2017 Annual Conference session is refreshing, rejuvenating, alive


Bishop James Swanson preaches at the Opening Worship Service of the 2017 Annual Conference Session.

The Jekyll Island Convention Center was filled with red as the South Georgia Annual Conference celebrated Pentecost and convened for its 151st session Sunday, June 4.

Meeting under the theme “Alive Together in Christ,” this year’s Annual Conference session was held June 4 through June 7 at the new, oceanfront locale.

With beautiful views, ocean breezes, and a new facility, the conference had a casual, relaxed, family friendly atmosphere.

“I have really enjoyed our South Georgia Annual Conference this year,” said Rev. Tony Crosby, pastor of Epworth United Methodist Church in Columbus. “I have always enjoyed being together at our meetings. Some see conference as a chore, but whether or not I am ‘working’ while at the conference or just attending as a part of the connection, I always find it refreshing. Being on the beach this year has added even more to the refreshing.”

Bishop R. Lawson Bryan, presiding over his first annual conference session since becoming South Georgia’s episcopal leader, thought the conference was filled with joy and hopefulness.

“I felt a very hopeful spirit that will allow us to impact our communities in a very positive way as people of hope,” he said.

He also felt that the conference theme was evident in every aspect of conference, and says he experienced being alive together in Christ with those gathered for the session.

“I feel like this is more than a slogan; I feel like this is really how the conference operates,” Bishop Bryan said. “There was a sense of aliveness, a great sense of togetherness, and a deep sense of devotion to Christ as the common bond that unites us. So I really did feel like it demonstrated what it looks like to be alive together in Christ.”

Teaching moments and practical tools

The “Alive Together in Christ” theme was woven throughout the Annual Conference session as Dr. Lovett Weems, Distinguished Professor of Christian Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, taught three sessions based on his book, “Overflow: Increase Worship Attendance and Bear More Fruit.” Each of the sessions were geared toward helping the conference achieve its goal of increasing average worship attendance by 10 percent.

On Monday, Dr. Weems challenged congregations to ask themselves, “Are we ready for guests?” and to critically assess worship services and pay attention to what is happening in the church and service. Growing churches plan, prepare, and revise, he said, always paying close attention to worship planning and what happens in the first two minutes of the worship service.

“Are you ready for guests?” Dr. Weems asked. “Make sure the ground is ready for crops.”  

On Tuesday Dr. Weems continued to give practical tools for growing worship attendance.

“Leaders ask good questions,” he said. “They don’t have to have all the answers, but ask good questions.”

He challenged the conference to pay attention to those who are present, those who are visiting, and those who are missing.

In his third and final teaching moment, Dr. Weems focused on worship that bears fruit and urged congregations to do the hard work it takes to get the desired results.

“The harvest only comes after the planting, after the plowing, after the tending.” God’s fruitfulness is sometimes long in coming, he said, but reminded us that “if churches can change, they can grow.”

Bishop Bryan presented attendees with a “Vital Signs for Healthy Congregations Assessment Tool” that can be used for personal reflection as well as direction for critical conversations within local congregations. More tools can be found at www.sgaumc.org/vitalsigns.

“The teaching sessions, the handout, “Overflow” – all of that gives us a very clear sense of direction that we do expect to see an increase in average worship attendance and that we have trained and equipped ourselves for that,” Bishop Bryan said. “We now go out of Annual Conference with a clear focus on being alive together in worship.”

Vital Signs

One highlight of this year’s Annual Conference session were the Vital Signs moments. These brief, interactive snapshots of ministries showed the various ways South Georgia agencies, ministries, and people are Alive Together in Christ.

While some used video to tell their story, others featured quick question-and-answer sessions, and others told their stories through the giving of awards, all showcased the exciting and transformative work that’s being done through South Georgia clergy and laity.

“With the new theme ‘Alive Together in Christ,’ these segments were called ‘Vital Signs’ to showcase vibrant and vital ministries happening across the South Georgia Conference,” said Allison Lindsey, associate director of Connectional Ministries. “I loved the way these ‘Vital Signs’ evolved to be so interactive, informative, and creative through the various presentations. So many great things are happening across our Conference!”

The business of Annual Conference

Other important business of the Annual Conference was attended to during plenary sessions.

During Monday’s plenary session, attendees heard the Lay Leader’s address, given by conference lay leader Gloria Morgan. Morgan highlighted the ways laity are serving their neighbors in each district and spreading the love of Christ. “South Georgia United Methodists are alive together in Christ and are telling our story,” she said.

“The laity and clergy are working together to keep our commitment to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Together we can be a conference that is alive together in Christ.”

Tuesday afternoon, the conference approved a motion brought by Rev. Josh Gale that says: “We, as the South Georgia Annual Conference, will create a team to revisit the subject of family health insurance policies specifically focused on finding options that will lower the premium. If options are found, they will be presented at the 2018 annual conference for a vote.” The Conference Board of Pensions and Health Benefits received this request and will explore options over the next year.

It also approved five standing rules changes: change in policy on Church Professional Sexual Misconduct, change in the membership of the Georgia Commission on Higher Education and Collegiate Ministry, addition of a Conflict of Interest Policy, distribution of Nominations Report at Annual Conference, change of Rules of Order. (read standing rules changes 1-4 in the Book of Recommendations, pages 24-29; read standing rule change 5 here.) The fifth change is a move from the use of Robert’s Rules of Order at Annual Conference to The Modern Rules of Order.

The Conference on Tuesday also voted on five Constitutional Amendments: Amendment 1: Gender Justice, Amendment 2: Inclusiveness, Amendment 3: Election of Delegates, Amendment 4: Episcopal Elections, Amendment 5: Accountability of Bishops. All five amendments were approved by a two-thirds vote of the 2016 General Conference and now must be ratified by a two-thirds affirmative vote of the aggregate number of voting annual members. These amendments are being voted on at every annual conference session across the connection. The vote count on each amendment will be forwarded to the Secretary of the Council of Bishops, who will collect results from the whole Church. Final certification of the results occurs at the fall meeting of the Council of Bishops, and the results will be announced then.

Tuesday afternoon the Conference also approved two resolutions: the first, a “Resolution in support of a Coordinated Action on Behalf of Undocumented Neighbors,” was written and submitted by South Georgia Hispanic pastors and allies. It calls on the presiding bishop to form a task force to develop a strategy to educate clergy and laity about the history of immigration and human and civil rights concerning undocumented members of society and to encourage South Georgia United Methodists to engage in works of piety and mercy towards their undocumented neighbors. The second resolution approved, the “Multiculturalism Taskforce Resolution,” resolves that the bishop appoint a diverse task force to consider the implications of multiculturalism education.

Wednesday morning, Denman Evangelism Awards were presented Rev. Matt Hearn, pastor of Gateway Pooler, and Teri Nave, CFO at Harvest UMC in Byron. Both Rev. Hearn and Nave shared how they are spreading the love of Christ in their local churches.

Throughout the four-day session, attendees heard four John Wesley Moments from beloved John Wesley historian Rev. Dave Hanson. In his final John Wesley moment, Rev. Hanson shared that John Wesley believed in preaching.

“But he believed in going where the people are,” he said. “He encourages us to go out and be with the people.”

During the four-day session, the Conference watched a video report from the Commission on a Way Forward; took action on nine church closings; heard the Board of Ordained Ministry report; recognized clergy who faithfully serve beyond the local church in an extension ministry appointment; received clergy into provisional membership and full conference membership; approved the Equitable Compensation Report and heard the need for a conference arrearage policy; heard the report of the conference personnel committee; approved the Board of Pensions and Health Benefits report; approved the conference trustees report; were greeted by Rev. Miguel Cancu Drullard, executive secretary of the Evangelical Church of the Dominican Republic, and Rev. Pedro Kery Johnson, president of the Evangelical Church of the Dominican Republic, a member denomination of The World Methodist Council; heard an update on the new Conference Center; approved the nominations report; celebrated the ministry of six pastors who have served 50 years in ministry; honored 19 retiring pastors; approved a 2018 budget of $10,662,813; celebrated with individuals and churches who have received awards from various agencies and ministries throughout the conference; were “energized” with a song and dance by the kids from EPIC camp and the College Summer Camp Leadership team; showed appreciation for the hard work and gracious hospitality of the Coastal District and the Local Arrangements Committee as well as the Conference Worship Committee, Conference Secretary and all of those who work to put on Annual Conference; and accepted an invitation to hold the 2018 Annual Conference session on Jekyll Island June 3-6, 2018.

South Georgia United Methodists were generous in their giving to missions and ministry. Giving totals to the 2017 offerings were: Special Offering for the South Georgia Conference Disaster Response fund: $24,886.51; Special Relief: $2,660.03; Ministerial Education Fund: $2,976.28.

Services of Worship

During Sunday evening’s opening worship service, Bishop James Swanson, episcopal leader of the Mississippi Conference and an ordained elder in the South Georgia Conference, “came home” to South Georgia to preach a rousing and passionate sermon about the Holy Spirit.

“You have gathered in a beautiful, pristine place with cool breezes,” he said. “It is good to be home.”

Introducing the conference theme of “Alive Together in Christ,” Bishop Swanson spoke of the Holy Spirit’s role in togetherness.

“There is no togetherness without the power and presence of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “We can only be together and alive through the Holy Spirit.”

Bishop Swanson enthusiastically reminded those gathered of God’s love, grace, and goodness. “He loved us into the Kingdom … United Methodists, it’s time we quit singing sad songs. God’s been too, too, good to us.”

Monday evening, the Conference gathered for the service for the Ordination of Deacons and Elders with Commissioning. Bishop Bryan’s sermon, “When the wine runs out,” was from John 2:1-11, which recounts Jesus’ first miracle and the wedding at Cana.

“My wine really had run out,” he said, recounting a time when he was at a loss for inspiration and ideas. “In ministry, it will always appear that the wine has run out.” But, he told those being ordained and commissioned, “YOU are the miracle of Cana. Your ordination, your commissioning, they’re celebrations of the miracle. Emptiness is a time to pour the water. Pour the water in your own life.”

“I know who turns water into wine!”

Bishop Bryan presided over the ordinal rites and was assisted by Rev. Lovett Weems and Mrs. Gloria Morgan, Conference Lay Leader, representing the laity, and Rev. Scott Tucker, Chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry, observed the ordinal rites. 

A Memorial Service for those faithful servants who have served in the Conference was held Tuesday afternoon. Bishop B. Michael Watson, South Georgia’s former episcopal leader, gave a moving message titled, “The Strong Arms of Jesus.”

The powerful and encouraging message reminded listeners that God’s grace sustains, holds, and surrounds them.

“Those we’ll name have outrun us to that great homecoming,” he said. “We can be grateful that God has got them. Just like he has us.”

Annual Conference 2017 ended with a Service of Sending Forth as Bishop Bryan encouraged each person to be curious together about what God is doing.

“As we go home, we know what we are doing and we know the world desperately needs it,” he said.

South Georgia by the numbers

Membership stands at 113,498, down 3,227 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 47,944, down 1,463. Church school attendance stands at 18,962, down 1,472 from 2016.

The 2018 Annual Conference session will be held June 3-6, on Jekyll Island.

More detailed recaps of each day’s events, including listings of who was ordained and commissioned, those who retired, and the ministers and spouses who were remembered during the memorial service, can be found at www.sgaumc.org/annualconference.