As I prepared to attend my second annual conference on behalf of Glenn, Donn Ann Weber and Robert Gilleo invited me to step behind the curtain – not the curtain hiding Professor Marvel posing as the Wizard of Oz, but the curtain behind which the logistical and organizational work of the conference takes place. I was honored to be invited and delighted to serve as a marshal, helping check in and organize the more than 300 clergy registered to march in the procession at Wednesday evening’s Service of Licensing, Commissioning, and Ordination.
Working with the other marshals, including our own Senior Pastor Alice Rogers, gave me a chance to meet clergy and laity from other churches. I especially enjoyed getting to know Terri Lemons, Senior Pastor of Newnan Chapel United Methodist Church, who served as one of the conference’s worship service coordinators. I also bonded immediately with the lay leader from her church – we are both retired women who loved our work, love the positive changes retirement has brought to our lives, and love using our gifts as volunteers for our respective churches. A fine and fun friendship was formed.
As we assisted the clergy, I enjoyed asking about the red stoles they wore. Many were ordination gifts, others were made from stoles handed down from family members. One was a gift to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the ordination of women and its design incorporated the name of every woman mentioned in the Bible. Another was decorated with crocheted crosses handmade by women in her church to adorn the stole for her ordination. Each clergy had a different stole and every stole had a story. The next morning, the conference’s collection of stole stories added another chapter as Bishop Sue accepted the gift of two seersucker stoles in celebration of her first time participating in North Georgia’s traditional Seersucker Thursday.
Glenn folks were energized by many opportunities to concretely support Bishop Sue’s “Show Your Work” theme at last week’s annual conference in Athens. Pastor Alice introduced professor Deb MacFarland who spoke about global health at the (huge) laity dinner. Reverend Jimmy Moor preached at the retirement service. Matthew Pinson (outgoing conference lay leader) reported from General Conference that we will meet in 2019 in a special session to discuss “The Way Forward.” Reverend Donn Ann Weber was our conference secretary. Robert Gilleo had major logistical duties making sure that every meeting and worship service functioned smoothly. Our voting representatives - Andrew Johnson, Ginger Smith, Carolyn Gilbert, Carole Adams (district delegate) Ellie McQuaig (young adult) and Steve Napier (Action Ministries) - attended the Reconciling Ministries luncheon. Reverends Susan, Blair, and Brent were present, along with many former Glenn pastoral staff members. Stewart Voegtlin represented Candler and Joseph McBrayer was the conference photographer. Diane Bryant and Yvette Weatherly were shown in a missions video report. Winnie Hoover and Annette Stephens were honored at the memorial service. Glenn’s nineteen (altar guild) needlepoint Stations of the Cross were a special display in the prayer room.
Last week I was honored to attend the North Georgia Annual Conference as a delegate for our great church! I had never been to Annual Conference, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. One of the first things I noticed right away was how connected the United Methodist Church is. I could have a conversation with someone from almost any church in the conference and we would inevitably share a connection, be it having had the same pastor, knowing some of the same people or both having gone to Methodist colleges.
Almost immediately I realized that four major stages of my life were represented in this one place. There were clergy and lay persons from my home church of Carrollton First UMC; there were dozens of friends and teachers from LaGrange College; Candler School of Theology also had a strong presence in both clergy and lay delegates; and finally the clergy and laity from Glenn Memorial. The convergence of all of these parts of my life impressed upon me that much of my faith formation has been influenced by the North Georgia Conference (NGC).
The NGC highlighted some awesome individuals who are serving God in a multitude of ways throughout North Georgia. This was my first opportunity to hear our new Bishop, Bishop Sue, speak. She proved to be a dynamic speaker and offered pointed and prophetic messages. I was excited to see Gerald Ricks leading an amazing choir that rocked the ordination service! I was moved by Rev. Cynthia Vaughan’s retirement speech, where she succinctly recapped her ministry, but also called the church to be accountable for the people on the margins (all in the allotted two minutes). And of course, our own Robert Gilleo, serving The Church behind the scenes as the great organizer of all things!
Though the people and groups who had helped form my faith were present, along with many others, I was surprised at some of the things that weren’t present. I did not feel a sense of a vision for the future of our conference, only a recognition of what has and is being done. There was no sense of repentance of where we have failed as a church. There were very few discussions on issues of justice, other than from some of the organizations that we support (i.e. UMC Children’s Home, Action Ministries, Murphy Harpst, etc.). No mention of the 9 executions last year and the one so far this year. No mention of the legislation being passed or not passed in our state. No mention of issues of refugees and immigrants. No mention of the profound amount of racism that is prevalent in our community nor of the institutions/systems that support it.
As someone who holds social justice at the center of my personal faith, I think I had hoped and perhaps falsely expected to see something different last week at Annual Conference. I had hoped and expected to see a Church acknowledging it flaws, working to create equity and justice in the world and having conversations around important issues. Instead, it felt at times as if this is an institution that is content where it is and not eager to discuss divisive topics.
I know that the United Methodist Church – from local churches to the North GA Conference, up to General Conference is a church that is made of individuals. Almost every conversation I had with the many people that I knew at NGC last week pointed to the fact that many of us want change, greater strides towards inclusion and more work towards universal justice. I’m sure there were just as many people present last week who felt contrary to me. Though it can be frustrating, I know that our diversity of ideals and ideas is part of what I value about a church community. I’m hopeful that we will continue to foster discussions about growth, about a vision for the future and to define our mission as a church united to follow God’s work in the world.
Annual Conference was most definitely a different time of meeting together! It was energized by our new Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, who has claimed us as her own already. By the time of conference, she had visited every district, and many churches within North Georgia. She wants congregations to find ways to use young persons to be active in the life of the church, and so, the official meeting started with young fresh faces and voices who introduced“Bishop Sue” with a jazzy rap version of a song taken from “Hamilton”, the Broadway hit. The crowd really loved this innovative, exciting way to start the conference. I immediately thought of Charlotte Golden’s sermon on Children’s Sabbath this year, and wished Charlotte and other Glenn youngsters had been there to hear it!
Our new bishop is not a lady expecting fanfare and grand entrances, but rather a down-to-earth preacher who immediately shared with us her focus for every church: “to see that the Holy Spirit has a place in every heart in every church.” Her text for her first sermon was taken from Ephesians 4:1-6. I encourage you to read it, looking at each section Paul shared with the church at Ephesus. If you love those who love you, big deal (“whoop”) but true Christians love even when they don’t love us back. In the church there is NO THEM, it is all US. That is God’s call on our lives. Christ is our cornerstone and disciples are built together and held together by the Holy Spirit.
Bishop Sue called this conference SHOW YOUR WORK with images relating to WORSHIP THAT INSPIRES ACTION. Prayer and scripture plus preparation equals excellent worship. In each session, the worship services had been carefully planned for months. Our own Robert Gilleo, Dr. Don Saliers, and Donn Ann Weber were part of each plan and the services were inspiring. That, for me, was the biggest difference in this year’s conference. We had reports, often in new, inventive ways, and heard how the church is solvent and ready to move forward in every area. But the “show your work” part of the conference gave us insights into the care and planning for each phase of worship. For example, there was a replica of a flowing fountain, Fount of Ebeneezer, with beautiful silk cloths flowing down like the river. Professional artist’s banners were displayed. Lights and visual images enhanced our learning about conference business. Our Jimmy Moor preached a loving and personal message relating to those who have now joined the Church Triumphant. Specially prepared stones with the names of the beloved departed ones were placed within the flowing water in the fount. We were honored to remember Winnie Hoover and Annette Stephens this year.
There were a variety of musical forms used in the worship services and it was fun to hear the praise band from Oak Grove UMC and the thrilling new music of Impact UMC. But the music which was the most inspiring and uplifting to me was in the Service of Ordination. Gerald Ricks brought his choir, plus brass and percussion. Hearing Gerald and his team explain their reasons behind choosing certain pieces was illuminating. The crowd was on their feet early in the service as Gerald’s group led us in uplifting, exciting song! Bishop Sue’s message to the young ordinands was very real, yet inspiring. She spoke about hardships they would face, and frankly, as a laity member, it made me sad to hear her talk of issues we church people present to our pastors which can sometimes make their jobs personally painful and difficult. She reminded them that they would serve in far off places, but they would grow to love each church family. I do pray that is so. I pray we, too, can provide the innovation and energy our pastors need to bring vibrant worship and active participation by our church family.