Holston Annual Conference pushes on virtually amid crises

Holston Annual Conference pushes on virtually amid crises

Bishop Dindy Taylor presides over the first online session of Holston Annual Conference from Cokesbury United Methodist Church.

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Condensed from four days in western North Carolina to 150 minutes over a digital screen, the 2020 session of Holston Annual Conference was held June 27 under the theme “I Love to Tell the Story.”

For years to come, participants are likely to tell the story of how a global pandemic necessitated the remodeling of a beloved, traditional, annual gathering in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, into a “virtual” meeting including only the basics of business, little of the worship, and none of the fellowship.

Bishop Mary Virginia “Dindy” Taylor presided over the session as Holston Conference’s resident bishop, gathering with a skeleton crew of presenters and staff at Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Saturday-afternoon presentation occurred three weekends after the previously scheduled Annual Conference date of June 7-10, rescheduled after COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the U.S. made it unsafe to gather in large groups.

Taylor acknowledged her own disappointment in not being able to meet at Lake Junaluska, adding that no “conspiracy” existed.

“If you think for a minute that I did not want us to have Annual Conference, then you are mistaken. We are simply trying to figure out how we do this in light of a pandemic," she said.

Representing 864 United Methodist churches in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia, about 1,900 clergy and lay members of Holston Annual Conference were urged by email to join the 1-3:30 p.m. online meeting through Zoom webinar. About 2,400 total viewers were logged, including those through YouTube Live and livestream. Separate prerecorded videos were posted on Holston.org for the memorial service and mission presentation.

Taylor opened by preaching from Luke 24, an encounter of two disciples with Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

“This is the year of ‘not how we want it to be,’” she said. “But the story of Jesus and his love has not changed. So how do we tell the story during these days in which we’re living? ... We begin by expecting Jesus to show up every day.”

In her “State of the Church” report, Taylor addressed the crises of the day, including COVID-19, racism, and recent developments in East Africa.

“There are many who believe that the pandemic is not a real threat and are going about their lives as if there is no health crisis,” Taylor said. Quoting Bishop Kenneth Carder, she said refusing to wear a facial covering is a “recklessly selfish act that endangers others, especially the most vulnerable. Wearing a mask in public spaces is a simple act of compassion.”

Referring to recent widespread protests and cries to end racism – following the public, brutal death of George Floyd – Taylor said, “I want to do more. I want you to do more to make justice and righteousness a reality for all God’s children in every way.”

Taylor also announced that the South Sudanese orphans who have been supported by Holston mission ministry for a dozen years have been removed by the Ugandan government from the refugee camp where they have lived since fleeing civil war in their homeland. She asked Holston members to “pray for our Grace Home children ... We cannot even imagine how difficult this must be.”

Member voting and discussion of reports and resolutions were not possible, conference leaders explained weeks earlier in a briefing video. Unfinished business of the Annual Conference will be addressed during a July 22 meeting of the Extended Cabinet at 1 p.m. The meeting will be broadcast through Zoom for Annual Conference members.

Other news from the June 27 virtual gathering and related videos:

A choir of 45 voices in separate submitted recordings, combined into one, opened the meeting with the traditional hymn, “And Are We Yet Alive.” The Rev. Willie Kitchens and his praise vocalists and musicians from Christ United Methodist Church in Chattanooga joined in “I Love to Tell the Story.”

In the Lay Leader report, Del Holley preached on the story of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter. “We have confronted challenges this year that are no respecter of persons,” he said. “When Jesus says get up, even death can’t hold us down.”

The Board of Ordained Ministry, in a report from the Rev. Mickey Rainwater (chair), celebrated the approval of the following during the Clergy Session on June 8:
  • Associate membership: William Rimmer, William Stuart.
  • Provisional membership and commissioning: Sean Glenn, Samuel Hopson, Melissa Malcolm, Amy Nutt.
  • Full connection member and ordination as deacons: Stephanie Parrott, Elizabeth Rudesill.
  • Full connection membership and ordination as elders: Linda Bass, Sean Hayden, Natalie Justice, Jason Ratliff, Kaye Seay, Joshua Swanson, Monty Walton.
In the Equitable Compensation Commission report, the Rev. Bruce Galyon (chair) said the pandemic had resulted in the group’s “oversensitivity to our churches who have been unable to meet, to gather, and no doubt have experienced financial difficulty.” Consequently, 2021 minimum salary levels are recommended to remain at the same levels as in 2020: $43,496 (full member, M.Div.) to $32,095 (full-time local pastor, beginning studies).

The Council on Finance and Administration reported that 496 churches paid their tithes in full during 2019. From January through May 2020, the Annual Conference has experienced a 7.19% decline in giving, said the Rev. Jeff Lambert (chair). “Normally I would be worried about that, but in light of what all is going on, I think it’s tremendous. We haven’t worshipped for three months [in person] and you’re still giving. You’re still faithful.” Treasurer Rick Cherry obtained a Personal Payroll Protection loan of $1.1 million this spring, Lambert said. The proposed salary for district superintendent salaries in 2021 is $106,484, an increase of $204. The proposed annual conference budget for 2021 is $8.74 million.

In the Board of Pension and Health Benefits report, the Rev. David Tabor (chair) reported a $2.6 million shortfall in health plan funding in 2019. Clergy rates for the family plan will increase 16%, or $100 per month, in 2021. The retiree health care stipend will be reduced from $77 per year of service to $50 per year of service.

In the Cabinet report, the Rev. Jeff Wright (dean) called the names of eight closing churches, bringing the new total of Holston Conference churches to 853: Creech’s Chapel, Whitesburg, Tenn.; St. Luke’s, Knox County, Tenn.; Chestua, Monroe County, Tenn.; Croft Chapel, Turtletown, Tenn.; Piney Grove, Athens, Tenn.; Lakeview, Russell County, Va.; Grassy Creek, Russell County, Va.; and Moore’s Gap, Heiskell, Tenn.

In the Sexual Ethics and Boundaries Task Force report, the Rev. Kathy Heustess announced new guidelines for digital communications and social media and unveiled a video. In an idea borrowed from the North Carolina Conference, Holston’s new video features male clergy reading aloud sexually abusive comments actually said to clergywomen.

In the Connectional Ministries report, the Rev. Mike Sluder (director) said the Hands-on Mission Project had been revised due to restrictions related to the pandemic. In early June, the Hiwassee, Mountain View, New River, Smoky Mountain and Tennessee Valley Districts collected and shipped food buckets and health kits, valued at $39,268, to missions in Liberia and Zimbabwe. A second round of school and cleaning supplies will be collected for Africa later this year.

Representing Connectional Ministries and Bishop Taylor, the Rev. Leah Burns announced a Holston Conference effort to dismantle racism, joining the denomination’s Council of Bishops initiative. “As Methodists, we have to take the lead,” Burns said. “We have to carry the banner and press on to freedom.” Burns said the Cabinet will participate in educational workshops beginning with “White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.” The communications staff will create a resource website and offer informative Zoom sessions for clergy and lay members this fall.

In the Camp and Retreat Ministries report, the Rev. Mary Thompson said that staff, volunteers and campers grieved the cancellation of the summer camp season in order to protect all from COVID-19. The resulting projected deficit in the camp budget, which includes five camps, is $630,000. Thompson announced a new “Together for Tomorrow” fundraising campaign with a collective goal of $899,000. “We will open again stronger than ever.”

Interpretation for Spanish-speaking members of the Holston Annual Conference was provided during the June 27 meeting by Kacye Castenir. The closing prayer was offered in both English and Spanish by the Rev. Daniel Castillo.

In the Memorial Service video, Bishop Kenneth Carder preached on Isaiah 43 and spoke of his wife Linda Faye Miller Carder, who died in October 2019. “When I miss Linda the most, I do the simple thing,” he said. “I pick up the phone and make contact with someone who’s lonely, or I’ll write a note. Or I may call my congressman, or I may do something on behalf of justice. And in so doing, I’m doing it in memory of her and an extension of her love ... If there was ever a time in history when the circle of love needed to be expanded, it’s now.” Bishop Taylor read the names of those deceased in the past year, including Bishop Kern Eutsler, 39 clergy and 24 clergy spouses.

In the Mission Presentation video, the Rev. Barry Steiner Ball of the West Virginia Conference led a lesson on opioid addiction, as Holston Conference carries on with year two of a mission emphasis including learning about, taking offerings for, and addressing the crisis through grants supporting local ministries.

For more information and related publications and videos, visit AC.Holston.org.


Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.