By Melissa Lauber
In a culture of anxiety, cascading crises, and a denomination rife with uncertainties, the people of the Baltimore-Washington Conference joined in holy conferencing Oct. 25-27 to proclaim that “We are Still One: Standing, Transforming, Rising.”
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, the presiding episcopal leader, gaveled the online 237th session of the Baltimore-Washington Conference to order from the Mission Center in Fulton, gathering laity and clergy representing 615 churches in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the panhandle of West Virginia.
During the opening worship service, the bishop addressed the challenges faced by church leaders during the 84 weeks since the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and institutional racism prompted congregations into new ways of being church.
“We have not cowered, we have not collapsed, we have not conceded. No, we rise!” Easterling proclaimed in her opening sermon. “We are rising to claim a new day, rising to model what it really looks like to live, love, and liberate as one. We’re rising to leverage our gifts, blessings, and resources to help others rise as well; rising to grow in grace as we heal the wounds of the past, and in that healing, join hands as the Beloved Community. We are rising, Baltimore-Washington Conference, and don’t’ you let anyone with a contrary, contorted, or conflicted message tell you otherwise. We rise united! … The state of our conference is strong. We are still one!”
During the session, members worshipped, uplifted by 87 music videos provided by individuals and churches throughout the Conference. Bishop Easterling commissioned and ordained 27 Deacons and Elders; members celebrated the ministries of 29 clergy retirees, 10 certified lay ministers and 13 licensed local pastors; remembered the saints of the conference who died in the past several months; and were inspired by a wide variety video reports of ongoing BWC ministries.
Speaking at the laity session, David Teel of Discipleship Ministries cited words from Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, that summed up the spirit of the Conference: “I want you to be all love. This is the perfection I believe and teach,” Wesley wrote.
“’All love’ is a two-word definition of deep discipleship and spiritual maturity,” Teel said. “All love means: grow deep in love with Christ so you can love all – until all love God. … Grow deep to love wide.”
The depth and width of God’s love was expressed throughout the session by the actions of the members, which included work that was interwoven in the areas of stewardship, discipleship, and leadership.
At the recommendation of the Conference Council on Finance and Administration, the conference members passed a 2022 budget of $18.1 million, including a mission share income budget of $13,104,912. To account for financial circumstances brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, members also adopted a new way of calculating Mission Shares that uses a three-year average of spending from 2018-2020, rather than just spending from 2020.
In other business, the conference Trustees were granted a green light to create a BWC Cemetery Association that will oversee funds for the upkeep of three historic cemeteries: Mount Auburn and Mount Olivet in Baltimore, and Mount Hebron in Keedysville.
And, in more sober deliberations, members voted to close nine churches. The property or proceeds from these churches will be used as a legacy to begin new ministries.
Building on the BWC’s five areas of ministry — Leadership Development, New Faith Expressions, Action and Advocacy, Wellness and Missions, and Young People’s Ministries — members heard a number of reports on growing in discipleship so that 100 percent of churches can become 100 percent vibrant and vital.
Reports from the Discipleship Council and the We Rise United initiative undergirded the conference’s commitment to becoming an inclusive, diverse, equitable, and anti-racist church, and provided information about resources for those involved in this work, which remains a conference priority.
During the online session, a $1,000 denominational One Matters award was presented to Elderslie St. Andrews UMC in Baltimore. The award honors churches that have brought at least one new member into their churches last year by profession of faith.
Members also passed three social action-related resolutions calling for the BWC to become a green annual conference, to endorse an amendment to Maryland’s constitution on environmental human rights, and to declare gun violence a public health emergency. A resolution for the conference to endorse the General Conference legislation on the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation was also approved.
During the session, members honored Joyce King for her more than 30 years of administrative service on conference staff and recognized the contributions of the Rev. C. Anthony Hunt who is stepping down as the chair of Board of Ordained Ministry. A scholarship is being created in Hunt’s honor.
Greg and Delila Parham of Queens Chapel UMC in Beltsville were tapped by BWC Lay Leader Delores Martin to deliver the laity address. The couple encouraged United Methodists to claim their stories of faith and share them with others.
This message was amplified by David Teel during the laity session. “Laity in the Baltimore-Washington Conference continue to adapt communication strategies – deed and words – that are helping to manifest scriptural wholeness or holiness,” he said. “It’s about love in public, justice and mercy born from life-mending, and reparative grace.”
This message of love, justice, mercy, and grace was echoed in a report by the BWC’s delegation to General and Jurisdictional conferences. While the 2020 General Conference has been postponed to September 2022, the delegation has continued its work and issued a statement on racial justice and creating beloved community.
‘We are Still One’
While the Baltimore-Washington Conference is one of the most diverse in the denomination, its leadership and members draw strength from diversity and the differences in theology, geography, race, and culture of its members.
As the Rev. Mark Gorman of Centre and Forest Hill UMCs said during one of the debates during the session, “Unity in Christ is a cross-shaped work of love.”
Being united in love is one of the strengths of United Methodists and all people of faith, Bishop Easterling said.
With the cross and resurrection, “God’s purpose was, and is, to create a single new people who are one in Christ Jesus, bound together in faith and love – bound together by the Holy Spirit,” she preached. “The Holy Spirit leads beyond the borders of our finite imaginations and into a realm and reality only possible with God.”
The people of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, Bishop Easterling said, “are standing under the unction and power of the Holy Spirit. … Together, we have prayed, planned, strategized, learned, lifted, resourced, rebounded, and re-entered well together. We are still one!”
Learn more about the 237th session of the Baltimore-Washington Conference.
The 238th session is planned for Wednesday through Friday, June 1-3, 2022, at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel.