News and Views

Annual Conference Session ignites spirit of vitality

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By Melissa Lauber

The theme of the 240th session of the Baltimore-Washington Conference was “Like Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” It could also have been “Grand Slam!”

The conference opened as a thousand United Methodists cheered on Bishop LaTrelle Easterling as she threw out the first pitch at the Baltimore Orioles game and Gunnar Henderson hit a grand slam.

A similar feeling of something unique and exciting happening unfolded at the conference, held May 29-31 at the Hilton Hotel in Baltimore, where several clergy and lay members expressed a sense that “God is doing something new in The United Methodist Church.”

Living into a New Day

Bishop Easterling acknowledged this spirit of renewal during opening worship when she acknowledged how the General Conference, which met just weeks ago, overturned the denomination’s prohibitions on same-gender marriage and the ordination of homosexuals and removed the language from church law that said homosexuality was incompatible with Christian teaching.

At General Conference, “There was joy and hope for our future together, she said. “The delegates seemed to understand at a visceral level the phrase, ‘unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, charity in all things.’ This exemplifies our identity is in Christ. Now it is time for us to live into this future together.”

“Beloved,” the bishop stressed, “now is not the time for mandates and dictates and constraints; rather, now is the time to immerse ourselves in the Word of God. Now is the time to study together, to learn together, to wrestle with our Wesleyan theology, to hear God speak a fresh word into our lives, and we need to lift as we climb. 

“We don’t need boards, councils, and committees, rushing to control the church,” she said. “We need to engage in some deep conversation as we are led by the Spirit. We need to pray with fervor and intention: Veni Creator Spiritus! Come Holy Spirit!”

Members, like the Rev. Michael Parker of Journey UMC, spoke about what feels like a new Spirit-filled future.

“For 4,231 days I woke up to the threat and possibility of being asked to leave a vocation I love because of how I love,” he said. He felt he had “lived quieted and closeted,” but the weight has now lifted from his shoulders, and he is able to “live more authentically and love God’s people authentically.” 

The Rev. Chet Jechura of Good Shepherd UMC in Baltimore was ordained on May 31. Before the historic questions were asked of the ordinands, he offered a prayer on behalf of the BWC’s Queer Clergy Caucus.

Reflecting on his ordination, Jechura believes the church is experiencing “a movement of the Holy Spirit filled with resurrection hope, glory, and power to boldly live an open-hearted and heart-warming evangelical witness of God’s inclusive and expansive love for all.” If we believe in God’s love and sanctifying grace,” he said, “we will see God’s glory. Like fire shut up in my bones, I know this to be true.

New Ways of Connecting 

To better equip local congregations for ministry in this season following COVID, disaffiliations, declining membership and diminished connections, which have brought challenges to the church, a task force announced a plan for restructuring the conference.

The Restructuring Task Force spent several months gathering input and insights at listening sessions throughout the conference. This input led to a unique plan that increases connectionalism and vitality and better positions churches to make disciples for the transformation of the world.

Congregations will be placed in hubs of 5-12 churches, which will be led by a Connecting Church and resourced by a conference staff person. These hubs will be placed in six non-geographic districts based on population density. The districts will be in one of two administrative regions. (Learn more about the restructuring.)

Conference members helped launch the restructuring plan by voting to decrease the number of districts from eight to six. The restructuring efforts begin this month with an extensive survey that will be sent to local church leaders. The configuration of the hubs is expected to be announced in January, the districts will be formed in March, and the plan will go into effect in July 2025. 

In addition to restructuring, the conference laity heard from the Rev. Michael Beck, director of the denomination’s Fresh Expressions, who invited them to re-define how they think about church.

Fresh Expressions, Beck explained, are innovative faith communities that connect with people in their daily spaces and rhythms of life. They are based on relationships and can be held anywhere – in dog parks, burrito joints, tattoo parlors, online, around dinner tables, anywhere people gather in their daily lives.

“This is about creating a community of belonging and letting the Holy Spirit do the rest,” Beck said. The BWC offers training in creating Fresh Expressions, which includes a Fresh Expressions Academy.

Conference members also learned about a vast array of resources offered by the BWC’s Discipleship Ministries to help them grow more vital as they seek see all the people, live and love like Jesus, deepen discipleship and multiply their impact.

Last year, the BWC’s Director of Connectional Ministries, Christie Latona, reported that the BWC engaged 18,220 people in missional experiences, awarded $1,023,600 in grants, and had 58 churches experiment through Catalyst Initiatives and Missional Action Planning to learn how to respond more faithfully to God’s call. (Learn more about Discipleship Ministries.)

The Discipleship Council also announced a new resource, the Public Interactive Data Report Tool, which provides a wealth of information to connect people in mission and ministry.

Stewardship and Vision

The focus of BWC leaders to equip and empower churches continued in the stewardship arena, as members adopted a budget to keep more money at the congregation level to increase mission and ministry in local communities. 

Members passed an 18.4 million budget, with mission shares set at $12,223,047. They also adopted a reduced benevolence factor of 17.4 percent and a collection rate of 87 percent.

In other stewardship actions:

  • The Board of Pensions and Health Benefits provided information about Compass Retirement Plan, a new defined contribution retirement plan for clergy.
  • The Commission on Equitable Compensation increased the base salary for the 2024 Clergy Salary Table by 3 percent, or $1,497, which will make the base salary $51,407. They also approved an increase in housing allowance by 2 percent or $441, which will make the recommended housing allowance $22,477.
  • The Board of Trustees reported that a lawsuit continues against the BWC, brought by 37 churches that objected to the terms of disaffiliation established by the General Conference and the Conference Board of Trustees.
  • Members also voted to approve the closure of four churches: Mount Vernon UMC in Whiteford, Saint Matthews UMC in Baltimore, Violetville UMC in Baltimore and Mount Savage UMC in Mount Savage; and
  • Members celebrated the ministry of Paul Eichelberger, who they voted to re-appoint to serve as conference treasurer for the next four years.
In other action, the BWC members:
  • Celebrated the ordination of two Deacons and 14 Elders and the commissioning of one Deacon and six Elders, along with the commissioning of a home missioner. The ordination sermon was preached by Dr. Carla Works, dean of Wesley Theological Seminary.
  • Participated in Bible Study led by Dean Works, which drew upon an examination of history and deep theological insights, as she explored Romans 12:1, 9-12 and how we are called to offer all that we have and all that we are to become a living sacrifice to God.
  • Voted on four resolutions that create a special Camping Sunday on the second Sunday of February, encourage congregations to raise awareness of Sickle Cell Disease, celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Reconciling Ministries Network, and to not oppose the proposed amendment to the Maryland Constitution establishing a right to reproductive freedom.
  • Gave thanks for the ministry of 33 pastors who retired, together representing 789 years of service.
  • Offered an apology and a pledge to more faithfully respond to victims of sexual misconduct and violence.
  • Donated supplies for Adullum Community Health Care at New Waverly UMC in Baltimore; raised $9,000 in a collection for Seeds of Security, a ministry that addresses the needs of domestic violence survivors; and collected $1,958 for  a new clergy renewal leave grant program.
  • Endorsed the Rev. Amy McCullough, pastor of Grace UMC In Baltimore, as a candidate for the episcopacy.
  • Heard a report from the General Conference delegation about the recent session in Charlotte, N.C., and the votes which will take place next year on three constitutional amendments, one of which will be on the regionalization of the global church.
  • Offered thanks to Delores Martin, who served as the BWC Lay Leader for 12 years and welcomed Amelia Duroska as the new Conference Lay Leader.
  • Honored 32 saints of the conference in a memorial service, at which the Rev. C. Anthony Hunt preached on history and remembrance.
  • Heard a report from the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women who praised the BWC for their work in gender equity and encouraged this work to continue.
  • Danced with the youth of the conference and learned about Ignite, a new youth retreat coming to Ocean City on March 7-9.
  • Prayed for the world, including those affected by the collapse of the Key Bridge in Baltimore, for the nation at the announcement of the verdict in former President Donald Trump’s trial, for the people of Palestine, and of Darfur, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At the opening of the session, Richard Church of the Committee on Native American Ministries joined Bishop Easterling in a land acknowledgment ceremony. In his welcome, Church said “Aanii,” which in the Ojibway language means, “I see your light.” The people of the Baltimore-Washington Conference responded, “Aanii.”

And when the session ended with an altar call on the afternoon of May 31, they took that light into the world – releasing the fire shut up in their bones.

The 241st session of the Baltimore-Washington Conference will be held May 20-22, 2025.