Annual Conference 2016 emphasizes revival, discipleship

By Amy Forbus and Eric Van Meter
Editor and Special Contributor

HOT SPRINGS—“From Revival Flows Discipleship” may have been the official theme of the 2016 Arkansas Annual Conference, but following Bishop Gary E. Mueller’s Monday morning episcopal address, the gathering gained a refrain: “Yay, God!”

Bishop Gary E. Mueller delivers the 2016 Episcopal Address. AUM PHOTO BY AMY FORBUS

Bishop Gary E. Mueller delivers the 2016 Episcopal Address.
AUM PHOTOS BY AMY FORBUS

The phrase found its way into reports, speeches, video updates and social media hashtags during the June 19-22 meeting, held at Bank of the Ozarks Arena in Hot Springs.

Mueller’s episcopal address celebrated the work that God has done and urged churches to continue seeking spiritual revival. He outlined some things the Holy Spirit has made clear about spiritual revival during the past year.

“Spiritual revival is not a moment; it’s a movement,” he said. He encouraged those gathered to go back to their congregations and continue seeking revival, because it is “not another damn conference program. Amen? It’s a gift of grace. ­There is so much I could say at this point, but I’m only gonna say one thing: Yay, God!”

He then offered three important decisions United Methodists need to make as they move forward: Are we ready to decide that joyful discipleship flows from spiritual revival? Are we ready to decide that making disciples of Jesus Christ who make disciples flows from spiritual revival? Are we ready to decide that the discipleship Jesus calls us to flows from spiritual revival?

Mueller also addressed the events of General Conference 2016 that resulted in the delegates asking the Council of Bishops for leadership in the ongoing discussion on human sexuality.

“We responded by proposing a commission to discern a way forward. And the General Conference voted to follow it. Barely—but they voted,” he said. “And this is an issue the church needs to address because there are people of good conscience and deep faith with differing opinions on human sexuality.”

He called on the church to use the opportunity to address more than just human sexuality, such as our theological identity as Wesleyan Christians.

“We need to discover how we form the culture in which we live, instead of being transformed by it,” he said.

Bishop Gary Mueller commissions the Rev. Corey Tyson Read as her husband, Dan Read, prays beside them and awaits his turn. AUM PHOTO BY AMY FORBUS

Bishop Gary Mueller commissions the Rev. Corey Tyson Read as her husband, Dan Read, prays beside them and awaits his turn.

Among the disciples he challenged to such work were those ordained and commissioned as part of Tuesday night’s Service for the Ordering of Ministry: nine new elders ordained in full connection and one new deacon in full connection; one recognition of orders from another denomination, welcoming that pastor as an elder in full connection; and 12 provisional elders and two provisional deacons. The combined average age of these clergy members was 40.5.

Guest preachers

The preacher for opening worship was a guest preacher when Mueller invited her; neither of them knew at the time that she would soon become a member of the Arkansas Conference. The Rev. Dr. Jan Davis is moving from her position as senior pastor of First UMC Rowlett, Texas, to the same role at Central UMC Fayetteville, making her the first woman to lead the largest congregation in the Conference.

In her sermon, based on the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter in the eighth chapter of Luke, Davis encouraged people not to listen to those who proclaim the death of the institutional church.

The Rev. Dr. Jan Davis preached at opening worship of the 2016 Arkansas Annual Conference.

The Rev. Dr. Jan Davis preached at opening worship of the 2016 Arkansas Annual Conference.

“Just as Jairus would not accept the message that his daughter was dead, neither do we have to accept the message that the church is dead,” she said.

Instead, she contended that many disciples simply need to be awakened, because contemporary culture, even church culture, has lulled them into complacency.

“We need to go to the feet of Jesus, and ask Jesus to wake us up. We cannot wake ourselves…. We need Jesus Christ to wake us,” she said. “And you know, anything you want to revive, any revival starts at the feet of Jesus. Anything you want to revive starts with prayer.”

The Rev. Sam Yun, pastor of the new community of Embrace Church in Los Altos, California, led two teaching sessions. He proclaimed that the vision of spiritual revival is no anomaly; rather, it’s the standard of the church of Jesus Christ.

He said that Embrace Church began as a small group testing a hunch that life with God is better than life without God.

“A hunch,” he said, “became a home for this group of motley individuals who are now leaders in the church. God did it not through research, not through this very firm dogma, but with this hunch that seemed to be resonating with people.”

He challenged Arkansas churches to provide a view of the God who is love, who first loved us, who is greater than anyone else in this world.

The Rev. Sam Yun of Embrace Church in Los Altos, California, served as the teaching pastor for this year's Arkansas Annual Conference gathering.

The Rev. Sam Yun of Embrace Church in Los Altos, California, served as the teaching pastor for this year’s Arkansas Annual Conference gathering.

“They are actually open to hearing about a God who loves them,” he said of people who are disconnected from church or religion. “Our purpose is not to bring people to church. It is to bring people to God.”

Yun said the church needs to remember that “ministry together is always better than ministry alone,” and that a sharp division between clergy and laity doesn’t help.

“In the Cal-Pac Annual Conference, we no longer talk so much about clergy and laity. We speak of the Body in one breath, in one word. We call that ‘claity,’” he said.

Closing worship featured preaching from the Rev. Dr. Emanuel Cleaver III of St. James UMC Kansas City, Missouri. He spoke of the importance of a person’s name, as emphasized in Scripture.

“There’s an individual, a child of God, behind each and every name,” he said.

Cleaver pointed out that Jesus doesn’t go in to Lazarus’s tomb to raise him from the dead; he simply stands outside and calls his name.

“When the Lord calls your name, it will give you new life!” he said. “When the Lord calls your name, it will give you new purpose! When the Lord calls your name, it transforms you!”

And we should not discount the power of Jesus’ name.

“The name of the Lord has strength, power, and love,” he said. “Therefore, we ought to go out and use the name of the Lord as much as we can.”

Arkansas Conference lay leader Karon Mann delivers the Laity Address.

Arkansas Conference lay leader Karon Mann delivers the Laity Address.

Laity, youth addresses

In the Laity Address, Conference lay leader Karon Mann challenged disciples of Jesus Christ to serve in the local and worldwide community, rather than remaining within their church building’s walls. She shared that at General Conference, she attended a Bible study that encouraged people to carry out the Great Commission in their own neighborhoods. “You don’t need special equipment,” she said. “You are the equipment.”

“We can’t be caught sitting in our pews, waiting for an encore of the church of yesterday,” Mann said. “We must be the church of today. As we are moving from revival to discipleship, the church has to leave the building.”

For the Youth Address, the immediate past president, current president and future president of the Conference Council on Youth Ministries each spoke to the realities and the vision of young people as engaged disciples of Jesus Christ.

Madison Akins-Banman, Lauren Lovelady and Lexie Burleson encouraged the Conference and local churches to involve youth in new ways.

Lovelady named some problems youth see with current church structure.

“Youth are being placed on committees that do not match their gifts, talents or interests,” she said. “We have been given a seat at the table, but we desperately want to eat the meal before us.”

Burleson told the story of Refuge, a weekend youth retreat, coming close to being discontinued several years ago. However, with an infusion of new ideas and the Holy Spirit, it has grown so much that this year, two identical sessions of Refuge will take place to double the event’s capacity.

“Youth don’t want to be told about revival, we want to be a part of it,” she said.

Burleson also shared the importance of building relationships with other generations, adding that she participates in a small group with two adult mentors. “These relationships shape youths’ outlook on the world and hold more power than we give them credit,” she said.

“You need us and we need you.”

Hunger initiative extended

In keeping with the denominational focus on ministry with the poor, the Arkansas Conference voted to extend its three-year childhood hunger initiative for an additional three years. Called “200,000 Reasons” because approximately 200,000 children in Arkansas go to bed hungry each night, the effort includes not just food pantries, but also educational programs such as Cooking Matters classes in partnership with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and the No Kid Hungry campaign, and advocacy work to provide a public witness to the problem of childhood hunger.

The Rev. J.J. Whitney, who leads the 200,000 Reasons initiative, reported that 34 percent of Arkansas Conference congregations have participated in some way, but the goal remains 100 percent. She highlighted the upcoming Paysinger Hunger Summit, set for Sept. 10 in Little Rock.

“Church, we’re just getting started,” she said, adding that with creativity, resources and the Holy Spirit, “we could be the reason that 200,000 kids don’t go hungry in Arkansas.”

Business decisions

Business sessions will be conducted differently when the Annual Conference next convenes.The Annual Conference approved changes to both session rules and standing rules. Under the new session rules, discussion of petitions and resolutions will be streamlined. The rules will still allow for debate, but will eliminate amendments and substitutions.

“Our goal is not that one side wins,” said Conference secretary the Rev. Aubrietta Jones. “Our goal is that God wins in our hearts and minds and souls.”

Robert’s Rules of Order will still be used in a more limited role when not in conflict with the session rules or the Book of Discipline.

The Rev. Mackey Yokem presented changes to the standing rules which simplify that document. Among the changes: a two-thirds rather than three-quarters majority will be required to change or suspend the standing rules, and a 60 percent vote will now be required to change Conference structure.

Members also approved a proposal from the Episcopacy Committee and Trustees to sell the episcopal residence. Money from the sale will be invested with the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas so that it is available if needed for another residence. Interest from that investment will go toward a housing allowance for the bishop.

The Pension and Health Benefits report included a vote that the money remaining in the former Conference insurance account will be used to fund existing pension liability, and to guard against future liability. The Council on Finance and Administration report included explanations of changes in the budget resulting from the new methods of apportionment, approved last year under the name Arkansas Tithe Initiative.

Clergywomen of the Arkansas Conference took a moment for a photo before processing into the Service for the Ordering of Ministry.

Clergywomen of the Arkansas Conference took a moment for a photo before processing into the Service for the Ordering of Ministry.

Mourning and celebration

Bishop Mueller asked Conference members to join him in praying for those affected by the June 12 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. “It is a national tragedy on so many different fronts,” he said before he began the prayer.

Another reason for mourning involved the death of an Annual Conference lay member. Nina Winningham from First UMC Harrisburg on Monday night passed away in her hotel room. She served as church secretary at First UMC Harrisburg, and as a Lay Servant.

“She believed she was doing God’s work here at Annual Conference,” said the Rev. Clark Atkins, her pastor, on Tuesday morning before he led the Conference in a memorial prayer.

The Conference also celebrated two ministry milestones. The Rev. Victoria Rebeck, director of deacon ministry development and provisional membership with the denomination’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, spoke to mark the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Order of Deacons. The Rev. Adam Kirby, chair of the Arkansas Conference Order of Deacons, offered a prayer of thanksgiving as deacons stood to be recognized.

The Rev. Pam Estes, chair of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, reflected on the 60th anniversary of the denomination granting full clergy rights for women. She expressed appreciation to clergy brothers “who advocate for us by reminding their congregations that if they’re lucky, they might get a woman.”

Estes celebrated that women are “faithful, joyful, hope-filled partners with Jesus, the risen Lord and Savior,” and wondered at what may come next.

“Who knows what barriers may disappear as we move into the future, remembering that we are all in Christ?” she asked. “Who knows what may happen in the future as we follow the commission to love as God loves us?”

The Rev. Naomi Rogers, the first Korean American woman  ordained in the Arkansas Conference, receives her stole from her mentor, the Rev. Dede Roberts.

The Rev. Naomi Rogers, the first Korean American woman ordained in the Arkansas Conference, receives her stole from her mentor, the Rev. Dede Roberts.

The celebration of full clergy rights for women took another form in the selection of the Rev. Bonda Moyer to preach at the Celebration of Life service. In 1993, she became the first female district superintendent in Arkansas. Clergywomen firsts at this Conference included the ordination of the Rev. Naomi Punamchong Rogers as an elder in full connection, the first Korean American female ordained in the history of Methodism in Arkansas; and the Rev. Aubrietta Jones serving as the first woman secretary of the Arkansas Annual Conference.

Resolutions

Two resolutions came before the Annual Conference for discussion and vote.

The first, a resolution to “Encourage the Formation of Accountable Discipleship Groups in the Local Church,” passed overwhelmingly, with no speeches against it.

A second resolution, written in support of the Council of Bishops’ proposal approved by General Conference regarding human sexuality and titled “A Resolution to Support the Council of Bishops’ Proposal, A Way Forward,” prompted more discussion, including time spent in small groups at the direction of the bishop. Speeches against this resolution dealt less with the proposal approved by General Conference and more with the composition of the resolution itself, including that it called for haste when the Holy Spirit cannot be rushed, and that the language used may promote disunity. It failed on a written ballot by a vote of 310 to 356.

Statistics

Director of administrative services and Conference treasurer Todd Burris delivered the statistical report, which included a slight decline in attendance (3 percent) and membership (less than 1 percent).

However, reports from local churches indicate that in that same time frame, more than 1.4 million people were served by United Methodist community outreach efforts in Arkansas.

“That’s a 7 percent increase from the previous year,” Burris said.