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Texas Annual Conference 2021

By Jane Frantz

Sunday, May 30-Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Texas Annual Conference (TAC) always has seemed like a combination of revival, business meeting, and family reunion. This year, not so much, since the TAC met via Zoom. Notably, the family reunion element was missing, as delegates were unable to see each other.

Long-standing tradition in Texas Annual Conference mandates that the TAC begin with singing the Charles Wesley hymn, “And Are We Yet Alive?” This year was no different in that respect, except the choir, orchestra and other leaders of the opening worship were In The Woodlands and the rest of us weren’t. Bishop Scott Jones even preached on this hymn in his Episcopal address.

1. And are we yet alive,/and see each other's face? Glory and thanks to Jesus give/for his almighty grace!

In the nineteenth century, circuit riding preachers sang the first stanza to congratulate themselves on surviving a year of epidemics, floods, and highwaymen. This year Bishop Jones and several other speakers referenced stanza 3:

2. What troubles have we seen,/what mighty conflicts past, fightings without, and fears within,/since we assembled last!

Oh, yes—“What troubles have we seen”! Jones named 6 different concerns: the Pandemic, of course, plus political polarization, Winter Storm Uri--aka, the big freeze, racism, the weakening of the church and of Christianity, and the uncertainty associated with decisions postponed when General Conference 2020 was delayed. During Jones’ discussion of racism, he cued a video interview with UM Bishop Sharmel Lewis of Virginia. Bishop Lewis related her experience of being pulled over by a state trooper on her way to preach one Sunday morning. The trooper asked questions such as, ”Do you know that is a white church?” and “What’s a Bishop?” Bishop Lewis kept her hands visible on the steering wheel and remembered similar encounters between black drivers and law enforcement officers, some of which turned violent.

Monday, May 31 Lay Delegate Session

While many people headed outdoors to enjoy Memorial Day, church leaders hunched over their computers. John Esquivel, conference lay leader, led the lay delegates in a session focused on Uncertainty. A panel discussed the discernment process employed by various churches to focus on ministry and outreach. Mission statements tend to be too broad, they said. Amping up praise worship doesn’t help (we don’t need to replace Carmon with a skinny guy with weird hair). Of vital importance is engaging the neighbors, offering meeting space for groups, using undeveloped land for a community garden, serving as mentors and tutors to school students, that sort of thing.

Churches must ask themselves these questions: Who are we NOW?, Who is our neighbor NOW?, and What is God calling us to do NOW. Emphasis on NOW because churches often lose touch with their neighborhoods as demographics change.

Business Session I

Midmorning brought the first of six business sessions. After a prayer for Memorial Day, the Conference adopted the Consent Calendar. This is a long list of noncontroversial reports previously published and approved with a single motion. Praise God.

The Service of Remembrance followed that. This is a memorial service for TAC pastors and spouses. The first year Frances Fagan didn’t attend TAC in person, a rumor circulated that she too had died. After that, she would carefully read through the list of those honored. They were her contemporaries.

Deer Park’s own Rev. Marlin Fenn preached at this service. Now a trim little guy with a gray beard, I first met him in 1969 when he was a teenager in MYF. He is retiring after forty years of ministry. Marlin reminisced about growing up in Deer Park in a bedroom always lit by a flare at Shell Refinery. He made an analogy between the ever-present light of that flare and his mentors and advisors who have gone on before. He struck a positive note by mentioning that the worldwide church seems to be growing fastest in places where church is oppressed.

Afternoon Business Session II included reports from many different agencies.

· United Methodist Church is working with the church in Laos. Laotian church members made the lovely clergy stoles given to the newly ordained pastors.

· Pastor Deborah Proctor Hawbolt of the Center for Clergy Excellence reported on the college internship program.

· Conference of Racial and Ethnic Ministries reported.

· We learned that Fairbanks United Methodist Church is closing, the property will be sold, and the members relocating to nearby Foundry UMC.

· Rev. Robert Besser of the Center for Congregational Excellence spoke on Building a Bridge to the Future.

· Rev. Elijah Stansell represented the African-American Church Initiative.

· Rev. Artie Cadar of the Hispanic Church Initiative talked about Revive Church, formerly First UMC of Pasadena.

· Jill Daniels of the “We Love All God’s Children” ministry related how it is reaching out to underserved and unchurched children with children’s centers at Kirbyville, Crossroads, and Bear Creek UMCs.

· Jessica Somerville of the Church and Community Health Initiative explained how this program provides community health workers and is cooperating with Walgreen’s to host vaccine clinics.

· Eddie Erwin spoke on Youth and Young Adult ministries.

· There were reports from United Methodist Men and United Methodist Women, from Small Membership Churches, and lastly the Copeland Awards for Evangelism.

Business Session III, emphasis on Business

The Board of Pensions held a vote on moving Conference employee retirement plan to a defined benefit program, rather like a 401(k) program. There was a discussion of group health benefits also.

The Council on Finance and Administration reported that apportionments were down in 2020, no surprise when churches were meeting virtually. TAC was able to keep expenses down, however, with help from the Payroll Protection Plan, and remains financially sound. Despite the Pandemic, both the West and East Districts paid 100% of their apportionments. Hearty applause here.

Another cost saving factor is the “Discipling” (strategic mapping) plan, which seeks to lower conference overhead and decentralize staff. Related to that was the report of the Property Taskforce. One of the two properties being considered for sale was the Conference office, located in the museum district. The Taskforce speculated that conference staff might be reduced to a point at which the building was no longer needed. Another rationale for selling the property was that Conference headquarters should be moved closer to the geographic center of the Conference. Turns out, that center is not all that far away and the population center is actually quite close. Further study indicated that a sale was not a good idea at this time.

Another other property considered for sale is that formerly occupied by Bethany UMC on Linkwood. This facility will be sold, probably next year.

Next, the conference voted on three resolutions:

Resolution for a plan of allocation of assets and discernment of relationship to enable thoughtful and prayerful decisions by Texas Annual Conference Churches, Laity, and clergy. This establishes a Task Force after General Conference to deal with issues that arise if a congregation or clergyperson wishes to leave the TAC. This passed

Resolution regarding alignment decision to be made by the Texas Annual Conference. Procedure to follow if the TAC, as a whole, desires to leave the United Methodist Church, following General Conference. This passed.

Resolution urging the observance of a moratorium on all trials. This refers particularly to trials of clergy who officiate same-sex weddings or are involved in other issues related to LGBTQ relationships. This did not pass.

Whew! Long day.

Tuesday, June 1, began with business session IV, reports from various conference institutions.

Houston Methodist Hospital System reported on the impact that COVID had on its facilities. As a result of the year-long pandemic, this system plans new emphasis on infectious diseases and public health.

The President of Lakeview Methodist Conference Center spoke next. Since all activities at Lakeview were canceled last year, the camp lost 2.6 million dollars. Wow. However, it has a full season of events planned for this year. Deer Park UMC youth are attending Session II of summer camp, June 21-25. April 2, 2022, is the date for a 75th anniversary celebration for Lakeview. As usual, Lakeview is hiring staff (banners all around Palestine), soliciting donations, and looking for volunteers.

Methodist Retirement Centers reported that there were no COVID outbreaks on MRC campuses, although they did have some individual cases. Residents struggled with being isolated and unable to receive visitors. Staff developed some creative ways to help them, like the visitation trailer at the League City facility. This trailer has two compartments, one for resident and the other for family with a window in between them. Each has its own ventilation system. Another developed “hugging walls,” heavy, clear curtains with long gloves attached. They also created parttime jobs for family members so they qualified to enter the facilities and visit residents. MRC has 12 locations with 1850 residents.

Last item in this session was a report of the Chancellors, TAC’s lawyers, often a tense moment. However, this year they cried in unison, “No lawsuits pending against the Texas Annual Conference!” Hearty applause. They did say that they are monitoring issues with Boy Scouts, including sexual harassment charges and bankruptcy.

Keynote Speaker, Bishop Reuben Saenz

Bishop Saenz, originally from the Rio Texas Conference, now serves the Great Plains Conference in Kansas and Nebraska. He spoke on “Keys to Growing a Multi-Racial, Multi-Ethnic, Cultural, and Lingual Reality.” Key 1, Saenz said, is to embrace the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cultural, lingual reality in the US. The Gospel has always been that way. The story of Peter and Cornelius, often called the Conversion of Cornelius, is really the Conversion of Peter. Texas is already majority non-white, and the rest of the country is headed that way.

Key 2 is to reject single stories—stereotypes. One story cannot define a group. Saenz used himself as an example of a non-traditional image of Hispanics. He went to SFA and played football. Another key in Saenz’ plan is “Take the Next Steps.” God promises Abraham that he will be the father of many nations. So we need to accept all nationalities. He encouraged multi-cultural congregations, bi-lingual staff and signage, congregations sharing spaces, extension campuses, and translating worship services into other languages.

Business Session V, Report from the Center for Connectional Resources and the Board of Trustees

Conference Board of trustees reported that the Conference is responsible for forty properties. There followed a review of the Principles for Disaffiliation, agreed on last year. Last year Grace Fellowship in the Katy area voted to leave the denomination and affiliate with Free Methodists. At Conference, Rev. Diane McGehee, pastor of Bering Memorial United Methodist Church, announced that both she and her congregation were not waiting for the decisions of General Conference, but transferring to the United Church of Christ. The conference voted in favor of letting them go peacefully.

Business Session VI included the report of the General Board of Global Ministries and UMCOR.

General secretary Roland Fernandes referred again to the opening hymn, “And Are We Yet Alive?” when discussing the many concerns his agency faced in relation to the Pandemic. GBGM is sending support to India and Brazil to combat COVID there. It is also concerned with global warming.

TAC Disaster Readiness Coordinator Godfrey Hubert reported that his agency takes Wesley’s first general rule of “Do no Harm” seriously, trying to train volunteers so they don’t make things worse in their cleanup efforts. This agency offers flood buckets, personal care packs and much more. It sponsors pop-up vaccination clinics in underserved areas. It also tells congregations that they need to be insured and to have reserves to cover the deductible.

At this point representatives of 2020 General Conference Delegation appeared to reassure that the proposed meeting of August 29-September 6, 2022, still is considered the 2020 Conference. (Which still could be postponed). Otherwise, new delegates would have to be elected and new rules drawn up.

Plans for TAC 2022 call for the conference being held at the Hilton Americas Hotel in Houston. It will be streamed also and perhaps on Zoom as well.

The Conference officially ended with a Sending Forth Service. New pastor Lataya Simpson preached about the “Cross-pollination of Hate.” The Church produces 2 kinds of fruit, she said, Gifts and Shortcomings.

At 7 PM Tuesday, June 1, the Ordination Service began, with Bishop Saenz preaching. He read from Isaiah, described only as a servant of God. Such a servant of God could be anyone or any group. Servanthood is a covenant between God and people. Each appointment, he told the new pastors, shapes the pastor, and no one is baptized a clergyperson. He urged churches to look beyond food pantry numbers to the source of economic problems, telling the story of the community encountering people floating down the river. This went on until someone suggested they go upriver to see why these people kept coming down. The idea is to “Christify” the world, not the church. Outreach to the community is essential.

Following Saenz’s sermon, new pastors were commissioned, among them our own Thea Curry-Fuson. Deacons and elders also were ordained. An offering was announced for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which provides books for enrolled children birth to age five, in all fifty states and four other countries.

About 8:30 PM, this annual marathon meeting drew to a close. Blessings on Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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