By Jessica Connor
FLORENCE—With an aim to turn this state’s “Corridor of Shame” into a “Corridor of Hope,” 2,000 S.C. United Methodist clergy, laity and guests will gather at the Florence Civic Center June 1-4 for the denomination’s yearly meeting, Annual Conference.
The four-day event is the church’s primary gathering in this state. This year’s theme carries on the “more excellent way” theme from last year—this time focusing on creating corridors of faith, hope and love. The UMC is engaging in what its leaders call a “God-sized dream” culminating at Annual Conference: a Million Book Effort designed to combat poverty by tackling one of its root problems, illiteracy. (See sidebar.)
In addition to the book drive, Annual Conference members will pray, fellowship and ultimately decide the business of the church throughout South Carolina, including determining the statewide church budget, approving changes to pensions and health benefits and voting on a host of resolutions before the body.
“Annual Conference shapes the direction that the S.C. Conference will go in over the next year, and it’s a chance for us both to reflect on the ministries that we have been involved in over the last year and to get excited about the ministries we are starting,” said Matt Brodie, conference communications director. “This year I’ve felt more energy and more excitement about Annual Conference than I have in years past, and I hope this is a trend that will grow as we continue our ministries around the state.”
This year, the Advocate will produce for the S.C. Conference a daily Annual Conference publication designed to help people understand the issues coming before the body that day. The Daily Advocate will be distributed to every delegate and placed on the chairs in the civic center and for pickup by attendees.
Here are some of this year’s key issues:
Budget and Finance
This year’s Annual Conference will feature a vote on a $16.71 million budget for the S.C. UMC in 2015, which is a very slight increase—0.6 percent—from the $16.6 million budget passed last year. The proposed budget printed in the pre-conference material was revised in mid-May by the conference Council on Finance and Administration.
The increase is $50,000 additional for Fund No. 4, Equitable Compensation, for a new recommended amount of $550,000, said the Rev. David Surrett, chair of CF&A.
“This increase is due to a renewed emphasis in new church development, which accounts for about 60 percent of that line item,” Surrett said. “CF&A strongly endorses the establishment of new faith communities for unchurched persons, which accounts for the 29.4 percent increase in that apportionment.”
A revised Report No. 7, the summary budget, will be placed in conference members’ registration packets.
“This also brings us to our goal to find funding levels at 15 percent, give or take that amount, of all the average net funds of the various churches within the S.C. Annual Conference by the year 2015,” said Surrett, noting his board is “very pleased” with this achievement.
Surrett said achieving 15 percent allows local churches across the conference to utilize their funds more directly for needs within their local communities.
This year’s budget report reflects a change in the average net funds, by which local churches’ apportionments are calculated across the S.C. Conference. It will change from a four-year average to a two-year average.
“We feel this will be fairer,” Surrett said. “This will also make the apportionment calculations to be more current, up-to-date and relevant to your recent church’s financial giving.”
CF&A is also bringing a new proposal to Annual Conference that they believe will help recover funds related to direct billing. As part of their service as a pastor, S.C. United Methodist clergy are entitled to insurance and pension coverage, and the church they serve is supposed to pay for this. The conference pays the bill, then in what is termed “direct billing,” sends the church a bill for its share of the pastor’s coverage. But sometimes, churches don’t pay their bill, leaving the conference to pay for it—and a balance at the end of the year that must be covered through conference reserve funds.
To remedy this, CF&A is bringing the Direct Billing Forgiveness Plan and an application form before the body this year.
“This plan is for congregations who have become behind in making payments on a regular basis for their pastor’s health benefits and pension,” Surrett said. “We’re very excited to offer this plan to those churches and hope they will consider on a voluntary basis being a part of this plan. We feel it will recoup those funds for our Annual Conference, it will help churches continue to be faithful in their stewardship and will also allow greater use of all God’s resources and gifts and graces.”
If approved, the Direct Billing Forgiveness Plan will be a provisional plan in the fall and a permanent plan offered in the first portion of 2015.
Also included in this year’s budget report is the resolution of a situation involving the longtime ministry United Methodist Relief Center, now bankrupt. CF&A reports the UMRC exited bankruptcy in 2014 owing $193,456.17 due to the S.C. Conference, and CF&A recommends those funds be redesignated from the Annual Conference Trustees, specifically from funds from the sale of the Asbury Clark property.
Resolutions this year include a push for awareness and prevention of gun violence, as well as to advocate for services to people with mental illnesses in the S.C. Department of Corrections—a resolution stemming from a major court case involving unconstitutional treatment of inmates.
The Resolution on Gun Violence—submitted by United Methodists in the ecumenical, nonpartisan, nonprofit Faith Coalition on Gun Violence—encourages the S.C. Conference to change the focus on guns and gun violence in our society; raise awareness about gun violence, its prevention and its impact on families and communities; promote responsible gun ownership by providing information about gun safety and security; educate the public about alternatives to violence through conflict resolution; and advocate for civil discourse, cooperation and collaboration for real security and a less violent society and culture.
It also specifies that the conference actively support the aims and purposes of the Faith Coalition on Gun Violence and adopt an official stance against gun violence in all its manifestations in our society, plus promote sustained, reasonable efforts to effect a change in our culture that has allowed such violence to flourish.
The other resolution, A Resolution to Support our Neighbors: The Need for Services to Individuals with Mental Illness in the South Carolina Department of Corrections, specifically instructs the S.C. Conference to urge the director of the SCDC to take all measures necessary to correct the long-standing deficiencies in its mental health program; to urge S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley to request that the S.C. General Assembly appropriate sufficient funds to enable the SCDC to provide adequate mental health services and to correct these deficiencies; and to urge members of the General Assembly to appropriate sufficient funds to do so.
Submitted by two United Methodist pastors, the Rev. John W. Culp and the Rev. Cathy Jamieson-Ogg, the resolution also calls on S.C. UMC Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston to convey the concern and desire of United Methodists throughout South Carolina to the SCDC, the governor and the General Assembly by correspondence and other appropriate means.
Other resolutions could also come before the body if they are presented (with adequate copies) on the first business day of Annual Conference, Monday, June 2.
Pensions and Health Benefits
The conference will see a few major changes in 2015 when it comes to pension and health benefits for clergy, retirees and conference staff.
Most dramatically, the conference will see an increase of 5.5 percent in health benefit premiums—though considering the high loss ration the conference experienced in 2013, that increase is “very good,” said the Rev. David Anderson, conference pensions and health benefits officer.
“Our claims were high—we paid 120 percent of claims—and I was expecting a 16 percent increase,” Anderson said. “Instead, we got 5.5 percent.”
In addition, the conference is shifting from a five-tier insurance premium to a three-tier one, covering Participant Only ($225/month cost), Participant Plus One ($470/month) and Participant Plus Family ($622/month).
Also, Anderson reported, the church cost for 2015 insurance will be uniform for all churches with eligible clergy (a flat $823/month cost), instead of tiered, which Anderson said will make transitions smoother for churches when pastors move mid-year from one church to another. Amounts will not fluctuate.
Finally, regarding pensions, the past service rate will increase 2 percent for clergy who retired with pre-1982 service; they will now get a $725/year pension payment instead of $720/year. And when it comes to pension costs, there will be no increase in percentage for full-time or part-time clergy.
Overall, “The board is continuing to look at ways to get the best coverage for the best price, and streamline our administrative process to save the church money,” Anderson said. “We’re looking at a dynamic future with the Affordable Care Act and how that might affect the costs and types of coverage available.”
Active social media presence
As social media continues to help the dialogue at Annual Conference, communications leaders are embracing a stronger and more intentional conversation this year, encouraging an active social media presence at Annual Conference.
The conference Media and IT Team invites people to consider joining in the conversation online, even for the first time. All conversations will use the hashtag #umcsc and will focus on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The Rev. Josh McClendon said using social media at Annual Conference can help delegates’ conversation and connection during the event, and also help people from home participate in the play-by-play and see the action and business that takes place on the floor.
“Social media connects us to not only other South Carolinians, but also other United Methodists across the Connection as they track and follow along,” McClendon said.
He encouraged new users to start Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts and begin practicing now so they feel comfortable dialoguing during Annual Conference.
New this year is a Delegates’ Concern Form. If anyone has any issues or concerns at the event, whether this is to do with lodging, restaurants or anything within the realm of the four-day event, conference organizers encourage people to fill out the form and turn it in so they are aware of the problem and can effectively address it.
Also, childcare will be offered during Annual Conference. Because conference is occurring earlier than in years past, and schools are still in session, this year childcare will be offered as a nursery and only for children who are not school age. The nursery will be housed at Highland Park UMC, Florence, Monday and Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. For evening services Sunday through Tuesday, the nursery will be at Pisgah UMC, Florence, from 6:30-9:30 p.m. Cost is $30/child for all three days, or $10/day. If only using the nursery for one of the services, or for just a few hours one day, the cost is only $5. To sign up or for more information, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or 843-662-9611.
For more about AC2014, visit www.umcsc.org/home/resources/2014-annual-conference.
AC2014 in brief:
• Theme, “A More Excellent Way: Creating Corridors of Faith, Hope and Love”
• Preaching two days from S.C. Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston
• Four-day slate of business on the conference agenda to include passage of $16.71M budget and vote on resolutions opposing gun violence and supporting mentally ill inmates
• Million Book Effort book processing at Florence Civic Center Tuesday, June 3 (For those planning to bring books to the Florence Civic Center during AC, note that books will not be accepted until that Tuesday)
• New Local Church Mission Fair to showcase ministries and missions of churches across S.C.
• Second annual Camps and Retreats golf tournament the day before conference begins (May 31)
• Awards breakfast
• Different floor layout
• Ordination Monday night with preaching from Bishop Larry Goodpaster
• Memorial service Tuesday afternoon featuring preaching from Dr. Kitty Cooper Holtzclaw
• Retirement celebration Tuesday morning
• Worship service celebrating young adults and service, “In the Beginning was the Word,” Tuesday night, also including a celebration of the Million Book Effort
• Bible studies featuring Dr. Robin Dease
Top needs for Annual Conference:
• Volunteer for Million Book Effort book processing at www.millionbookeffort.org
• Final book donations and monetary donations for books at www.millionbookeffort.org
• Prayer for God’s spirit to guide all