The Tennessee Annual Conference met this year on June 13th-15th at Brentwood UMC. Belle Meade’s lay delegates to the conference were Marshall Brown, Martha Brooke Martin, and Sam Huh. At-large lay delegates were Judith Wooldridge and Amy Sigmon. Jim Hughes, Sam McGlothlin, Gracie Dugan, Kelli Hamilton, and Regina Girten all attended as clergy delegates for our church.
The Annual Conference meeting is always an opportunity to celebrate our connections, learn about all of the ministries that the churches within our Tennessee Annual Conference support, ordain new clergy, set appointments, worship together, as well as conduct business for the Conference as a whole. In that respect, this year’s Conference meeting was no different. The delegates heard reports on how parts of our apportionment dollars were used to fund such diverse programs and ministries as Wesley Foundations, camps, Miriam’s Promise, Martin Methodist College, Older Adult Ministries and Golden Cross, Stratford Ministries, FreshStart church, and numerous others. On Wednesday night, the Service of Worship saw our very own Regina Girten commissioned as a Provisional Deacon and Kelli Hamilton commissioned as a Provisional Elder. During other portions of the Conference meeting, we heard inspiring sermons and had sessions to brainstorm about resources and ministries within our individual churches and how to have honest and hard conversations about contentious issues.
In the business portions of the meeting, we reviewed the Conference budget and learned how our Council on Finance and Administration has been managing our Conference resources. During their presentation, we learned that over 90% of our Conference’s churches pay 100% of their apportionments; we also learned that due to steps the Council has taken, churches may see a reduction in their apportionment bill next year.
There were three main “hot button” issues before the Conference this year, and we dealt with them through debate and prayer. The first issue concerned the proposed merger of the Tennessee Conference with the Memphis Conference, creating a large conference that would generally span from the Cumberland plateau to the Mississippi River. The Conference voted to approve the continued study of a merger and its effects and ramifications. No merger will actually occur until the study is completed and both the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences vote to merge.
The second issue concerned mass school shootings. A committee within the Conference, the RESOLVE committee, proposed resolutions that urged lay members and churches to offer support and service to local schools and school districts in preparing crisis response and security plans. It also recommended that the Conference send a letter to the Governor and State Legislature in support of the ban of sales of semi-automatic weapons to anyone under the age of 21 and the hiring of security personnel at the schools; it further recommended that the Conference include in the letter that it was not in support of the arming of teachers or school staff. Much like the debate in our country now around the 2nd Amendment, these resolutions sparked lively and impassioned debate. The resolutions were approved by a majority of the Conference delegates.
The third issue that served as an undercurrent to the meetings was how the Conference and Church as a whole were going to grapple with the recommendations of the Commission on the Way Forward. Many of you may be aware that at the last General Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2016, the worldwide delegation was faced with questions of whether or not to ordain practicing homosexual clergy and whether or not to recognize and allow same-sex marriages. The 2016 General Conference did not vote on such matters at that time, however, the Commission on the Way Forward was formed to evaluate, research, and debate the issue and to recommend a course of action for a special called meeting of the worldwide General Conference on February 23-26, 2019. The Commission has finished its work, and its report will be published July 9th. Because the report is not final, and because the General Conference has not yet voted on what to do about any recommendation by the Commission on the Way Forward, no decisions could be or were made at the Annual Conference about the ordination and marriage issues. We will not know until February 23-26th as to what, if anything, the individual Conferences and churches will be asked to decide on the matters.
Both lay and clergy members of the Conference spent much time discussing, both in session and privately, the possible ramifications of any decision made by the General Conference and what choices the Tennessee Conference and individual churches may be faced with as we determine the future of the Church. The delegates discussed how heated the debate around the homosexual issue within our churches may become and about ways that civil conversations could be had in the matter that are respectful and loving to all sides and viewpoints. The over-arching sentiment, however, was that we are Christ’s representatives and that every conversation needed to be steeped in love, respect, and prayer.
The Conference closed Friday afternoon with the setting of appointments for the clergy and their respective churches.
While we clearly have some bumpy roads ahead within our church, both worldwide and within Belle Meade itself, as we navigate tough conversations and decisions concerning the homosexual issue, I was reminded throughout the Conference meeting that we, as Methodists, are really good at ministry and at showing love to other people. Literally, hundreds of thousands of people have been touched and experienced Gods love through our tithes of money, time, service, and prayer. This, above all, is what we are called upon by Christ to be and do – be His hands and love others as we love ourselves; to let others know Him through us. Above all else, we must remember this as we proceed forward.
Martha Brooke Martin