By Jessica Connor
FLORENCE—Calling upon a sovereign God who takes us higher and higher and higher, Bishop Jonathan Holston opened Annual Conference with a message of excellence and dreaming big. And those themes resounded across the four days of conference, showing up in legislation, worship and action.
“When we talk about ‘A More Excellent Way: Creating Corridors of Faith, Hope and Love,’ we are talking about doing something greater, something better,” Holston said, referring to the theme of this year’s conference, held June 1-4 at the Florence Civic Center. “We want people to know we need to be part of a church that will make a difference. My friends, we are braver than we believe, we are stronger than we seem and we are smarter than we think.”
Sunday night’s worship kicked off a four-day slate of business, fellowship, prayer and praise that included passage of a $16.71 million 2015 budget for the S.C. Conference of The United Methodist Church; completion of a massive Million Book Effort literacy drive; a debt forgiveness plan for churches; a new flat-rate “blended premium” plan for church insurance payments; and approval of three conference resolutions addressing humane treatment for mentally ill inmates, gun violence awareness and historic designation of a local church.
“Jesus is telling us that we are to be part of something greater; we should not be satisfied with where we are. We must take the next step forward,” Holston told the more than 2,000 United Methodists gathered for Annual Conference. “He’s calling you to God-sized dreams, God-sized visions. He’s calling you to set the pace. That’s a movement.”
In addition to business and book-packing, Annual Conference also featured ordination and commissioning of 38 clergy; worship and celebrations honoring retiring clergy and memorializing others; a worship celebrating young adults and service, “In the Beginning was the Word”; Bible studies by Dr. Robin Dease; awards; a Local Church Mission Fair to showcase ministries of churches across S.C; and election of a new conference secretary. The Advocate, in partnership with the S.C. Conference, produced a Daily Advocate each day of AC2014 to help people better understand the day’s events and coming legislation.
Budget passes smoothly
Conference quickly and quietly passed a $16.71 million budget for next year that reflects funding levels at 15 percent of average net funds of the S.C. UMC by the year 2015. Those average net funds are now being calculated at a two-year average instead of a four-year average.
Drafted by the conference Council on Finance and Administration, this year’s budget is a slight increase—0.6 percent—from the $16.6 million budget passed last year.
The budget enables the conference to pay for not only global UMC funds like Africa University or General Conference administration, but also S.C. funds such as campus ministries, colleges and retirement homes, camps and retreat ministries and congregational development.
“Overall, the council believes our … 2015 ministry budget to be both a creative challenge, supportive plan and one with proper fiscal oversight,” the Rev. David Surrett, chair of CF&A, told the body on the final day of Annual Conference. “Thank you for your faithful stewardship and support.”
Conference also voted in a new proposal regarding direct billing, which is the bill churches receive from the conference for their pastor’s insurance and pension coverage. 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 has developed a Direct Billing Forgiveness Plan and application form, where churches who are behind are able to apply for forgiveness of their past-due direct bills. It will be a provisional plan in the fall and a permanent plan offered in the first portion of 2015.
Surrett told the body that having direct billing debt “is not healthy financially” for the church or the conference. Currently, the conference has a balance due of nearly $3 million in past-due direct bills.
“Much work has take place from the Cabinet and conference staff to clear these debts, and this is a simple attempt to (fix this),” Surrett told the body.
CF&A also announced they will host two stewardship events to help churches: one at Shandon UMC, Columbia, in September, and one next spring. Watch the Advocate for further details.
Pensions and health
The body also passed a new “blended premium” plan where churches will now pay one flat rate ($823/month) for clergy insurance instead of a fluctuating rate based on the pastor’s insurance tier, which depends on whether a pastor has individual, spousal or family coverage. They also approved a rate increase in health premiums, a new insurance tier structure (from five- to three-tiered) and increased past service rate for pensions. See article.
Conference approved three resolutions this year, plus referred one race reconciliation motion from the floor to Connectional Ministries for consideration. Resolutions include gun violence safety and awareness, humane treatment for mentally ill inmates and historic designation of Central UMC, Spartanburg.
Million Book Effort
Annual Conference also featured the final processing event for the Million Book Effort. Held Tuesday of Annual Conference, volunteers sorted, loaded, boxed and put stickers on thousands of brand-new preschool and elementary books for children in need. Across South Carolina, United Methodists donated more than 312,000 books for the literacy effort. They are being distributed to locations that serve children, including schools, agencies and tutoring and enrichment centers. Book processing events across S.C. began May 26 and ended June 3 at the civic center. See related article.
New conference secretary
The body elected the Rev. Ken Nelson as conference secretary. The Rev. Karen Radcliffe has stepped down to serve her new appointment in a local church.
Dates for next year’s Annual Conference will be June 7-11, 2015, at the Florence Civic Center, moving back to the traditional second-week-of-June time frame to enable schoolchildren to attend, said Holston.
More details about this year’s Annual Conference are throughout this edition, as well as at www.umcsc.org. To order DVDs of various portions of Annual Conference, such as ordination, download the order form at www.umcsc.org/AnnualConferences/2014/scac_order_form_2014.pdf