The theme of the 2008 General Conference was “a future with hope.” Our 2008 North Alabama Annual Conference theme is “Hope.” And this is not the only parallel between what our Conference is doing and the work of the recent General Conference.
Just as the North Alabama Conference has four priorities which help to guide our ministry as an Annual Conference (new congregations, natural church development, effective leadership for the 21st century and empowering a new generation of Christians) the Council of Bishops and the staff of the church’s general agencies called upon United Methodists to adopt four “areas of focus.”
- Developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world
- Creating new places for new people and renewing existing congregations
- Engaging in ministry with the poor
- Stamping out killer diseases by improving health globally
Two of these foci match with two of ours. We have also been active in the “Nothing But Nets” campaign to stamp out Malaria (which will be our Annual Conference Offering this year).
Our delegation was committed to containing costs in the General Church. A budget of almost $642 million was developed. The budget was aligned with the 4 ministry foci (just as the North Alabama Conference has been aligning our Conference budget with our Four Priorities). This new budget keeps more resources at the local church and Annual Conference level rather than having large increases in the General Church budget. Our North Alabama Delegation helped keep the budget to less than a 2% increase per year, the smallest increase in decades. Our Treasurer Scott Selman, a lay delegate to General Conference, served on the Finance and Administration legislative committee and led in this area (just as Scott has enabled our Conference to have two years in a row with the smallest budget increases in years.).
Another action that parallels some of our work here was when the General Conference revised the mission statement of the United Methodist Church. It was revised from “the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ” to “the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” A couple of years ago we in North Alabama changed our Conference vision statement to “Every church challenged and equipped to make more disciples of Jesus Christ by taking risks and changing lives.” This addition of “more” has helped us focus on our mission of making disciples.
In North Alabama we have a priority of empowering a new generation of Christians. This year’s General Conference had the highest participate of people under 30 than any other General Conference in history. We had several young adult delegates and reserve delegates from North Alabama. Again, this is an area in which our Conference has been changing our ways of working (see this year’s Nominations Committee report) in order to reach more young adults and empower them for church leadership.
General Conference added “your witness” to the church membership vows of supporting a congregation with “your prayers, your presence, your gifts and your service.” All United Methodists are witnesses of Jesus Christ. It is gratifying to see General Conference take up this passion for disciple-making that has characterized our Conference in recent years.
Another piece of legislation that will have a big impact is the new eligibility of local pastors, probationary members and associate members to vote for clergy delegates to General Conference. They still cannot serve as delegates, but their voices will be heard. Our Conference has more local pastors working in ministry than any other Conference in the Connection.
The worldwide nature of our church was apparent throughout the Conference. One of our delegates, Robert Sparkman, worked at legislation ensuring equal representation on general boards and agencies. This means those areas where the church is growing (such as Africa and Korea) will also have voices on General Boards and agencies to help guide our denomination in our disciple making mission.
We heard a memorable speech from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia. She shared that the influence of the United Methodist Church helped shape her. She was educated in a school United Methodists started. Now she is a proud United Methodist serving as the first democratically elected woman head-of-state on the continent of Africa. One of our District Superintendents, Richard Stryker is a native of Liberia and Oliver and Elaine Clark served there as missionaries.
During General Conference we heard a report of the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Scores of North Alabama VIM workers continue to play a big role in this effort.
One sign of hope that was present throughout the Conference was that the altar and podium were both made from wood that came from the property of Gulfside Assembly. Though Gulfside was destroyed in Katrina, we are rebuilding this historic center. North Alabama’s own Mollie Stewart is serving as interim executive director for Gulfside Assembly.
So, in a number of ways, the direction of the North Alabama Conference — as we work toward our priorities, as we attempt to focus our efforts – is having an influence beyond our Conference. It is a sure sign of hope to find our United Methodist Church, in it recent General Conference, moving in much the same hopeful direction.