By Tyler Sprouse and Cindy Solomon
The second Tennessee-Western Kentucky (TWK) Annual Conference was from June 19-21, 2023, at the Renasant Convention Center in Memphis, TN, and online. Over 1,200 voting members participated with one-third joining via Zoom webinar.
This annual conference was a time of spiritual renewal, joyous fellowship, celebration of our shared United Methodist identity, and collective rededication to our common source of hope, strength, and salvation: Jesus Christ.
Our meeting coincided with Juneteenth, giving us an opportunity to provide ways to deepen our understanding of the historical role of the Black Church and to celebrate our diversity.
Throughout the annual conference, the body explored and celebrated this year’s theme, “Abiding in Christ,” which provided a framework for Bible study, story sharing, and experiential opportunities designed to immerse participants in Christ’s nourishing love. The scriptural heartbeat of the conference was John 15-17, in which Jesus encourages his followers to abide in him.
In the months prior to annual conference, our presiding bishop, Bishop William T. “Bill” McAlilly, laid the foundation for this year’s theme by conducting bible studies on this passage in each of our nine districts; participants of annual conference then had an opportunity to engage with the Abide in Christ bible study on their own or with small groups during six weeks leading up to our time together in Memphis.
Over the course of annual conference, the body experienced abiding in Christ through story-telling. Both laity and clergy members shared their testimonies of abiding in Christ in the midst of diverse and difficult circumstances.
Rev. Dr. Birgitte French, who pastors Colonial Park UMC in Memphis, spoke about enduring trauma throughout her life because she knew she was “in His grip”– a phrase frequently used by the late district superintendent, Rev. Dr. Autura Eason-Williams, during her life and ministry.
Rev. Tondala Hayward, who serves Memphis Wesley, used her recent experience of learning to swim as an analogy for the church body during these times. Just as she learned to let go and trust her instructor, she implored the body to trust Jesus and follow him into the deep waters of pursuing justice and mercy.
Rev. Trey Carey, the pastor of Fellowship UMC, shared how, during the stress of COVID, God’s saving grace and the support of members of a caring online community, the Art of Well Being, helped him abide in Christ and rest. He invited others to seek support to create an effective, faithful, and healthy leadership culture.
Rev. Keri Cress, serves as a volunteer chaplain with the Nashville police department. She recounted her heart-wrenching experience in the aftermath of the Covenant School shooting of praying and abiding with parents and grandparents who were told about the death of their children. She took the opportunity to ask that we all learn more about gun reform initiatives.
Cynthia Haley, the director of music for the 2023 Annual Conference, shared that hospitality and the sharing of musical gifts created a connectional neighborhood across the conference as many United Methodists came together for regional rehearsals to prepare music for the annual conference.
Worship and Teaching
Opening worship was on Juneteenth and it featured powerful music from the Black Church tradition, as well as a Juneteenth commentary given by Dr. Charles Parker and a dramatic presentation “Of Juneteenth, part 1” by Rev. Marilyn Thornton.
Our special guest preacher, the episcopal leader of the West Ohio Annual Conference, Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, gave an inspirational sermon on John 15. In the message, Bishop Palmer stressed the importance of the UMC returning to its missional roots: loving those God has called us to love.
“You show me a church that is engaged with its neighbors, and I will show you a church that has a great capacity to live… When you are no longer asking the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ you are no longer abiding–individually or institutionally,” he said.
Dr. Ashley Boggan, General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History, led a teaching session on how returning to our Wesleyan roots can help us embody a more equitable future. Through an exploration of the original Wesleyan movement, Boggan challenged members to reclaim their spirit as United Methodists and think creatively about how we do church today and in the future. She encouraged members to adopt a “vile Wesleyanism,” a tradition of being ridiculed and doing the unthinkable–all in order to spread the love of God.
Bishop McAlilly led two teaching sessions, picking up on the pre-conference teaching series he conducted throughout the TWK districts. Focusing on the Gospel of John’s farewell discourses and Jesus’ direction, mission, and ministry, Bishop McAlilly shared how abiding in Christ has applied in his life and ministry and how it takes shape in the life of our conference. He implored participants to anchor their hope “on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness” and share that hope with others in their communities.
The body remembered those 50 ministers and clergy spouses who died in the past year during the Memorial Service. The Rev. Dr. Erin Beasley led the congregation in a meditation on what it means to run the race of discipleship together. She also specifically honored two beloved sisters of faith, Rev. Marita Harrell and Rev. Dr. Autura Eason-Williams, who died tragically last year.
Bishop Palmer preached during Tuesday evening’s Service of Licensing, Commissioning, and Ordination, during which six persons were ordained in full connection, four persons affirmed for provisional membership, and 11 persons licensed as local pastors. Bishop Palmer preached about the entailments of ministry in today’s landscape, emphasizing the importance of being a good shepherd and loving parishioners well.
- Persons received into full connection as elders: Tory Shane Dillard, Tondala Lashun Hayward, Eliud Martinez Del Cid, Nathanael Dejarnett Partee, and Christine Nitcholas Penner.
- Persons received into full connection as deacons: Nicole Lynn Poland Nyembo.
- Provisional Elders: Susan Engle Carrigan, Steven Bradlee Lefebvre, and Adam Joseph Rush.
- Provisional Deacons: Todd Martin Wilson.
- Licensed Local pastors: Kimberly Dishaye Brann, David Allen Hill, Milo Arnett Lumpkin, Earma Jean Mitchell-Lane, Kayla Jo Neese, Kevin Wayne Paschall, James Daniel Phebus, Rebecca Lynn Purdue, Jerry Wayne Raines, Carol Lynn Reynolds, and Zachery A. Richards.
Several reports and key pieces of business were conducted and accomplished:
On the first day, the body voted to approve the consent agenda, which included leadership nominations, reports from conference committees and ministry partners, as well as seminaries, divinity schools, affiliated universities, and local church actions. The actions included charge line changes and 11 church closures. No disaffiliations were brought before the body.
Rev. Mary Beth Bernheisel presented the Board of Ordained Ministry report.
Rev. Jefferson Furtado, Rev. Sean Stanfield, Rev. Erin Beasley, and Rev. Erin Racine gave an overview of The Vine UMC, a new community of faith that provides a home for those experiencing disaffiliation and those who are outside of the church experience.
Rev. Vona Wilson, Courtney Lawson, and Rev. Toi King presented the vision and ministry of the New Church Development Team and the beginning steps toward a Faith and Innovation movement in the TWK.
John Pearce, Council on Finance and Administration chair, presented the CFA’s report. The TWK 2024 budget was approved and action items–allocation of funds to the Stay the UMC Fund and Cabinet Reserve Fund/travel expenses/housing allowance/district superintendent compensation–were passed.
Resolutions were brought forth that were reviewed by the Resolutions Committee. Click here for more information on these resolutions.
The resolutions below, each passing the tests of constitutionality and concurrence, passed.
- Housing allowances for retired, disabled, or former clergy
- Ministry to and with neurodivergent members and community
- Green Team formation
- Net-zero greenhouse gas emissions
- Encouraging leadership with integrity
Three resolutions were ruled out of order because they did not pass the test of concurrence, as these were aimed at changing 2020 General Conference legislation. Next year’s General Conference session is actually the postponed 2020 General Conference, and new legislation, from our NEW conference, for the following General Conference cannot be proposed yet. (The TWK chancellor cited Judicial Council rulings 1451 and 1472 to explain this.)
- Removal of discriminatory policies (does not pass the test of concurrence)
- Creating a U.S. regional conference (does not pass the test of concurrence)
- Affirmation of queer delegates’ call to center justice and empowerment for LGBTQIA+ people in the UMC (does not pass the test of concurrence)
The TWK Cabinet shared the joys and challenges facing the nine TWK districts and conferences over the past year. Bishop McAlilly then introduced each of the district superintendents: Jerry Wallace (Cumberland River), Donna Parramore (outgoing, Caney Fork River), Rev. Rickey Wade (Caney Fork River), Pat Freudenthal (Red River), Chip Hunter (Stones River), Nancy Johnston Varden (Purchase), David Weatherly (Mississippi River, and interim Metro), Vona Wilson (Harpeth River), and Dan Camp (Tennessee River).
Each district superintendent reported that district appointments have been set. (The full list is available on the conference website.) Bishop McAlilly prayed for pastors and their families in their appointments in the coming year.
A vote was taken by lay delegates to fill two Jurisdictional Lay Delegate vacancies. Holly Neal and John Pearce were elected after several ballots.
A video report by Rev. Dr. Kevin Conrad gave an update on the work of the District Realignment Team. (For questions or comments: firstname.lastname@example.org)
A 2-hour Ministry Exhibitors fair was held at which 28 of our ministry teams, affiliated ministry partners, and universities shared information with attendees. An online exhibitors page also was made available on the conference website.
Immersion Experiences & Other Stories
As a part of the annual conference this year, members had the opportunity to go a little deeper in engagement with many topics through scheduled immersion experiences and lunch and learn sessions. The onsite lunch and learn opportunities included spiritual practices, disaster preparation, creation care, dealing with trauma and antiracism.
Immersion experiences included a tour of the Civil Rights Museum, the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, a visit to Church Health at Crosstown Concourse, and a Prayer Journey Towards Justice in Memphis. There will be follow-up articles on some of these experiences available in the coming weeks.
Throughout the conference, a sacred space was made available. This interactive, multi-sensory prayer experience invited participants to hear and reflect on stories of racism and justice, pray through a labyrinth, find a place to rest, and to create prayers through art.
Jalen Lawson, Lina H. McCord Ambassador for the Black College Fund, shared how pivotal that scholarship was on her educational journey.
Mamie Jeter from Franklin First UMC and Daniel Phebus from MTSU Wesley shared the story of a long obedience in the same direction for the mission and ministries of ACD Guatemala and MTSU Wesley Foundation. God has blessed these connectional relationships for over a decade.
Kent McNish, executive director of ENCORE Ministry, announced an anonymous donation of $100,000 to the Bill and Lynn McAllily Fund for Church Accessibility. The goal of the fund is to raise $750,000 by McAlilly’s retirement date. Click here for more information about the Special Sunday offering supporting the fund.
As Bishop McAlilly preached the closing message to the conference, he inspired the body to continue in the Wesleyan vision of personal and social holiness. He encouraged those present to “see Jesus present in everything and everyone,” something that comes through the sanctifying power of Christ’s Spirit. He laid a vision for the UMC to come together as “Christians in the Wesleyan way.”
Bishop McAlilly then thanked the conference members for their cooperation and graciousness during this season of change.
All of the staff, volunteers, board members and current and former interns with Project Transformation were recognized and offered a prayer for the coming year of service.
The 2023 TWK Annual Conference was a truly blessed, Spirit-filled, and enriching time, one that empowered those present to continue abiding in Christ.
Links to more information can be found at twkumc.org/ac2023.
Recordings from the live stream of the annual conference sessions will be available soon.
The 2024 Tennessee-Western Kentucky Annual Conference is scheduled for June 2024 in Murfreesboro, TN.