2021-14) added a section to the Conference Plan of Organization concluding with this statement: Nor shall any lay or clergy member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, ministry, governance of the conference, local church, or other organizational unit of the conference because of race, color, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, relationship, ability, national origin, status, or economic condition. There was much debate, with passion on both sides. Some felt “the time is now.” Others called for “patience until things are more clear after General Conference.” Some said a vote postponing the resolution would promote unity in the conference. Others asserted that passing the resolution was a statement of identity, a clear articulation of the how the Michigan Conference will live together now and after the General Conference. One clergy member asserted, “I am a delegate to the next General Conference. This relates to our conferences separate from what may or may not happen in another year and a half. There is nothing in this resolution that dictates any breaking of the rules of The Book of Discipline. This annual conference can articulate the vision for how we will live in Christian fellowship inclusive of everyone.”
A motion to postpone the vote indefinitely was defeated. Members offered no further amendments. The resolution passed with approval of 68%. Following the lunch break, Bishop Bard announced that someone made a request for a ruling of law on R#2021-14. He explained that a bishop has 30 days to issue such a ruling, which is then sent to the Judicial Council for review.
Bishop Bard ruled out of order R#2021-6, requesting a “Vote on which post-separation church to join” during the 2021 annual conference session. The resolution was not supported in the Legislative Committee by a vote of 52 yes and 80 no. The Bishop explained his decision, which did not allow a vote to bring the resolution to the Saturday afternoon plenary. He stated: 1) An annual conference does not have the authority to vote to leave the United Methodist Church 2) the rationale of the resolution suggests a “chain of decision-making” beyond simple discernment and 3) the resolution does not include complete information about the possible “denominational futures” that could emerge from General Conference. The Bishop also made distinctions between R#2021-6 and the straw poll taken at the 2019 Michigan Annual Conference. The 2019 action was “clearly aspiration,” predicated on the change in the Book of Discipline by General Conference and “non-binding.” R#2021-6 “assumes that powers will be granted that currently are not in our purview” and “seems to indicate that it is something more [than a straw poll].” See the Bishop’s full statement here.
The final piece of legislation involved dollars and cents. Members passed the 2022 Budget of $12,009,984 (found in detail here). The Rev. Brad Bartelmay, chair of the Conference Council on Finance and Administration, noted: 1) this is a decrease of 4% from 2021; 2) Benefits Budget of $3,720,000 is the same as 2021; 3) no increases in salary of superintendents or wages of conference staff; 4) General Church apportionments were based on the last quadrennium since General Conference has not met. See more remarks from Bartelmay here.
General Conference Delegation reports
General Conference took center stage on Friday afternoon when co-Chairs of the Michigan Conference Delegation to General and Jurisdictional Conferences made a joint presentation.
Laura Witkowski and the Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai spoke of the early months following their election at the 2019 Michigan Annual Conference. “The Michigan Delegation is the youngest and most diverse ever elected,” Witkowski said. “We began our service expecting a General Conference in May 2020,” Bigham-Tsai noted. “We developed a Vision Statement and began reading the 1,061 pages of information and legislation in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate (ADCA).” Witkowski reminded members that it was a special Michigan Annual Conference in March 2020 that sent the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation to the docket of that 2020 General Conference.
When the pandemic struck and the Commission on the General Conference postponed the assembly not once but twice, the Michigan Delegation began to meet on Zoom. “Dust has been gathering on our ADCA, but we have not been idle,” Witkowski remarked. The co-chairs outlined ways they have prayed for The Michigan Conference and participated in the Intercultural Development Inventory, “beginning the work of dismantling racism in the UMC.” They also outlined how delegation members have been active in connectional ministries in and beyond Michigan.
“As a delegation, we have constantly sought connection,” Witkowski noted. “We met with the Minnesota delegation, with whom we share Bishop Bard. We attended the Pre-General Conference Briefing and met with other NCJ delegates in Illinois and with local churches — Troy UMC and Big Beaver UMC. We have also worked with delegates around our worldwide connection on the future of the UMC, affirming the Christmas Covenant and continue to support the Protocol.”
A reading of sections of the Delegation’s Vision Statement ended the report of the Delegation. Click here for the entire report.
Celebrating the singers
In a year when COVID-19 kept people apart from their family, friends, and church, members of the 2021 Michigan Annual Conference were just glad to get together again, even if online. They took special joy in celebrating what the people of God can do when they put their faith to work during a pandemic. Clergy milestones were recognized. Honors — the Harry Denman Award, the John Buxton Award, and One Matters Award — were bestowed. Conference Preacher Cynthia Wilson said, “I came to Michigan because you have a rich history of song.” These are some of the folks who have kept us singing.
On Saturday, June 5, the Rev. Dirk Elliott, Michigan Conference Director of Congregational Vibrancy, named the Rev. Eric Nduwa Mulanda recipient of the 2021 Harry Denman Evangelism Award. “During this year, the worship attendance at Mount Hope UMC has increased by 9%,” Elliott reported. “The church celebrated 17 baptisms … took in 15 new members.” In addition, Mount Hope has started a virtual campus in Sarasota, FL, and a Thursday midnight prayer meeting utilizing Free Conference Call. “During the 11 months that Eric has been the lead pastor, he has visited 80% of his congregation,” Elliott said. “He goes to their homes and stands outside and talks to them through the window or screen door.” COVID-19 has clearly not slowed down Pastor Eric Mulanda’s evangelistic zeal or love for God’s people. Mulanda responded, “Yes, indeed, it has been a tough year for all of us to serve God and God’s people during this pandemic. It was tough, but I have come to realize that the goodness of God and his presence has been with us always, as it says in Matthew 28:20. … His promise of being with us never said he would leave us during a pandemic.”
The Rev. Don Emmert concluded his report as Director of Benefits and Human Resources on Friday morning, June 4, by announcing the 2021 recipient of the annual John Buxton Award for Creative Leadership. Emmert said, “This year’s recipient is a 36-year clergy member of the annual conference. Having known this person for probably 15 of those years, I believe I am safe in describing his ministry as one of balance, deriving from a deep personal faith in Jesus Christ translated into a driving passion for Christian service.” Emmert continued, “As the first Director of Connectional Ministries, his voice in these formative conversations and hands-on responsiveness to the resulting tasks was an important contribution to the birth of the new conference. It is that leadership we affirm today,” Emmert concluded, as he spoke the name of the Rev. Benton Heisler, recently retired Director of Connectional Ministry. In accepting the honor, Benton Heisler said, “I give praise to God that He was willing to trust me with the gifts and opportunities He provided so that in some small way the Gospel of Jesus Christ could be proclaimed and lives could be changed.” He named colleagues who gave him “generous support and unwavering commitment as we served together.” Finally, Heisler gave special thanks to the laity. “It has been a steady presence of the laity in my life, who have truly made the difference, and without whom, the Church would struggle mightily.”
Discipleship Ministries invites every annual conference to nominate a church to receive the One Matters Award. Nominees excel at making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, explained the Rev. Gary Step, Michigan Conference Associate Director of Congregational Vibrancy. Monique French has pastored Washington Heights UMC in Battle Creek since July 2020. “Appointed during the pandemic, she hit the ground running, casting vision and creating hope for the future,” Step said as he announced the award on Saturday morning. Pastor French described the ways the church has been active during the pandemic. “We have truly been a hub of hope,” French said. For example, they addressed hunger, providing 300 families food each week. In addition, volunteers distributed PPE to neighbors and hosted a micro vaccination clinic in partnership with the Calhoun County Health Department. “We believe we exist not just for ourselves but as an extension of hope rooted in love for the people in the community,” French concluded.
On Saturday afternoon, the Rev. Barry Petrucci, Chair of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, introduced those approved in the Clergy Session in 2020 for Provisional Membership and Commissioning as Deacons and Elders. He also named those approved last year for full membership and ordination. (See listing.) The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Browne, Director of Clergy Excellence for the conference and soon-to-be Clergy Assistant to the Bishop, presented the 2021 candidates for clergy membership. (See listing). Petrucci introduced the 2020 and 2021 graduates of the Course of Study. (See listing.)
COVID-19 left its mark on the lives of these clergypersons. Petrucci thanked the 2020 classes of those to be commissioned and ordained for their patience in waiting a year. Browne remarked, “The new Provisional and Full Members of the Class of 2021 were the first — and we hope the last — to go through the candidacy and interview process completely online.” And the Historic Questions, posed by the bishop to clergy candidates since the days of John Wesley, were asked virtually for the first time in The Michigan Conference. Photos of 2020 and 2021 Candidates for Ordination and Commissioning can be found on pages 34-39 of the Conference Program Guide.
The Rev. Chris Lane, Chair of the Order of Elders, joined Browne on stage to read the names of those who retired from ordained and licensed ministry in 2020 and 2021. There were 77 names read. (See listing.) Information and statements about the retirees may be found on the Annual Conference website.
On Saturday morning, Conference Preacher/Teacher Cynthia Wilson told the conference, “I hope you sing until the power of the Holy Spirit comes down. How are you singing? You cannot let trouble interrupt your prayers!” The Michigan Annual Conference members are grateful for the lives of these Elders, Deacons, and Local Pastors who have risen above trouble and who pray without ceasing.
Numbers that matter
During the Corporate Session on Friday morning, June 4, Jim LeBaron, Chair of the Conference Board of Trustees, presented one church completing the process for withdrawal from The Michigan Conference. Members voted to approve the disaffiliation of Duffield United Methodist Church.
The Rev. Dr. Jerry DeVine, Dean of the Cabinet, celebrated the legacies of five chartered churches and one church start recommended for closure at the 2021 Michigan Annual Conference. They are Arbela UMC, Freeport UMC, Griffith UMC, Mosaic UM New Church Start, Pleasant Lake UMC, and Wayne First UMC. After thanksgiving for their ministry and prayer, conference members voted to approve the closure of these churches.
Number of persons ordained Elder: 5 (2020) and 7 (2021)
Number of persons ordained Deacon: 1 (2020) and 0 (2021)
Number of persons commissioned Elder: 11 (2020) and 4 (2021)
Number of persons commissioned Deacon: 1 (2020) and 2 (2021)
Local Pastors graduating from Course of Study: 8 (2020) and 4 (2021)
Number of clergy retired in 2020 and 2021: 77
Membership in 2020 stands at 112,466, down 5,053 or 4.3%
Average Worship Attendance in 2020 stands at 43,913, down 14,397 or 25%
Average Sunday School Attendance in 2020 stands at 10,630, down 4,943 or 32%
Professions or reaffirmations of faith 2020 were 853 down 1,061 or 55%
Adult/YA in small groups for 2020 was 23,837, down 6,669 or 21.8%
Mission engagement for 2020 was 29,343, down 8,689 or 22.85%
~ Note: Videos of the sessions of the 2021 Virtual Michigan Annual Conference may currently be viewed on Facebook. Coming soon to Vimeo. A summary video of Annual Conference will also be available soon.