The Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference was held June 11 through 15, Sunday through Wednesday of last week, in Mobile. Bishop David Graves presided. As the lay member from First UMC, I would like to share a few highlights.

As always, the worship services were very meaningful and inspiring. We heard great preaching and wonderful music. Sermons focused on the theme for the week, “When they prayed,” and lifted up what happened when God’s people prayed – like Naomi, like Nehemiah, like Mary, and like Peter.

One of the major tasks was to elect delegates to SE Jurisdictional Conference and General Conference, scheduled for 2024. Clergy members voted on clergy delegates, and laity voted on lay delegates. Celeste Eubanks, a member of the conference staff who spoke to our congregation last year, and Clara Ester, a longtime leader in the conference, were selected as lay delegates to General Conference, and Pat Luna, who assisted with the fund-raising for our building campaign, was chosen as a lay delegate to Jurisdictional Conference. A full list is available on the conference website. I think we should start praying now that the delegates will have wisdom and discernment as they debate and decide measures that will affect all United Methodists everywhere.

Two former pastors of this church, the Rev. Marvin Vickers and the Rev. Marcus Smith, were remembered at the memorial service for the 19 clergy and spouses who have died since last annual conference.

Our very own Jesse Guffin was among the nine persons receiving their first licenses as local pastors. They were introduced by the Rev. Ralph Wooten and blessed by Bishop Graves. We are proud of Jesse and wish him the best as he becomes the pastor of Beulah UMC in                         .

Another highlight was hearing about progress at Blue Lake Assembly, which has been carrying a $600,000 mortgage for years. By January the new director, Patric Newton, had obtained enough funds to lower it to $470,000. Since then, Newton reported, the “Be the Spark” campaign and generous gifts have lowered it to $90,000. The bishop challenged annual conference members to contribute to bring this figure even lower. By the end of the sessions on Wednesday, Blue Lake had received from people in attendance, their churches, and matching funds from the conference Council on Finance and Administration, a total of $119,050. So the debt is covered and there’s additional money to put toward programming and other needs at Blue Lake.

The conference celebrated the start of 10 new congregations within the conference and recognized members of the Task Force on Church Planting and Revitalization, whose report was joyfully received. The conference missional offering was designated to support new church starts and United Methodist places of worship.

Although disaffiliating churches was not on the agenda at this conference – disaffiliations are being handled at special called sessions -- the topic was very much in members’ minds. Several items of business were related to this. One of these was the report of the Conference Board of Trustees, which reported that some new clarifications and requirements have been added for churches wishing to disaffiliate. These were enacted earlier in June in response to guidance from the Judicial Council at the end of April. Churches will now have to create an eligibility statement to begin the proceedings and engage in a 40-day period of fasting and prayer as part of the discernment process.

The Conference Board of Pension and Health Benefits clarified that Retiring and Retired Clergy members must maintain membership in the United Methodist Church to receive post-retirement medical benefits.

The conference budget for next year was set at $5,954,621, a decrease of almost 18% from this year. About 39% of the budget has been lost due to disaffiliation. The conference continues to carry out some belt-tightening measures: the episcopal residence in Montgomery has been sold, since the bishop is rarely able to spend time at home; the conference staff will move into half of the conference office building and lease the other half to bring in some revenue; and the number of districts has been consolidated from eight to four, with one district superintendent to administer each one.

The overall mood of the conference was one of expectation. We were challenged to expect God to “make all things new,” and we do! A resolution passed on Wednesday outlined ways we can be part of this. Each congregation is challenged to

  •          Do a “new thing” this year to fulfill our mission to be a make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world – perhaps a ministry, program, or campaign that causes the congregation to listen more fully to their neighbors, meet the needs of their neighborhoods, and reach new groups of persons with the gospel;
  •          Make a special effort to intentionally welcome United Methodist members who have been displaced from disaffiliating churches; and
  •          Find at least one way to help new UM church plants or fresh expressions in their region by offering space, mission funds, spiritual support, and other resources.

I was not the only person representing this congregation  -- there were five of us there. Of course our minister was the clergy member, and Jesse was there as a voting member. Sam Miller was the Dothan District youth member, and Catie Reed Wilbourne served as a page in all the business sessions. It was good to see former pastors Scott Hohn and Robbins Sims. I want to thank you for the opportunity to represent you at this year’s Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference.

-- Cathie Wilbourne