We began the last day of Annual Conference with singing. We sang all week, with a mix of contemporary and traditional hymns, and every day began with singing. We also sang as a way of settling ourselves when things became stressful. Several times when debate on topics became contentious, Bishop Saenz called for singing an old, well lived hymn like Amazing Grace. We would sing a few verses and then return to the debate, all of us calmer and more focused. It was an amazing way to restore order.
Today’s itinerary included voting on many different issues. The Conference Mercy and Justice team introduced resolutions on three issues, the right to peacefully address injustice, welcoming migrants in our midst, and creating a covenant partnership between the Great Plains Conference and the Nigeria Episcopal Area. There was much discussion over wording of the welcoming migrants section, but in the end all three resolutions passed easily.
Next was a report from the Nominating Committee. This is much like our local church’s nominations for committees, only the list of names and positions goes on for pages!
We voted on constitutional amendments to the Book of Discipline, the official stances and rules of the United Methodist Church. These were the only paper ballots we used all week. (All other votes were taken by verbal consent, raising of hands, or when suspected to be especially close, by standing and being counted.) There were 5 amendments to discuss. The first was on gender justice and added language stating that men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The second amendment added gender, ability, age, and marital status to the list of characteristics that do not bar people from church membership. There were two amendments that clarified the ways delegates to General Conference and bishops are elected in the central conferences (conferences outside of the U.S.). The last amendment was on provisions to hold individual bishops accountable outside of their conference or jurisdiction. In order for these amendments to pass, they will need a 2/3 majority of all votes in all conferences, so we will not know the outcome until ballots from every conference worldwide have been collected and counted.
The Treasure’s Report was next. Our Conference Treasurer and Director of Administrative Services, Rev. Gary Beach is retiring. He has been the treasurer for a number of years and led the impossibly complicated task of combining the finances of three separate conferences. He is highly respected by the clergy and laity and we gave him standing ovations.
Assorted details of the proposed Conference budget were clarified and the budget passed unanimously.
The last vote of Annual Conference, and one of the most contentious, was on health insurance. Health insurance is always a complicated topic and today was no exception. The issue was whether the Conference should supply 3/4 and full time clergy with an insurance allowance, as they have for several years, or to go back to a Blue Cross/Blue Shield group plan. The cost, $15,850 per clergy member, would be the same for either option.
There were strong opinions and valid concerns over both options. Multiple arguments for and against each option, amendments introduced and recanted, questions, and parliamentary tangents made everything terribly confusing. Eventually a lay member asked the bishop to take a straw poll if just the clergy who are utilizing Conference insurance, so that we could get a better sense of which option they preferred. This was helpful to me, and to other lay members as it gave us a broader view of how our vote would impact pastors. The majority of clergy preferred the current health allowance for its flexibility. I, along with the majority of the voting members, chose to maintain the health allowance plan.
After the insurance vote, the bishop led everyone in prayer, acknowledging the difficulty of making important decisions and offering grace to all involved. I really like Bishop Saenz. He is warm and gracious and quick to poke fun at himself. Leading an entire conference is new to him, but he is good at listening to all sides and making everyone feel that they have been heard. He also has a gift for calming and focusing groups by offering prayers or encouragement when emotions are high. I greatly appreciated this during legislative sessions. Bishop Saenz also thanked the Annual Conference members, both clergy and laity, multiple times. He spoke reverently of our service to the church and the way we each carry out our gifts in the way that God has called us. Despite the challenges our conference and our denomination are facing, I feel Bishop Saenz’ leadership will help us get through these difficult times with unity and purpose.
We finished Annual Conference with music and liturgy. The last act of the week was the reading of new appointments. Each District Superintendent came forward as the bishop read off the names of pastors moving to churches within that district. Great Plains has many districts and there were a lot of names. Lora Andrews will remain in her appointment at Winfield Grace for a 4th year and we celebrate that!
The Bishop then declared Annual Conference 2017 officially over.
I have been honored to serve as Grace’s lay member at Annual Conference. This week has been exhausting and emotional, but I have learned a lot and have reinforced my personal ties and Grace’s ties to the larger church. I am thankful for Pastor Lora and her leadership. I am thankful for Grace and the work we do there. I am thankful for all of you and for your prayers and encouragement. I can’t wait to see where God leads all of us next.