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Conference worship calls up ‘the least’

FLORENCE – “Are We Yet Alive,” the traditional hymn to open Annual Conference, reassured more than 1,800 clergy, lay delegates, alternate delegates, spouses and guests they were indeed alive as a people of God.

In the opening service of conference, Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor expressed her love of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and compared it to another “Smokey Mountain,” a huge dump rising above sea level in the Philippines where the multitudes of poor scavenge for anything they can sell or trade for food and the gases of decomposition create smoke.

While attending the Connectional Table in the Philippines, the bishop saw the impoverished of the Philippines, some of whom are the “living among the dead,” living in cemeteries and making bits of money for removing the dead when families can no longer afford rented graves.

Bishop Taylor said she saw three or four families living in one apartment, taking their turns sleeping. But in the Philippines, Bishop Taylor said, “Our Methodist Church is present and proclaiming God’s love.”

Writing of the state’s native daughter Marian Wright Edelman was cited by the bishop in talking about the homeless. (Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund will keynote the September Peace Conference on children at Junaluska.) Bishop Taylor said there were “200,000 children who were homeless last night,” as she introduced the conference’s theme, “The Least of These.”

The conference passed a retiree health care liability plan, the Conference Board of Health and Pension’s preferred option, No. 1, easing what could have been one of three contentious agenda items.

To satisfy the Discipline and the Financial Accounting Standards Board, much work and prayer had gone into the three plans presented, according to David Anderson, Conference Benefits officer.

While serious questions that pointed to the Christian response to such plans were raised, Options 2 and 3 were ultimately defeated and Option 1 was passed. Anderson stressed that what was approved this year is only a platform on which to build at future Annual Conferences, and he is already at work to match the conference plan with the nation’s new health care plan and find ways to aid retirees. The Rev. Ed McWilliams chaired the board.

For current retirees, Option 1 gradually reduces the maximum subsidy from the current 70 percent to 50 percent by 2020. That year the maximum subsidy would be capped at (up to) $5,000 for each retiree and for the retiree and/or spouse. The subsidy would be available to cover conference insurance costs. Active retirees retiring by 2015 and who are 65 by 2015 will be eligible for health benefits. No health benefits will be given to those retiring beyond 2015.

The conference would fund the balance of the liability by freezing the current level of Retiree Health Funding ($1.6 million) until 2016. Funding, estimated at $2.4 million, would be phased in. This is projected to fund the liability in full by 2032 with no additional apportionment for retirees needed after that year.

Anderson described that plan as the “cleanest actuarily” to replace the current “pay-as-you-go plan.” He said not changing the health benefits was unsustainable by the Annual Conference, where 95 percent of direct billings costs have been raised in 2009 and only 83.7 percent of apportionments were sent in.

Anderson described the action as a “roadmap” subject to change as the national health care law takes effect.

Delegates and pastors’ concerns included the idea that 40-year-old pastors would have no health benefits, the needs of those pastors and spouses with pre-existing health issues, the effect on recruiting young pastors and creation of a “bubble of retirements” in 2015. A delegate from Aldersgate, Greenville, said the theme of the conference was serving “the least of these, and we’re going with the majority.”

Although many changes in standing rules were approved in an early business session, one that remained unchanged turned out to be a thorn in  the side: SR21 says the budget must be approved the last day of conference.

Under the pressure to get through and get home and yet deal with budget items with whom many seemed to find faults, the budget was passed with a muted “yes,” sending folks to lunch around 2 p.m. Sunday and asking them to inch through major traffic and return for the fixing of appointments at 3:05. A majority did not return.

The budget’s contention came partly from 2.2 percent increases in district superintendents and extended cabinet members’ salaries in rough economic times. Some pastors’ salaries have been cut. Such is the case for the Rev. Bob Howell, pastor at Bethany Summerville, who spoke for the budget, but said, “My concern is that the conference budget went up by 4.5 percent. What we didn’t deal with is the economic reality. …(C)ome to us with a budget that at least understands what those of us in the local church are struggling with every day.”

Also called into question was the approximately  $60,000 to hire a comptroller which CF&A Chair Ed McDowell implied the new position would decrease the recent $55,000 cost for the annual audit that brought discrepancies to light.

Other increases CF&A presented in the 2011 budget include the Conference Expense Fund, up 57.4 percent to $240,000. Three church trials (pastors accused of violations), the only three in Chancellor Jeff Barham’s seven years with the conference, occurred this past year and have driven up that expense category.

Many attempts to offer amendments were made but none were acceptable and the budget was voted on as a whole. Delegates and clergy were told the district superintendents’ salaries were based on a Conference Average Compensation formula approved some years ago.

Any report, including the budget, is amendable, according this year’s acting Parliamentarian Roger Gramling. While other individual salaries are set by their respective boards and commissions, CF&A sets district superintendent (including extended cabinet member) salaries and the conference has the right to make changes to that, but it must be done within the rules. For example, under Report 4, an amendment could have been offered (freezing all salaries, was offered and denied because of the rules regarding the way it was offered) that said, “The (DS) salaries for 2011 shall be $XX,XXX.” “That would have been an amendment that had to be addressed,” Gramling said, but nobody proposed a specific fixed figure. “It got complicated because of the different ways (different) salaries are set.”

The Cabinet’s salaries are tied to a formula – Conference Average Compensation – set by the S.C. conference in 2004. It is formed by adding all fulltime pastors’ (local, elders, deacons) salaries and adding 25 percent for housing, and then finding the average; that number is then multiplied by 1.4 percent.

While some churches say they have cut or frozen pastors’ salaries this year, there is a two-year lag-time effect on conference budgets. The conference has not kept to the formula, but it is trying, in part, to move back to it this year and next. Using the most recent S.C. average clergy salaries and applying the formula, district superintendents’ salaries should be set at $94,212, but the S.C.conference is not there yet.

Other Sunday morning business included four resolutions:

• On the sin of racism – the affirmed resolution includes a training event in 2011, conference partnership and extensive study to support those who are experiencing the trauma of racial bias, conflict and injustice.

• On sexual activity among teens – Th
e body agreed on the need for curriculum and training events, but the how was debated at length so that, finally, the resolution was referred to Connectional Ministries.

• On immigration reform – the conference agreed to urge the S.C. legislature to defeat S.1446 (now moot but to be re-introduced) and asked it to seek just, comprehensive immigration reform that will protect workers, reunite families, restore the rule of law and enhance security.

• On government policy to protect vulnerable children – the conference agreed to send the resolution to S.C. legislative and U.S. congressional bodies to request a review of policies affecting vulnerable children. Epworth Children’s Home President John Holler believes federal regulation is flawed and works against the overworked staff of the Department of Social Services.

The conference passed a resolution from the Extended Cabinet regarding the United Methodist Relief Center, which would allow the bishop to appoint a nine-person committee to study and properly structure the relationship between the UMRC and the S.C. conference.

Nominations had to be corrected more than once, the second time taking more than 10 minutes from the packed Sunday agenda.

In an earlier business meeting, the conference passed the new structure proposed by Con-nectional Ministries (see Laity story on Page 3).

The Rev. Ted Walters, a retired district superintendent and former member of the Judicial Council discussed the best time for implementation of a new structure. The Rev. Willie Teague, director of Connectional Ministries, said if the plan, more fully developed by a transitional committee, is approved in 2011, it probably should be referred to the Judicial Council for approval.

The Revs. Ken Owens and Rusty Taylor, director of Congregational Development, said two of the conferences newest churches have become chartered, Journey UMC in Columbia and Grace UMC in Fort Mill.

Information was received from the incoming dean of Duke Divinity School, Dr. Richard Hayes, Lake Junaluska’s Sales and Marketing director, Ken Howle; and the Rev. Jim Salley, associate vice chancellor for institutional advancement of Africa University who is asking for 29 cents per member to transform lives there.Spartanburg Methodist College’s president, Dr. Colleen Keith, spoke on behalf of all the S.C. Methodist-related colleges.

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