East Ohio 2016 Annual Conference Report

By Rick Wolcott

“As followers of Jesus we are, what I like to say, folks are on the way up and out,” said Bishop Peter Weaver.  “Jesus is calling us out.”

Weaver preached on Tuesday and Thursday during the 47th session of Annual Conference, which convened inside Hoover Auditorium at Lakeside Chautauqua June 13-16, 2016. 

This year 736 clergy and 793 lay delegates gathered to encourage one another to take the next steps in their faith journey.

Jesus is Calling Us Out.

The keyword for the conference was Transform.  Worship, leadership development, and presentations all focused on ways in which we can leave the walls of our churches, go out into our mission fields, and share our faith stories.  Doing so brings the love of Jesus Christ to others, and creates opportunities for discipleship.

“We do not make disciples, God makes disciples,” said the Rev. Steve Court, East Ohio Conference director of Connectional Ministries.  “Our job is to help people intersect with God’s grace so that they can become more like Christ.”

The Service of Commemoration and Holy Communion recognized 47 saints who joined the church triumphant since Annual Conference 2015.

“As we gather at Lakeside and celebrate this day, we remember the past in order to move forward with faith,” said Bishop John L. Hopkins.  “The God who has watched over us in the past certainly has more goodness planned for us than we can ever imagine!”

Monday’s business session began with housekeeping agenda items and a greeting from Lakeside Chautauqua’s Kevin Sibbring.  The State of the Conference address focused on the conference strategy of developing principled leadership and aligning human/financial/capital resources around our mission and vision.

Rev. Karen Oehl, dean of the Cabinet, educated delegates on the ways in which the Cabinet and EOC Leadership Team work together to aid local churches in strategic thinking.

“The vision is vitality, and vitality takes vision,” she said.

Conference Treasurer Jessica Vargo followed Oehl to the stage.  She reminded those gathered that vitality also requires resources.

She celebrated the resources of the East Ohio Conference by noting that – for the 10th-consecutive year – the EOC paid 100% of its General Church apportionments.  Vargo also announced that more congregations paid their conference apportionments in full in 2015 (68%, compared to 66%) than in 2014.

Unfortunately the good news can get lost in the fact that professions of faith, baptisms, membership, and worship attendance all dropped again last year (see statistics below).

“It is easy to lose hope if you take the numbers at face-value, but knowing that new and good things are happening still leaves hope for the possibility of change and growth,” Vargo said.

This year’s schedule featured a few changes from past Annual Conferences.  The Celebration of Retirement moved from Monday night to Tuesday night, the Service of Commissioning and Ordination moved from its previous home on Tuesday night to Wednesday night, and the Ministry Fair moved from Wednesday night to Monday evening following the opening business session.

Those moves accommodated a Monday night Celebration of the Ministry of Bishop John and Elaine Hopkins, as they prepare to retire at the end of August.  It was the first of several times during the week that people had the opportunity to express their love and support for the bishop and Elaine.

Hopkins sat with the retirees during Tuesday night’s Celebration of Retirement for East Ohio clergy  - which this year recognized the passion of 31 clergy members.

During his reflection to them, Hopkins told the retirees, “Like Paul praying over the Ephesians, I am thankful that you prayed over your congregations and the communities where they were located.”

The night after thanking retiring clergy for their good works, Hopkins commissioned six clergy and ordained 10.

“You are getting a front row seat to what God is doing in the lives of people who are broken and empty of all resources, as well as people who are blessed and filled with great capacity,” he told them.

This year’s guest speakers were Bishop Peter Weaver, retired, and Bishop Gregory Palmer, of the West Ohio Conference.  They joined Bishop Hopkins in stressing the need for local congregations to get out into the community, to make disciples of Jesus Christ and to transform the world.

“God in Christ spared nothing for our salvation.  The only question, missionally, for the church is are we going to spend our time trying to preserve the church as we know it – or are we going to expend ourselves telling and incarnating the mighty deeds of God?” Palmer asked.

He closed Wednesday morning’s sermon with these words:  “In a world of violence, loss, grief, meanness, may God help us to be so re-narrated by our God story that we may join God in re-narrating the whole world.”

Annual Conference 2016 Business

Delegates voted to endorse the Rev. Dr. Gary George as the East Ohio Conference nominee for the Episcopacy.  Four new bishops will be elected during the North Central Jurisdictional Conference July 13-16 in Peoria, IL.

Conference Lay Leader Greg Rentsch was the keynote speaker for Wednesday afternoon’s Leadership Development session, which featured conversation about the ways in which clergy and laity can progress on the journey of moving from membership to discipleship.

Cabinet recognized the ministry that has taken place during the life of six churches, whose members voted to close this year.   The churches are:

  • Brownsville UMC (Southern Hills District),
  • Delphi UMC (Firelands District),
  • Harmony UMC (Mid-Ohio District),
  • Mingo First UMC (Ohio Valley District),
  • Oceola UMC (Mid-Ohio District), and
  • Oehlhoff UMC (North Coast District).

The following resolutions came before the body during the week:

This resolution encourages all East Ohio churches to designate a day during the month of October to present an activity that will bring awareness to the congregation about domestic violence. The resolution will support inclusion of domestic violence training during district leadership events and conference-wide teaching including reserved space at the annual ministry fair.
Resolution supported as amended.

This resolution asks that the East Ohio Annual Conference urge that every effort be made to eliminate sex-role stereotypes in activity and portrayal in all aspects of voluntary and compensatory participation including service as clergy.
Resolution supported.

Thanks to the generosity of delegates and their congregations, countless lives will be touched because of these money given during these offerings:

  • $14,792.29 was given during the Annual Conference offering.  Youth Service Fund, Clergy Recruitment, and the Bishop’s Discretionary Fund each will be the recipient of one-third ($4,930.76) of the offering.
  • $23,533.32 was given during the 3Cs offering, which benefits churches, clinics and classrooms in Russia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe.
  • $5,955.23 was raised by the UMVIM Missions 5k Run /1-mile Walk. 

The Midwest Mission Distribution Truck left Lakeside carrying:

  • $8,500 in Cash
  • 3,315 Health Kits
  • 546 School Kits/Bags
  • 490 Cleaning Buckets
  • 321 Miscellaneous Items
  • 56 Wooden Desks
  • 46 Layette Kits
  • 13 Sewing Machines
  • 12 Bicycles

Other pertinent numbers from Annual Conference 2015:

  • 147,895 – East Ohio Conference membership, down 3,033 from last year.
  • 55,178 – Average weekly worship attendance, down 2,840 from last year.
  • 16,010 – Church school attendance, down 1,145 from last year.
  • 1,988 – Professions of faith, down 283 from last year.
  • 1,478 – Baptisms, down 191 from last year.

Annual Conference will return to Lakeside Chautauqua on Monday, June 12, 2017, for the start of the 48th annual session. 

*Rick Wolcott is director of communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.