The gathering was a follow-up to Holston’s partnership with Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, approved by the Cabinet in 2018.
A design team led by the Rev. Sharon Bowers and the Rev. Barbara Doyle organized the Saturday gathering, attended by members of Black churches in East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
“We had not anticipated all these people,” said Doyle, pastor at Shady Grove/ Meadowview United Methodist Churches in Abingdon, Virginia. “We were overwhelmed, but they saw this as a call to action.”
Speakers included the Rev. Fred Allen, immediate past national director of Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century. SBC21 is a National Racial Ethnic Plan of The United Methodist Church, established to help predominately Black congregations become effective and fruitful in mission and ministry.
Allen presented a resolution submitted to General Conference 2020, entitled "Jubilee Freedom Today,” calling for equitable formula for clergy appointments, release of property deeds for congregations choosing to disaffiliate, and cancellation of debts for small churches in financial crisis, among other actions.
“Our great United Methodist Church is struggling with a number of models and structural changes to save itself,” Allen said. “As people of freedom, though not the majority culture or color, our voice and vote must count in 2020. Before we are seduced by various factions, we need to remember what our priorities and missions are.”
After the meeting, Holston’s SBC21 Design Team voted to endorse the "Jubilee Freedom Today" resolution, Bowers said. "It will be up to the General Conference 2020 to vote and adopt if necessary."
During the meeting, Bowers shared statistics defining the “state of the Black church in Holston Conference”:
- Of 864 total congregations ... 38 self-identify as Black (or the pastor is identified as Black).
- Of 158,861 total members ... 1,988 identify as Black.
- Of 38 Black congregations ... 32 have fewer than 100 members.
- Of 624 total appointed pastors ... 28 are Black.
- Of 24 total delegates to General Conference 2020 ... 2 are Black.
- Of 9 superintendents on the Holston Cabinet ... 1 superintendent is Black.
Bowers’ report called for the formation of a new conference position (director of multicultural ministries) and the addition of Black members to the cabinet, conference staff, board of ordained ministry, and other teams and committees.
She also pointed out that a resolution approved by the 2019 Holston Annual Conference, “Black Methodists for Church Renewal,” called for the inclusion of at least one person of color on all conference committees, teams, and leadership groups.
“We hope that is going to be implemented,” Bowers said. She called for Black church members to be “prepared and ready to accept those positions.”
The Rev. Charlotte Williams, a member of the design team, also lamented the low number of Black district superintendents and clergy leaders in Holston Conference.
“We are not just black in Black History Month but we are black 365 days. Therefore, we are here and we are not going anywhere. We will be seen and we will be heard and we will get our justice,” said Williams, pastor of Eastdale Village Community United Methodist Church in Chattanooga.
“I heard you talking, Rev. Williams, about the lack of numbers of Blacks in strategic decision-making positions in this annual conference. How can we change that?” Allen said. “Many of us in this room and across the connection experience a very low ceiling for advancement.”
During opening remarks and during a question-and-answer session, the need for leadership was frequently mentioned.
“We have a leadership problem, and it starts at the top and it goes down to the six-point circuits we have up there in Virginia,” said the Rev. Rusty Taylor, director of congregational development.
Bishop Dindy Taylor, resident bishop of Holston Conference, said nurturing of prospective clergy is ongoing, including recruitment at historically African-American schools such as Gammon Theological Seminary.
“There are so many things that are wrong with where we are today,” Bishop Taylor said. “It’s not a history that any of us need to be proud of. We don’t have a pretty history but if we abandon God, we have no history at all and we have no hope.”
The Rev. Mike Sluder, director of connectional ministries, said a new manual for fostering and improving cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments had recently been placed in the Holston Cabinet’s hands.
The Rev. Walter Cross, member of the design team, said Black clergy could be developed by sending young people to the Resurrection winter youth retreat and to Holston camps.
“Get people to go so they can whet their appetites to experience the ministry,” said Cross, pastor at Martin Chapel/ Lonsdale United Methodist Churches in Knoxville.
Earlier in the meeting, Allen said he hoped The United Methodist Church would not experience the division that many seem to be expecting at General Conference 2020, scheduled May 5-15 in Minnesota.
“The last thing I want to see is our churches separating. I hope and pray we can keep our family together. We’ve come too far. We’ve given too much. I still believe the Black voice, presence and spirit is still that powerful force in the church that helps us come to grips.”
Later in the meeting, when asked about the Black Church’s likely response to General Conference decisions, Allen said, “Some of us are going to go in different directions. We are not monolithic.”
Praise and worship music was shared by the Rev. Willie Kitchens and his band from Christ/ Bethlehem-Wiley United Methodist Church in Chattanooga and also the choir from Lennon-Seney United Methodist Church in Knoxville.
After the meeting, Sluder said Holston Conference has invested $20,000 to partner with SBC21. The agreement calls for Holston’s design team to identify five congregations to benefit from “tools, coaching, training, strategic planning, hope, inspiration, and encouragement to go forward with a fresh vision.”
“I was encouraged by the hope and joy of the gathering, even in the anxious times that we’re all in, not just the Black Church,” Sluder said of the Feb. 8 fellowship. “There was a faith in the room that ‘we’re going to get there.’”
Doyle said "the Black Church concept" inspires members of Holston churches. "They want their churches to grow and be inspired just like the white churches do. They want their churches to be at the table just like the white churches, and they're willing to come out and support that."
Holston's SBC21 Design Team includes: Rev. Gary Atwater, Rev. Karen Black, Rev. Sharon Bowers (co-chair), Rev. Leah Burns, Alex Carter, Rev. Walter Cross, Rev. Barbara Doyle (co-chair), Gary James, Rev. Terryl James, Debra Neal, Rev. Elston McLain, Rev. Mike Sluder, Rev. Joshua Swanson, Rev. Annette Warren, Rev. Joseph Washington (SBC21 coach), Rev. Charlotte Williams.
Below: Lennon-Seney Choir sings at the Alcoa Conference Center on Feb. 8
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.
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