An Explanation of our Virtual Annual Conference

An Explanation of our Virtual Annual Conference

My dear Holston Friends,
 
As I write to you, my heart aches with the new realities that Covid-19 brings into our lives. Television continues to report how this new coronavirus is changing the world as we have known it. Each news broadcast highlights the numbers of reported cases of the virus around the world and the precious lives of those who have left us too soon because of this pandemic.
 
Every life is precious and a gift from God. In my prayers I find myself begging God to forgive me when I see those rising numbers and become indifferent to the great pain and grief they represent. I know that we are all eager for the day when it will be safe to gather together again in our churches. The cabinet and I continue to evaluate the health data and the need for our churches to remain closed. The cabinet has given me names of health professionals, local church pastors, and legal experts to create a Covid-19 Task Force to guide us in making informed decisions and plans for reopening our churches across Holston Conference when it is safe.
 
During a three-day Council of Bishops Zoom meeting on April 29-May 1, I heard reports from each College of Bishops from the four continents where the United Methodist Church exists. The bishops told of the challenges this Global Pandemic is creating in their jurisdictional and central conferences. There were common themes across our Connection of high unemployment, lack of needed supplies, postponed Annual Conferences, closed churches, online worship, food shortages, self-isolation, and people struggling with government orders to stay at home, and learning new online methods of connecting with others. In the Philippines, the bishop reported that one of his pastors was currently hospitalized with the Virus and another pastor had died from it. Bishop Boni from Cote d’Ivoire reported that it was very difficult in their culture to stay at home. They are encouraging their members to stay at home and respect the recommendations of their medical leaders to distance from one another. Through a translator Bishop Boni ended his report saying, “Let us keep our hope in Jesus Christ who can save humanity.”
 
This afternoon, I met virtually with the Annual Conference Planning Committee who approved a Plan for a Virtual Holston Annual Conference. Annual Conferences across the Connection find themselves in the same situation as we do. We have to find a way to do the work of the Church in this unimagined time, follow the Book of Discipline and the laws of the states of Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia. The possibility of a Virtual Annual Conference came from an earlier meeting of the Annual Conference Planning Committee. Conversations with Tim Jones and the Communications Team led to a meeting with Brad Scott, Mike Sluder, and Terry Goodman as directed by Standing Rule 14 in the creation of a Consent Agenda. They then invited Del Holley to add the voice of the laity and gain his disciplinary expertise. We are indebted to these conference leaders who have found a way through the struggle for us to be in ministry together. This is not ideal for anyone. We believe this is the best option we have given the present circumstances.
 
Our Conference Secretary, the Reverend Terry Goodman will now share the important information you need to know to participate in this 2020 Holston Annual Conference.   
 



I appreciate Bishop Taylor giving me the opportunity to share this information. Let me begin with a quote. Apple CEO, Tim Cook, in a recent virtual commencement address to The Ohio State University said, “It can be difficult to see the whole picture when you are still inside the frame.” I think that statement will help me to paint a better picture of what Annual Conference 2020 will look like.

 
To begin with, we have all seen the picture of Annual Conference. It’s a gathering of 1500 people by the shores of Lake Junaluska. We are seated in Stuart Auditorium gazing at the presenters on stage. We are waiting for the Bishop to call on us to proceed to the designated microphone. We are enthralled by the music and worship. We learn from the featured presenters. We mourn with those families that have lost loved ones. We laugh with the witty stories of our retirees. We celebrate God’s call on the lives of those being ordained and commissioned. We gather under the trees for conversation. That is the picture that comes to our minds when we think of Annual Conference. We know what it looks like and how it makes us feel. We know the frame in which it is painted.
 
This year we are going to have an Annual Conference on Saturday June 27th. It will not look like the picture I have painted above. To be honest, like Tim Cook, we, the Annual Conference leadership, are having a difficult time seeing the final result, because we are still inside the frame putting on one brushstroke after another trying to complete the picture. In the paragraphs that follow, I will try to help us understand what some of the brushstrokes look like as we attempt to complete the picture that we are calling Virtual Holston Annual Conference 2020.
 
One stroke deals with the reality that we cannot gather as a group of 1500+ people in a single physical place to conduct our Annual Conference. The Covid 19 rules of Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia won’t allow that kind of gathering for the near future. That left us with the option of exploring a virtual gathering. The Rev. Larry Ousley broached this topic with me months ago, and to be honest, I brushed it aside as not being feasible. I thought there was no way to do a virtual conference. How would we vote? How would we get everyone on board? At the time my mind could not conceive of what the new picture would look like because I was so used to seeing the old picture and the old picture frame.
 
After a crash course in the requirements of The Book of Discipline and the Standing Rules of our Annual Conference, I painted a picture that showed promise. I then shared these thoughts and consulted Del Holley, our Conference Lay Leader. Understanding the General Conference Rules and  Robert’s Rules of Order, Del helped me to see, that the picture could not be painted the way I initially wanted it to be painted.
 
After much back and forth, Del and I began to appreciate some of the aspects of the picture frame – The Book of Discipline & our Standing Rules—in which we had to work. Without going into all the details (Our joint proposal to the Annual Conference Planning Team was a 9-page document), let me share the highlights.
 
Certain elements-brushstrokes-are required by the Book of Discipline ¶605. We must open with a period of devotion. We may adopt an agenda but are not required to do so. Members for standing committees must be nominated and elected (a vote required). We will receive and act upon reports. There is a report from the conference lay leader. We shall make inquiry into the moral and official conduct of the ministers. We may receive into full connection those so elected by the clergy session. These are the requirements.
 
Our standing rules state that we must hold a memorial service. We may create a consent agenda. We allow time for petitions, resolutions, and new business. CCFA must submit a budget. The Conference Board of Trustees must make their report on actionable items.
 
As I looked at these brush strokes, I was sort of surprised at the small number of things that had to be accomplished. Del Holley, however, said that the sticking point would revolve around our ability to vote. Only one item technically needed a vote: election of leadership of committees. This is required by the Book of Discipline. However, in 2016, Holston switched to a quadrennial election of leaders. Standing Rule 2 basically says the persons elected in 2016 would remain the elected leaders of the Annual Conference until the concluding year of the next regularly scheduled General Conference. That would have been the 2020 General Conference and leadership would have changed this year. However, the 2020 General Conference has been postponed until 2021. This means the persons elected in 2016 will continue to serve through 2021. The Conference Nominations Team will be making no new proposals to the already elected leadership. Thus, we will overcome the hurdle of needing to take a vote, since the leadership has previously been approved.
 
The hurdle on voting is both legal and practical. In our research we discovered a Tennessee law prevents a Board of Directors of a Non Profit, which we would be as the gathered Annual Conference, from using virtual sessions to vote unless we could guarantee all persons could participate in hearing and voting and the resulting vote would have to be unanimous. Since the election of leadership was the only item requiring a vote, the possibility was now open for a virtual Annual Conference.
 
First let me paint some larger brushstrokes that must happen as a lead up to a Virtual Annual Conference. Among them is the Pre-Conference Briefing. This is scheduled for Sunday afternoon June 7th at 2:00 pm. This will be a pre-recorded session that will be posted at that time on all of the conference media channels (Facebook, Youtube, Website, etc) All delegates to the Annual Conference should make it their priority to watch this video, either when it is posted, or at some point shortly thereafter. The Pre-Conference Briefing will include more information about the structure of the upcoming Virtual Annual Conference and share information about some of the ministries of our Annual Conference, including an update on the Hands-on Mission Kits.
 
Prior to the Pre-Conference Briefing, On May 27th, we will electronically post the Annual Conference Book of Reports. All delegates are requested to download an electronic version. Due to the fluid nature of the timing of Annual Conference, I decided that we would not publish a bound edition this year. However, if you are a delegate and must have a printed copy, then your District Office will make one for you if you request it.
 
If as you read through the Book of Reports and listen to the Pre-Conference Briefing, you have any questions or concerns, I invite you to share them with me at this address:  conferencesecretary@holston.org. I will pass your request along to the appropriate group for consideration. Depending upon the volume of requests/questions I might seek to create a FAQ on the Conference web site to answer your questions and address your concerns.
 
Another major brushstroke leading up to Annual Conference will be the clergy session. Many of you may not realize the necessity and importance of this meeting. It too will be virtual. Much of the session is pro-forma in nature with the Business Questions of the Annual Conference being presented and voted upon by the clergy. (Since nearly all the votes needed are pro-forma in nature, we have a way to collect votes on the various business questions that come before the clergy.) This session will affirm those persons for full connection and provisional and associate membership. This session will officially approve the retirement of those clergy seeking retirement. This session will hear the required Book of Discipline reports from the District Superintendents concerning the “moral and official conduct” of the ministers of the Annual Conference. This session will hear the historic questions being asked of the candidates for ministry. The Book of Discipline ¶605.7 says “The actions of the clergy session shall be for and on behalf of the Annual Conference.” These are the things that are done each year, and the only difference this year is that they will be done virtually. The Rev. Mickey Rainwater will have an opportunity to present matters determined at the Clergy Session to the Virtual Annual Conference when it convenes.
 
One aspect of the clergy session that will differ will be the Fixing of the Appointments. This action is traditionally done at the end of the Annual Conference. In order to allow our clergy families to settle into their new communities and to get children enrolled in school systems, our move date will be on June 24th before the Virtual Annual Conference session is held. Bishop Taylor will announce the appointments at Clergy Session and, shortly thereafter, we will share her “fixing” of the appointments on the conference media streams and post an electronic copy of the Appointment Book that you typically receive at the close of Annual Conference.
 
Let me go back to a previous portion of the picture I am trying to paint.  While nominations were the only item that required a vote, we have traditionally taken a vote on the following items: the budget, the past pension rate, and the equitable compensation levels. Standing Rule 38, provides us a brushstroke that allows these votes to happen and still get us past the Tennessee state law hurdle.
 
Standing Rule 38 is what we call the omnibus motion rule. It allows the extended cabinet to act on matters of vital importance to the Annual Conference between sessions of the Annual Conference. Without this rule, we would be painting a totally different kind of picture. With it, we can complete the picture. It will work in this manner. At the virtual Annual Conference, we will receive the reports from CCFA, Pensions, and Equitable Compensation and we will close the Annual Conference without acting (voting) upon them.
 
Following the close of the Annual Conference the leadership group of these areas will then file a motion with the extended cabinet to act on behalf of the Annual Conference and approve their recommendations. While some might see this as an end run around allowing the members to vote, it is the only way we have been able to conceive that allows us to conduct the business of the Annual Conference, short of meeting like we typically do. Is it the way we want to do it? NO. Is it the way we have to do it? YES.
 
Standing Rule 38 also says that such action is to be reported in an expeditious manner to the members of the Annual Conference. It is our intention to make the extended cabinet session, at which these items will be presented, available on Zoom for anyone that so desires to watch. In addition, we will clearly publicize the results on Holston.org, the minutes of the extended cabinet, and will report these actions at the next regularly scheduled Annual Conference.
 
Perhaps the remaining brushstroke, yet to be drawn, is the one concerning Resolutions, Petitions, and New Business. Since it is not possible that we have a free and open debate, due to the nature of the system we are seeking to use, it has been decided that any petition (there were no resolutions) presented will be carried over for proper discussion and debate at the 2021 Annual Conference. Likewise, due to the nature of this year’s Annual Conference, we will not be able to introduce any new business from the floor of the Annual Conference. The procedures from our standing rules on new business are moot without our ability to meet in a multi-day session and conduct debate. Items of new business will need to be addressed at the 2021 Annual Conference.
 
Let me try to wrap up the picture of what a virtual Annual Conference will look like. On Saturday June 27, 2020 at 1:00 pm, the session will open with worship. Bishop Taylor will welcome us and give the State of the Church address followed by the laity address. We will hear reports from CCFA in regard to the proposed budget and a statement on the current finances of the Annual Conference. We will receive a report from the Board of Pensions and Health Benefits. We will receive a report from the Commission on Equitable Compensation. We will receive a report from the Board of Ordained Ministry. We will celebrate the ministries and missions of our Annual Conference. These things will be done for certain. We are still deciding what other presentations might be made. We will be supplying a link to a pre-recorded Memorial Service. We will be offering a teaching moment on our Opioid Addiction theme from Dr. Barry Steiner-Ball. Pastors that view this and submit a request will be given CEU credit.
 
Let me further state, that Annual Conference 2021 will provide us with an opportunity to remember in person those that have died. The video this year, is only an attempt to help us remember, but not fully experience the lives of those faithful men and women that even now celebrate with us in the church triumphant. Families will have a chance to gather, grieve, and remember—next year. Likewise, our retirees will be honored next year. We will give them their retirement meal. We will give them a chance to gather on stage, and we will hear their stories when we all gather again for a more traditional Annual Conference.
 
The final brushstroke will come sometime later this year. We have several men and women that have been on a long journey toward Full Connection and Ordination as an Elder or Deacon. We have some that are seeking to be commissioned as Provisional Members. We have some seeking to become an Associate Member. We do not want to shortchange them and their families as they come to this milestone in their lives. Currently, we are looking at several options and, once we find the best solution, we will share it with you so that you can help them celebrate how God has been moving in their lives.
 
Before I conclude, there is one other practical aspect I must address. As the Secretary of the Annual Conference, this one has troubled me the most. I fully realize having a virtual Annual Conference means the members of the Annual Conference are going to have to be able to access the event electronically. Our District Administrative Assistants have been tasked with securing an email address for each person (lay and clergy) that is a delegate of the Annual Conference. I am told there are some members that have not supplied an email address indicating their inability to access the internet. If members do not supply an email address, then we will not be able to give them a link and instructions on how to access the Virtual Annual Conference.
 
Let me try to paint a smaller picture inside the larger picture. When persons agree to be a delegate, they take on certain responsibilities. They agree to take the time out of their schedule to attend a Sunday through Wednesday event at Lake Junaluska. They agree to drive, often 4 hours or more, to attend the event. They agree to read The Book of Reports and participate in the Pre-Conference Briefing. In other words, a certain commitment is made on their part. If something comes up that prevents them from attending, then they inform their local church and an alternate member attends in their place.
 
This year, I am suggesting that if you cannot attend a virtual Annual Conference due to the inability to access the internet, then you have some alternatives:

  • Could you go to the home of a fellow church member that does have an internet connection and a computer or tablet that would allow you to attend?
  • Could you find a place in your community that provides free internet access? A parking lot at a fast food restaurant?
  • Does your church have an internet connection?
  • Although I have not spoken yet with the District Superintendents, is there a connection possibility at a district office?
  • Is there some church on one of the missional hubs that would allow you access to their internet signal?
  • Barring all the above suggestions, if you cannot gain access to the internet, then I need for you to consider passing the privilege of serving as a delegate to the Annual Conference along to someone else in your church that can access this event. I want every delegate to be able to represent his or her charge and every charge to have a delegate.

This is the picture we are trying to paint. This is the frame within which we are working.  It is my prayer that God will continue to richly bless and use you and the ministries of your church to minister to those in your community, and it is Bishop Taylor’s prayer that we continue to remember that God’s grace, mercy and peace is always sufficient.


Dindy Taylor 
Resident Bishop
Holston Conference of
The United Methodist Church                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Rev. Terry Goodman
Secretary of the Annual Conference
Director of Clergy Services

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