During the conference, we were invited to go engage in spiritual disciplines. In four sessions across three days, experts from our Conference led teaching times on these practices. During these contentious times, when speaking truth to power is more dangerous than ever—but also needed more than ever—these disciplines are crucial to engaging in true dialogue. We can truly listen to others in love, and not anger or hate, if we practice these disciplines.
The sessions were:
Conversation with Country Dark with Gregory Ellison II, Associate Professor of Pastoral Care & Counseling, Candler School of Theology, Emory University
Know Your Spiritual Type with Ellen Shepard, Senior Pastor of Stone Mountain First UMC and Director of Women, Theology & Ministry, Candler School of Theology, Emory University
My Life with Others Neighboring, Care of the Earth, and Hospitality led by Anjie Woodworth and Andy Woodworth, co-pastors, Neighborhood Church
Examen: Fasting led by Lahronda Little, M.Div. Ph.D student at The Laney Graduate School of Emory University
Fixed Hour of Prayer with Julie Boone, Senior Pastor, McKendree UMC
Lectio Divina with Millie Kim, pastor, Second Avenue UMC, Rome
Visio Divina with Tavares Stephens, Assistant Pastor, St. James UMC – Alpharetta
Four worship services anchored the conference, each planned by a different team of North Georgia United Methodists.
The North Georgia Conference opened with song, prayers, and praise. Worshipping in several of the languages of our diverse congregations, we heard Spanish, Swahili, Korean, English and ASL. We prayed out loud in the Korean tradition.
In the Opening Worship sermon, Bishop Sue gave the charge to “Go, be good Methodists!” Preaching from Luke 18:9-14, she called the North Georgia Conference to cross any boundary, go anywhere, desperate to love people.
Acknowledging our shortcomings and natural tendency to categorize by who’s more righteous, more holy, more close to Jesus, she said, “We always want to measure up and put ourselves a little above. … But there is another way.”
“John Wesley realized there’s a method to break us out of this bondage,” said the bishop. “Prayer, reflection, time together in small groups and worship, all remind us that we are human and God is God. … We have the method, we just have to reclaim it.”
As Bishop Sue preached, local artist and United Methodist Sarah Glass began painting on an 8’x8′ canvas on the stage. She continued the work throughout the three-day conference, completing it just before the closing session.
Opening worship was planned by Rev. Eric Lee and Arturo Quintanilla of the Chapel Roswell congregation with music from Chapel Roswell Band and a choir of youth members.
Service of Remembrance
In a Service of Remembrance that was both solemn and celebratory, the conference remembered 27 clergy, 14 spouses, and 4 of the many North Georgia Conference laity who have faithfully served and taken their places in the cloud of witness.
“With great tenderness and tremendous joy we celebrate the many ways these lives have touched us,” said preacher for the service Rev. Elaine Puckett, retired. “Sometimes collectively as a part of this church that we all so dearly love.”
The service closed with the ringing of a bell for each of the honored dead and a single bagpiper processing through the congregation.
The service was planned by Rev. Dr. Bill Britt and Peachtree Road UMC staff along with Rev. Dr. Dana Everhart of North Georgia Conference Ministerial Services and featured musicians and choir from Peachtree Road UMC in Atlanta.
In the Service of Licensing, Commissioning, and Ordination, preacher Rev. Dr. Byron Thomas of Ben Hill UMC empowered the congregation.
“You are not here by accident. You are here on business,” he said. “And therefore your worth does not come from anyone outside yourself. You were born in this world with intrinsic worth or value. If you did not grow up in the best of circumstances, it’s alright. God already incorporated into your very fiber worth and value.”
He confessed that the stakes are high and that everybody is not going to welcome you, “but your very soul has business in this world.”
At the close of the service, Bishop Sue invited anyone feeling a call to ministry to come forward to meet with the Board of Ordained Ministry.
The service was planned by Rev. Dr. Dana Everhart of the Office of Ministerial Services and Melodi Lovely of St. James UMC Alpharetta and featured the St. James UMC Choir.
Service of Sending Forth
Closing worship and communion incorporated Korean, Czech, German, Spanish and English languages. The stage was set with six large, lighted letters: J-E-S-U-S.
Rev. Dr. Rodrigo Cruz of The Nett UMC was preacher for the service.
Speaking to the disagreements in our denomination, he shared several touching stories about his children.
His family has learned that belonging together doesn’t mean they will always get along. “That is a microcosm of our conference and our connectional system,” he said.
Cruz pointed out that this is not the first time in history when a group of Christians is wondering about the future. This situation draws him to Acts 20:22-24, when Paul writes that he doesn’t know the future, but “nothing is more important than completing my mission.”
“As we face General Conference, let me tell you one more time: ‘I don’t know what will happen,'” he said. “Church, there is a future and I know nothing about it.”
What he knows is that his mission is to go out and finish the work that Jesus started.
As a pastor of a growing new church, people often ask Cruz “what’s the future.”
“We’re meeting in my living room and people ask, ‘what’s the future for this church?’ We move into a high school and people ask, ‘what’s the future for this church?’ We move into our first building and people ask, ‘what’s the future for this church?’ This year we’re going to a second campus. ‘Pastor, what’s the plan for the future of this church?'” he said.
“Here’s the plan for the future of the church,” he said. “We are going to be obedient today.”
He called on the congregation not to miss what God can do today because of what God may or may not do in 2019.
Paul didn’t have the perfect plan to move forward, Cruz continued. He had to be obedient. “We don’t have to be a perfect church to share a perfect savior,” he said.
The service was planned by Michael Cromwell of Hillside UMC and Cruz and featured music from the Hillside UMC Worship Band. The service closed with Holy Communion.
Reports, Awards, and Presentations
Through reports to the Annual Conference, members saw the reach of the United Methodist connection from our local communities, across our Conference, and around the world.
The 60th mayor of Atlanta and active United Methodist, The Honorable Keisha Lance Bottoms, greeted the North Georgia Conference and later spoke at the annual Laity Dinner. Her faith story was a highlight of the Conference for many.
We heard from related-agencies about the collaborative mission and ministry happening across our conference including:
- United Methodist Children’s Home
- Wesley Woods
- Aldersgate Homes
- Housing and Homeless Council
- Camp and Retreat Ministries
- Georgia United Methodist Foundation
- United Methodist Connectional Federal Credit Union
- Georgia’s UM Commission on Higher Education.
Russell Pierce, on behalf of Global Ministries, presented Bishop Sue with plaques recognizing the North Georgia Conference for being in the top 10 conferences for giving in four of six mission areas. The North Georgia Conference gave $1.7 million to disaster response in 2017, the second highest amount in the denomination.
The North Georgia Conference Churches of Excellence in Outreach awards were presented to:
Chris Karabinos, the North Georgia Conference Scouting Coordinator, was presented with The Silver Torch Award. This high honor is awarded to an adult for exemplary service in scouting ministry.
The Conference celebrated three young adults who will serve as Global Missions Fellows:
- Kristi Painter of Hickory Flat UMC, Asti White of Trinity on the Hill UMC in LaGrange, and Julia Falgout of North Decatur UMC.
“These are shining examples of our young people, and our institutions of higher learning that form and shape our young people,” said Bishop Sue.
The North Georgia Conference had the honor of commissioning:
- Global Ministries Missionary Didier Monga Wa Shakapanga of the North Katanga Conference.
- Deaconess Cynthia D. Campbell of Bethel UMC in Smyrna.
Generosity and Vitality
The Annual Conference celebrated and practiced generosity.
The 5K run/walk was sponsored by the Conference Council on Youth Ministries. Proceeds went to the Youth Service Fund, a fund raised by youth, administered by youth, to support youth-led mission projects in our Conference.
Gifts to our Annual Conference special offering for the Ministerial Education Fund totaled more than $74,000. Donations are still incoming.
More than 4,000 UMCOR Kits were donated primarily by local UMW units in the Conference.
The Annual Conference Red Cross Blood Drive had 71 donors.
The total amount given for Special Sundays, General Advance Specials, World Service Specials, and other forms of directed benevolence (second-mile giving) in 2017 was $9.37 Million, up from 2016.
The North Georgia Conference ordained 8 elders in full connection, 2 deacons in full connection, and commissioned 15 provisional members.
The Annual Conference passed a budget of $21,920,651 for 2019.
- Membership: 357,015, a 1% decline from 2016. (7 of our 12 districts had increases in 2017.)
- Worship attendance: 107,000 (average per Sunday).
- Professions or reaffirmations of faith: 4,627 total.
Keith Cox, Conference Treasurer/Director Administrative Services shared that in 2017, North Georgia United Methodist churches had paid 94.7 percent of the apportionment budget, the highest percentage of apportionments paid in 16 years.
Continuing the Conversation: A Way Forward
The Conference heard several times about the Special Session of General Conference in 2019. Delegation chair Mathew Pinson shared that our delegation has been diligently preparing for the 2019 Special General Conference. Pinson’s prayer is for unity. “I pray for the unity of the church. Not unity for unity’s sake, but for Christ’s sake. Because I pray for the unity of Christ’s body in the world,” he said.
On Wednesday, members of the Annual Conference took a poll to gauge the feelings of the body as we look toward the special General Conference next year. The results showed both hope and concern about the future of the church, but a desire for unity from 70% of the attendees. Rev. Dr. Byron Thomas closed with his thoughts on the future. “There is nothing we can’t overcome through Christ.”
Bishop Sue addressed the Conference on Thursday, speaking from her heart about the future of the church. She began by asking all to consider how our decisions will affect people not yet in the church.
“Being conformed to Christ is my life’s goal and I hope your goal,” she said. “The church is to be a place where all gather in the grace of God and work together companions on the journey.”
We know that the church is not of one mind on the matter of human sexuality, explained Bishop Sue, and there is not a clear answer to this challenge. But, she continued, “There’s too much at stake to draw battle lines. I urge every church to be in conversation. To presume any sort of consensus or presume everyone in any church believes one way, I think, is naïve.”
She spoke to the unfortunate history of division in the church. More than 100 years ago we had disagreement over slavery and the church split. We had disagreement over segregation and created a whole Methodist polity around segregation for which we are still paying the price. For years the church struggled over divorce and remarriage, Bishop Sue said,
Our decisions over the next year are incredibly important. My request is, please start a conversation and discuss this and gain understanding. To really see the image of God in every human being requires us to see the image of God in every human being. That is the role of the church.
Bishop Sue shared an article from theologian Thomas Oden, “Do Not Rashly Tear Asunder.” The title comes from a John Wesley quote, “Do not rashly tear our United Methodist connection asunder.”
We don’t know what exactly the future holds, but Bishop Sue sees great hope in the large majority who desire to go forward together.