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Health care, delegate elections top conference agendas

7/10/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

This story is based on reports filed by individuals in each annual conference. It is intended as an overview and not an exhaustive record of every conference action. Editors may want to localize this story for their publications. Individual reports can be found at For more on General Conference delegates, see UMNS story #357. Photographs are available.

By United Methodist News Service

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The Revs. Charles Luers (left) and Judith Miller impose ashes on the foreheads of worshippers during a service of repentance for racism at the Iowa Annual Conference in Ames. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Photo number 03-233, Accompanies UMNS #356, 7/10/03

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Liturgical dancer Pat Palmer of the Praise Dance Ministry at Saint Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Des Moines, Iowa, helps interpret the sin of racism during a service of repentance at the Iowa Annual Conference in Ames. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Photo number 03-232, Accompanies UMNS #356, 7/10/03

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United Methodist Bishop Gregory V. Palmer (left), Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop Lawrence Reddick (center) and the Rev. Darline Balm-Demmel sing a hymn during a service of repentance for racism at the Iowa Annual Conference in Ames. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Photo number 03-234, Accompanies UMNS #356, 7/10/03

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Members of the Iowa Annual Conference vote on legislation during a session in the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University in Ames. United Methodists wrestled with health care costs, elected delegates to their highest assembly, performed acts of repentance for racism and even had time to celebrate a birthday during their annual conference sessions this year. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Photo number 03-231, Accompanies UMNS #356, 7/10/03
United Methodists wrestled with health care costs, elected delegates to the church's highest assembly, performed acts of repentance for racism and even had time to celebrate a birthday during their annual conference sessions this year.

Throughout the sessions, church members stayed focused on their calling to do ministry.

"We are all given the same 24 hours," Missouri Bishop Ann Sherer told the East Ohio Conference. "We have the time to do the mission; we have time to do good, honest work. We are all called, clergy and laity, to give all we have to God."

The denomination's 64 U.S. conferences met in May and June, and several regional units outside the United States also held annual gatherings at about the same time.

Electing representatives to the 2004 General Conference was the universal item of business for all of the church's regional assemblies this year. The church is sending 984 voting delegates from around the world to the General Conference in Pittsburgh, where they will make decisions guiding church policy and also speak out on issues of the day. The results of their work will be reflected in revisions of the denomination's Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions.

The U.S. annual conferences elected additional delegates to attend one of five jurisdictional gatherings later in 2004, where bishops will receive their geographical assignments and new episcopal leaders will be elected to fill vacancies.

Elections aside, rising health care costs for the church's clergy and lay employees were the most frequently addressed item at this year's annual conferences. More than 20 conferences acted to cut expenses or share more of the cost burden with congregations or beneficiaries. A few expressed support for a denominational health care program.

Several conferences committed themselves to promoting healthy lifestyles. The Dakotas, with a rallying cry of "dump those donuts," asked each clergy person to develop a wellness program. At the New Mexico session, Bishop Max Whitfield told conference members that "all fat belongs to the Lord" and challenged them to improve their health. Rocky Mountain decided to pay $100 to each of its clergy and lay employees who take certain steps to improve their health.

At least 14 conferences held services of repentance for racism, in response to the 2000 General Conference's call for all the church's regional bodies to perform such acts before the 2004 assembly. Representatives of the historically African-American Methodist traditions participated in the services.

"Racism is an abomination to God," Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt Jr. of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church told the Central Pennsylvania gathering. He invited the conference to "become in substance what symbol says we are: one in Christ." Speaking separately to the Louisiana Conference, he emphasized the importance of being willing to accept forgiveness as well as to forgive.

James Salley, assistant vice chancellor of the church's Africa University, called racism "the church's unfinished agenda" and emphasized the need for Christians to sound the alarm about it. During that same service, held by the Baltimore-Washington Conference, worshipers raised more than $21,000 for the proposed Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall in Washington.

West Ohio, Western North Carolina and Nebraska held services of reconciliation for injustices done to Native Americans, and West Michigan included Indians and African Americans in its repentance service. "Lord, we confess that we enjoy a prosperity and a civilization that are built upon the lands, the civilizations and the blood of others," Bishop Bruce R. Ough said as he led West Ohio members in their confession.

Native American concerns were addressed at a number of other gatherings as well, including Kentucky, where members called for ending the stereotypical use of Indian names and images.

Ministry with and among ethnic groups was affirmed in many ways. At least three conferences celebrated the 100th anniversary of Korean-American Methodist ministries. Many U.S. conferences took action supporting Hispanic ministries, and Southwest Texas and Rio Grande marked the 150th anniversary of the first Methodist sermon in Spanish preached in the United States, in Santa Fe, N.M. In addition, Southwest Texas established a commission on Hispanic ministries.

Many annual conferences held special programs marking the 300th anniversary of John Wesley's birth, and the founder of Methodism - along with his mother, Susanna - made several "guest appearances," courtesy of church actors. Around the connection, United Methodists celebrated the milestone with seminars, Wesleyan hymn singing and worship services, and other events. The Detroit Conference adopted as its theme the Wesleyan principle of "Going on to Perfection." Wisconsin members devoted their Bible study sessions to discussing Wesley's writings on slavery, evangelical zeal and money.

The Rev. Randy Maddox, a professor of Wesleyan theology at Seattle Pacific University, emphasized to the Dakotas Conference that, for Wesley, Christianity was a social religion. "Wesley encourages us to imitate the One who cares for all creation, not just salvation for souls but for the whole of creation," he said.

Support for children

Children's concerns continued to be front and center for the church, thanks in part to the Bishops' Initiative on Children and Poverty and the "Hope for the Children of Africa" appeal. Northern Illinois received nearly $109,000, the largest offering in its history, toward a goal of raising $1 million by next year for four projects to help children. The conference also will ask General Conference to continue the bishops' initiative.

With the help of a $100,000 check from its foundation, the Oklahoma Conference kicked off a $1.4 million sustaining drive for a ministry that serves more than 200 children and youth in four residential programs and a foster-care program. East Ohioans announced a fund drive to support camperships for children with financial needs and adopted resolutions for state child-care subsidies and school funding reform. North and South Indiana celebrated Bishop Woodie White's April 26 children's march on the state capital, in which more than 400 people participated. And Virginia raised nearly $390,000 to support ministries that will help children and young people. Similar outpourings of support for children occurred throughout the connection.

Youth and young people were active during the annual gatherings, holding parallel conferences in some cases. The Switzerland-France Conference heard a challenge to make the church relevant to teens.

Global concerns

The bond that United Methodists around the world share with the people of Africa was evident as U.S. conferences collected money and supplies for needs on the continent.

Peninsula-Delaware members approved a relationship with the denomination's Central Congo Area, including a $30,000 yearly financial commitment. Yellowstone members asked Bishop Warner Brown Jr. to develop a partnership covenant agreement with the Eastern Angola Annual Conference. Florida began a long-term relationship with Eastern Angola by raising nearly $122,000 to rebuild a church destroyed by war. California-Nevada, which sent a delegation to Western Angola this year, is preparing to send youth volunteers to South Africa. Kentucky adopted an East Africa Mission Initiative.

From the other direction, Mozambique sent a Volunteer In Mission team to the Troy Conference and a choir to Missouri.

The church remains a beacon of hope in areas devastated by war. The Liberia Conference supported its national council of churches' call for international intervention to calm the country. Elsewhere in West Africa, the Sierra Leone Conference is trying to rebuild its schools, clinics and churches following the civil war that ruined much of the country, and Bishop Joseph C. Humper told his annual gathering that 2002 had been hardest year of his tenure because of financial restraints.

More than half a dozen conferences took action in support of Africa University, the United Methodist-related school in Mutare, Zimbabwe.

Annual conferences also showed support for other parts of the globe. Nicaragua, India, Poland, Lithuania, Cambodia and Haiti were a few of the countries for which United Methodists collected money and planned ministries.

The Middle East, in particular, was a point of concern. Several conferences supported relief programs for Iraq, and the Alaska Missionary Conference adopted the children of Iraq as its missional priority for 2003-04.

Many conferences took up offerings for the church's work in Russia. Bishop Ruediger Minor, new president of the Council of Bishops and leader of the church's Eurasia Area, logged plenty of travel miles during annual conference season, making appearances at no fewer than five conference gatherings around the United States.

The war on terrorism received attention from some conferences. California-Nevada called for revising the U.S. Patriot Act to ensure that civil rights are protected, while Northern Illinois voiced opposition to mistreating U.S. detainees in the war on terrorism. Three conferences opposed either the use of military force in resolving international disputes or the use of pre-emptive military strikes in particular. North Carolina endorsed the use of diplomacy through the United Nations in future conflicts.

Social issues

Speaking out on social concerns is part of the Wesleyan heritage, and conferences took aim at such issues as gambling, alcohol use and abuse, land mines and the death penalty.

Kansas West called for General Conference to create a global fund and committee to address the AIDS crisis. North Carolina asked that the church withdraw from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Homosexuality and the rights of gays and lesbians in the church will be on the General Conference agenda in Pittsburgh, as they have been for more than 30 years. At least 13 conferences took some action specifically related to homosexuality.

The United Methodist Church declares the practice of homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching," and it forbids the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and the performance of same-sex unions in its churches. However, it also teaches that gays and lesbians are people of sacred worth.

Several conferences approved petitions calling for changing language in the Book of Discipline regarding homosexuality. Nebraska will petition General Conference to delete all parts of Paragraph 161G that restrict the full participation of homosexuals in the life of the church. Pacific Northwest will ask that the book be changed to say United Methodists are not of one mind on the issue.

South Carolina will ask General Conference to allow church funds to be spent on discussing issues of homosexuality, and it approved a resolution asking that the churchwide Board of Discipleship use more resources to provide and promote United Methodist ministry with homosexuals. West Michigan wants to encourage all congregations to engage in biblical studies on sexual orientation.

Several conferences approved resolutions seeking greater accountability and enforcement of the Book of Discipline. Memphis, for example, affirmed commitment to "the historic doctrines of the Christian faith" and resolved that bishops or other church leaders "who cannot honestly subscribe to these most basic teachings … are unqualified to hold leadership positions" in the church. Memphis and Mississippi also want to require bishops to use oversight "to maintain the doctrinal expressions of the church."

Other topics included:
· Church growth: The mission of making disciples of Christ was reflected in new church starts and programs throughout the connection. Bishop Alfred Norris held out the challenge for the Texas Conference to grow its membership to 300,000 by 2004, from a current level of about 286,000.

· Media campaign: Several conferences affirmed the churchwide "Igniting Ministry" advertising and welcoming campaign, managed by United Methodist Communications, and asked that General Conference continue to support it.

· General agencies: Some Southeastern U.S. conferences will ask General Conference to change the membership composition of boards and agencies to be more representative of areas with high concentrations of United Methodists.

· Clergy retirement: Detroit and Wisconsin adopted petitions to General Conference calling for the removal of the mandatory retirement age for ministers.

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