Annual Conference 2022 opened in worship, with uplifting music and prayers presented by the conference’s House Praise Band.

Bishop Gary Mueller welcomed those gathered, saying it’s good to be back all together. In 2020, Annual Conference was held virtually, and in 2021 the conference was hybrid. “We’ve traveled many miles since we were all together in 2019,” he said. 

During a time of personal privilege, Bishop Mueller said he is well after a time of illness. “There has been much speculation about my retirement, but this morning the judicial council issued a memorandum of clarification.” He said that Judicial Conference will be held in November this year, and newly elected bishops and active bishops will be assigned to districts on Jan. 1, 2023.

Bishop Mueller said he will continue to be a bishop until the normal retirement date in 2024. “Come Jan. 1, I will be assigned to a new area or back to Arkansas for a couple of years. We’ll see what happens.” 

As to the tension and uncertainty concerning this year’s Annual Conference, Bishop Mueller told of a shirt he saw that said, “Stay Calm and Trust the Holy Spirit.” He reiterated that all will be well, and we will be amazed at what happens when Jesus is “in the house.”

Episcopal Address

In his Episcopal Address, Bishop Mueller told of controversies in different denominations that are in the news, including the sin of racism, abuse, and defrauding parishioners. Nasty breakups in mainline denominations are not stressed in social media, but they hurt those in the churches who are just trying to make ends meet. He said that people are watching us, they’re observing, they’re taking note of how our message corresponds to how we say we believe. Polls show that belief in Christianity is dropping, and people are just “over” church.

“Why will we assume young people who grew up in the church will come back? Why will we assume those who have never worshiped in a church will be interested in clicking on our website and coming through our doors? Those folks see who we are by our actions. What they see is something more clearly than we do, and it’s that we have forgotten who we are,” the Bishop emphasized. 

When others ask the Bishop how he is, he said he sometimes thinks, “I don’t even know if I like the church much anymore. … I can deal with a lot, and put up with a lot, but I cannot deal with the fighting, attacking, demonizing, and wounding, whether on the floor of Annual Conference, or in the echo chamber of conversations that occur on a daily basis, or by someone sitting behind a keyboard and typing. We are an Annual Conference full of deeply wounded people. … I understand where we are at. We’re grieving, but friends, it’s not good to dump, to blame others, to try to win, and not only that, it’s not Christian. I don’t understand why people are trying to win a battle that should not even be fought. It’s about discerning where people believe they should be, allowing them to follow the call God is making on their heart.” 

“Unless you find a cure, you are ill. We have a cure, and that cure is to confess that indeed we have forgotten who we are and to confess that we need to repent and to get about the business of living in a new way… We are in a crisis, a soul-draining crisis, with implications for generations. The only way we can address it is to remember who we really are. We can rediscover who we are if we’re willing to take the risk of what it means to really change.” 

Bishop Mueller said we must take a leap of faith right over all the things we have wanted to focus on. “We must see beyond ourselves and see what God is doing. It takes work – discernment, acts of humility and listening to what God really wants. It takes a leap of faith to see people other than you as being valid, to set aside your own agenda.” Paul told the Corinthian church that they were a broken church, but they could find a way forward in unity by taking exactly that kind of leap. “The same thing will work for us.” 

Moving forward, the Bishop said we must “practice being the church in our current heartbreaking condition by being witness to how Jesus operates, allow people to find where they need to land, and work in ministry together. A leap of faith church does not have to solve every issue we think divides us. We CAN be a leap of faith church. Is the United Methodist Church willing to take this leap? That, my brothers and sisters, is the question. It is the question every one of us will have to answer.”

Business Session

Our afternoon sessions at Annual Conference included hearing reports from many areas of ministry, which the Bishop calls “the cornerstone” of the Conference. Reports were given by Rev. Rashim Merriwether, Special Assistant to the Bishop on Ethnic Concerns and Initiatives and Senior Pastor at Hunter FUMC, on the work of dismantling the sin of racism; Amy Ezell, director of the Center of Communication, discussed how the past year has included a movement “back to the basics” for the Center for Communication; Michelle Moore, Developer of Clergy Recruitment, reported on the work in the Culture of Call ministry area; Mary Lewis Dassinger, 200,000 More Reasons Project Coordinator, discussed the implications of food insecurity on Arkansas children; and Rev. Wayne Clark, president and CEO of the Methodist Foundation for Arkansas, gave a report outlining a week’s worth of work at the foundation.

Other actions included the adoption of the Committee on Finance and Administration report, which includes the budget; and adoption of the session rules, the agenda for the conference, and the consent calendar.

Service of Commissioning and Ordination

Wednesday afternoon was devoted to honoring those who are being commissioned and ordained into ministry. Answering the call into Christ’s priesthood include Chase Burns and Lyn Poplin, ordination as elder; Ryan Bacchus, Virginia Brown, Annie Lankford, and Timothy Rushing, commission as provisional members preparing for ordained ministry as elders; and Edna Hargraves, recognition of orders from a sister denomination. Worship included a word from Bishop Mueller and a Service of Holy Communion.

Thursday morning’s conference sessions will begin at 8 a.m. and will be live-streamed on the ARUMC Facebook page.