Donning an episcopal purple face mask with the cross and flame emblem, Bishop R. Lawson Bryan welcomed nearly 750 delegates and guests to the 2020 Annual Conference session.
An historic session, this year’s gathering was virtual, and clergy and laity participated from their living rooms, home offices, and churches. Many traded their sport coats, ties, and dresses for more casual, comfortable attire.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a concern for the health and safety of conference members, and the restrictions on large group gatherings, Conference leadership postponed the previously scheduled June in-person session and pivoted to plan a first-ever virtual session.
Paring down a typical annual conference agenda - usually three days of reporting, legislating, and celebrating - to about 12 hours over the course of several days was no small feat.
“I have been referring to this year’s annual conference as being like a ‘protracted meeting,’ like a revival or camp meeting lasting several days,” said Bishop R. Lawson Bryan, episcopal leader of the South Georgia Conference. “To me, the big takeaway from this experience is that even under adverse conditions, the South Georgia Conference has the capacity to write our own story in a way that rises above our circumstances and keeps the focus on our mission.”
Bishop Bryan thanked and celebrated the scores of clergy and laity who helped make the nearly two-week-long conference - scattered over several days - successful. The 2020 Annual Conference session kicked off Sunday, Aug. 2 with a virtual clergy session. It was followed by four worship services on four separate days: the Virtual Commissioning Service on Aug. 8, the Virtual Ordination Service on Aug. 9, the Virtual Retiree Recognition Service on Aug. 11, and the Virtual Memorial Service on Aug 13. The 2020 Annual Conference season culminated with the Aug. 15 virtual business session.
Though significantly shortened, the 2020 conference followed the original theme and focus: “Alive Together in Witness.” Bishop Bryan opened Saturday morning’s business session by introducing Kenji Bolden, director of music ministries at Valdosta First United Methodist Church, who led the conference in the traditional opening hymn, “And Are We Yet Alive?”
“As much uncertainty as we may face in today’s world, of one thing we are not uncertain: we know how to begin Annual Conference,” Bishop Bryan said as he presented Charles Wesley’s timeless hymn.
“Even in the midst of a global pandemic, we are finding ways to be alive together in Christ,” he said, welcoming and thanking delegates and guests for attending the historic conference.
In his devotional and morning address, he read Paul’s words from his letter to the Colossians: “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving. At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison…”
He emphasized that God will open a door for the Word through South Georgia United Methodists.
Like Paul, he said, all need to pray to see the open doors. The coronavirus pandemic, race relations, and rolling restarts are all open doors through which ministries can be expanded and God’s love and grace can be extended, he said.
“I invite you to consider your open doors,” he said. “What are the doors we can walk through? What are the open doors you and I want to walk through in the next 16 months? ‘God help us’ is our prayer. God help us not to miss the open doors that are right before us.”
Morning business session
During the morning business session, the conference celebrated the commissioning of deaconess Linda Laye, a lay member of Pierce Chapel United Methodist in Columbus; recognized Warren Plowden, the longest-serving Chancellor in United Methodism (story | video); voted on and approved items in the Consent Calendar; celebrated the ways the conference has responded to disasters and built disaster response capacity; celebrated the faithful ministry of the laity and shared appreciation for Gloria Morgan and her service as the Conference lay leader these past seven years; heard the Board of Ordained Ministry report given by Chairman Rev. Scott Tucker; recognized new certified candidates, 2020 Licensing School students, new Licensed Local Pastors, and received clergy into full conference membership; celebrated with those pastors who have served 50 years in ministry; heard a John Wesley moment from Rev. Dave Hanson; approved a report from Equitable Compensation; honored those pastors retiring this year; approved a report from the Conference Board of Pensions and Health Benefits; celebrated the ministry of Camp Connect; recognized Port Wentworth United Methodist Church for winning the One Matters Award, presented by Discipleship Ministries; and celebrated as Communications Director Kelly Roberson was presented a denominational Epi Award for her outstanding work in communications.
Motion focused on racial justice approved
Before the Conference broke for lunch, Rev. Lynn Meadows-White, associate pastor at Pierce Chapel United Methodist Church in Midland, made a motion for South Georgia United Methodist clergy and laity to commit to stand against racism, renew their commitment to live out their baptismal vows, and speak with a united voice in every United Methodist congregation against systemic racism.
After more than 45 minutes of questions, answers, debate, and an amendment by Dr. Bob Moon, Vice President for Church Relations/Chaplain at the Methodist Home, that changed the arrangement of wording in point three of Rev Meadows-White’s original motion, the amended motion was voted upon by the annual conference. It passed with a vote of 392-185 vote, a 68 percent majority. Read the full, amended motion here.
Afternoon business session
During the afternoon business session, the conference heard a second John Wesley moment from Rev. Dave Hanson; heard a report from the Conference Trustees; honored the 27 faithful clergy and clergy spouses who have died since the 2019 Annual Conference session; took action on the church closings of seven churches; approved the disaffiliation of seven churches; approved a recommendation for the reallocation of designated reserve funds to support several ministries in the North Katanga Annual Conference; approved the nominations report; heard a report from the General Conference delegation and the Leadership Forum Task Force; heard a report from the Conference Council on Finance and Administration (CFA) and approved a budget of $9,172,314, a reduction of $153,870 from the previous year; and accepted an invitation from the Northwest District to host the 2021 Annual Conference session in Columbus June 6-9.
Alive Together at the Table
As Bishop Bryan closed the 2020 Annual Conference session, he introduced the theme for the coming year, “Alive Together at the Table.”
After reading verses from the 23rd Psalm, he asked, “Is there anything more powerful we can do in the coming year than to ask, ‘Where’s the table, Lord?’”
It’s at the table where enemies - violence, poverty, abuse, racism, sexism, ageism, all that harms human flourishing - are defeated, he said, and where new life begins. These are overcome when we come to the table that the Lord has prepared for us.
“Where’s the table? It’s in your church, it’s in your life, it’s in our decision ourselves to come to the table. We have to be at the table.”
Reflecting on the annual conference session, Bishop Bryan said the new conference year is a table the Lord has prepared for South Georgia.
“My takeaway from Annual Conference 2020 is: when 750 of us gather in a virtual annual conference, we have come to the table in terms of embracing technology as a tool for ministry. When our committee reports can be posted online to be viewed prior to the conference session, we have come to the table. When questions can be submitted ahead of time, we have come to the table. When we approve a new partnership with United Methodists in Africa, we have come to the table. When we adopt a motion that outlines a proactive stance toward connecting and understanding race and equality, we have come to the table. When we are able to celebrate the financial faithfulness being demonstrated by our local churches in this unusual time, we have come to table.
“Because God has anointed us for ministry. Because our cups are running over. Because goodness and mercy are following us. We are Alive Together at the Table.”
The 2021 Annual Conference Session will be held June 6-9 in Columbus, Ga.
South Georgia by the numbers
Membership stands at 103,613, down 3,936 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 42,413, down 1,320. Church school attendance stands at 20,154, down 91 from 2018.