The inaugural Tennessee-Western Kentucky (TWK) Annual Conference was held as a hybrid conference from June 15-17 at Brentwood UMC and online.
Although the TWK Conference was officially birthed on January 1 of this year, this conference celebrated the transformation of the two legacy conferences into one. The event possessed a palpable spirit of fellowship, as the 1,605 participants relished the chance to be together, whether in person or online, united in this new season.
The theme for this year’s conference, “The River of Life Unites Us,” resonated at every level, flowing within and foregrounding the spirit of the gathering. Opening worship began with a processional that featured water from rivers in each of the conference’s nine districts being poured into an aquatic blue fountain next to the pulpit. Blue, river-themed banners from each district flanked the chancel, as liturgical dancers enacted the rhythm of the flowing waters. Anticipation built: Where would the conference waters lead?
Before the body could go forward, however, it had first to look back and remember.
Members of the annual conference took part in a transitions experience, in which they grieved what had to be left behind, as well as decided together what they would take with them into this new journey. Guest facilitator, Sharon Cox, helped the conference think through why transitions are so difficult, and yet so important.
She highlighted concepts from William Bridges’ book “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes” and led the members in a meditation upon what it means to lead through the tumultuous process of transition. She stressed how leaders can help their congregations “canoe the mountains.” Resources from the presentation are available on the conference website.
At the end of the experience, representatives from each district wheeled away suitcases full of notes on which were written things from the legacy conferences that they would be leaving behind. The next step was for everyone to write their hopes on a new card for what will be brought along on this new journey of mission and witness.
The body also remembered the legacies and lives of those ministers and clergy spouses who died in the past year during the Memorial Service. Rev. Allen Black, retiring Harpeth River District Superintendent, led the congregation in a reflection on the meaning and importance of Christian hope.
Worship and Reflection Experiences
Worship was at the heart of the inaugural conference. Musical guest Dr. Cynthia Wilson led the body in song throughout each of the three days. She helped set the tone with a spirit of worship and thanksgiving for this new opportunity. Diverse groups organized, led, and participated in each service. The Bradley Brass accentuated the musicality of worship, and dance troupes from “shackled feet” DANCE and another choreographed by Carrie Gerow, dramatized worship themes.
The opening service on Wednesday included a sermon from Bishop McAlilly that laid a missional and Christ-centered foundation for the days to come and included Holy Communion. Raising our voices in praise after years apart was balm for all present. The work of the Holy Spirit took root during the opening worship and sermon and stirred the gathered body to holy conferencing for the remaining days of annual conference.
Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, who serves as the President of the Council of Bishops and United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), respectively, as well as Bishop of the New York Annual Conference, was a special guest of the annual conference.
During a reflective conversation with Bishop McAlilly, Bishop Bickerton provided the conference a global perspective on the vibrancy and resilience of the United Methodist Church. He also stressed the importance of “call,” sharing his own “call story” with those gathered. With a passionate emphasis on the “next expression” of global Methodism, Bickerton remarked, “For those of you who plan to leave – and you are loved and blessed – I will not let you burn the house down on your way out the door.”
Bishop Bickerton also preached at Thursday night’s Service of Licensing, Commissioning, and Ordination Service, in which 10 persons were ordained in full connection, 13 affirmed for provisional membership, and 16 as local pastors. Bishop Bickerton reflected on “call” with the large class, emphasizing the importance of clinging to one’s calling throughout the ebbs and flows and difficulties of ministry.
- Persons received into full connection as elders: Corrie Beth Alexander-Willette, Keith Earl Caldwell, Zachary Stephen Fisher, Kelli Nichole Hamilton, Diantha Smith McLeod, Zachery Christopher Moffatt, and Russell K. Yoder.
- Persons received into full connection as deacons. Keri Helen Cress, Jedediah Wilson Hanes, and Velma Thomas-Parker.
- Provisional elders: Lory Brooks Catlett, Mary Elizabeth Eberle, Benjamen Eschenfelder, Chelli Runelle Jones, Philip David McAbee, Kathryn Janel Heierman Minnis, and Donna Rosetta Spencer.
- Provisional deacons: Christy Collins Brown, Rebecca Ferne Gwynn-Dixon, Anna Keller Hawkins, Sarah Montgomery McCain, Wanda Lynn Spencer, and Robert Graham Wheeler III.
- Local pastors are William (Bill) L. Burnette, Keith David Carlson, Margaret Ann Collins, Robert T. Conder, Karl Wesley Covington, Rhonda Brown Crawford, Angela R. Ford, Linda Louise Furtado, Levi Dylan Hamilton, James Morton III, Timothy O’Neal Paris Jr., Billy Patterson, Allen Earl Schieber, Elizabeth Marie Thomen, Michael M. Treen, and Ronald Nicholas Ullrich.
There were several reports and key pieces of business conducted and accomplished at annual conference.
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, and affiliated universities, and important local church actions. These actions included charge line changes, 15 life cycle church closures and 60 requests for disaffiliation.
A report was given by the TWK Connectional Table, the new strategic leadership team for the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference. This team, made up primarily of laity and supported by conference staff, stewards the mission, vision, and values for the TWK. They reported that the new TWK leadership structure is working: Siloed ministry is gone, leadership is becoming adaptive, and teams are forming with new visions in mind.
John Pearce, CFA chair, presented the Council on Finance and Administration’s report. The TWK 2023 budget was approved and four action items — Cabinet Reserve Fund, travel expenses, housing allowance, and district superintendent compensation — were passed. To see the 2023 budget and Pearce’s PowerPoint presentation visit https://twkumc.org/annual-conference-financial-information/.
Larry Davis, TWK Treasurer and Director of Administrative Services, gave an update on the pending settlement regarding the Boy Scouts of America. He stressed that this is not just a financial issue, but one of significant personal harm that we cannot forget and must prevent from happening in the future. Later in the afternoon, a survivor of abuse offered a powerful witness about his personal experience while in Boy Scouts.
Three resolutions were brought forth that had been reviewed by the resolutions committee: a resolution related to housing allowances for retired, disabled, or former clergy; a Special Sundays resolution; an amended resolution related to the disbursement of closed church proceeds. All three passed.
After requests from the floor were approved, two additional resolutions were presented and passed: a resolution advocating lawmakers to implement laws that would reduce or prevent gun violence; and one pertaining to the amendment of the Tennessee constitution to end slavery.
The TWK Cabinet shared the joys and challenges facing the nine TWK districts and Conference over the past year. Bishop McAlilly then introduced each of the district superintendents: Scott Aleridge (outgoing) and Jerry Wallace (Cumberland River), Donna Parramore (Caney Fork River), Pat Freudenthal (Red River), Chip Hunter (Stones River), Autura Eason-Williams (Metro), Nancy Johnston Varden (Purchase), Cynthia Davis (retiring) and David Weatherly (Mississippi River), Allen Black (retiring) and Vona Wilson (Harpeth River), and Dan Camp (Tennessee River).
Each district superintendent reported that each district’s appointments have been set. Bishop McAlilly prayed for pastors and their families in their appointments in the coming year. A link to the 2022 List of Appointments is available on the TWK Conference website.
Sharing Our Stories
A key component of celebration for the conference was the opportunity to share stories of witness and fruitful ministry with one another. Each of these stories featured four missional components that are integral to who we are as the TWK Conference: response, resilience, reconciliation, and resurrection.
Charlotte Hethcoat shared how the TWK Disaster Recovery Connection came to her family’s aid after her home was destroyed by massive floods. Bobbie and Elmira Thomas witnessed to how the TWK has enabled them to remain in their neighborhood after surviving the 2020 tornado. Their damaged house was transformed into their dream home and continues to be an anchor of community for their family and neighbors.
Kyla Smith, a member of Collierville UMC and a junior attending the University of Memphis, detailed how Memphis Wesley’s campus ministry has helped sustain her faith during the pandemic.
Kimberly Brann, Neighborhood Initiative and Recovery director at First UMC in Fulton, Kentucky, powerfully shared how the UMC helped her embody her identity as a child of God after years of battling drug addiction. She now leads a worship service in a secular recovery center.
Rev. Myriam Cortes highlighted the inspiring 10-year journey of Iglesia Metodista Ebenezer UMC and how this thriving congregation has made an impact in every community they have served.
Rev. Luke Lea bore witness to how Project Transformation helped shape the way he walks through deep waters with a community of faith and how it continues to do so as he returns to pastor the site where he served as a PT intern.
The conference featured several exciting announcements related to vital ministries and collaborations.
- Kent McNish of ENCORE Ministry presented a donation of $500,000 to the Bill and Lynn McAlilly Fund for Church Accessibility. The goal is to build the fund to $750,000 by September 2024. These funds will be available to churches that need to improve building accessibiltiy to older adults and others. Churches and individuals can make contributions to this fund honoring the McAlilly’s by visiting https://encoreministry.kindful.com/
- TWK Disaster Response has received an UMCOR grant of $2.9 million for long-term recovery throughout the conference in areas impacted by recent storms. This grant will facilitate building a leadership structure to better manage these long-term efforts even as future natural disasters occur in our area.
- Rev. Dr. Gary Henderson, chief relationship officer at United Methodist Communications presented the EPI award to TWK Conference Communications Director Amy Hurd, APR. This award recognizes excellence in communications ministry. Amy was selected because of her communications leadership during the recent natural disasters affecting the conference, the merging of the two annual conferences, and the development of a new website.
- An important new partnership was announced between Meharry Medical College, Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, and Church Health to support a Meharry campus in Memphis. With the support of TWK local churches, this partnership hopes to create a pipeline to help young students of color pursue careers as doctors. Churches are encouraged to support Meharry Memphis with financial gifts.
During the closing worship service on Friday, the inaugural conference ended where it began: with water, as those gathered joined in a remembrance of their baptisms.
As Bishop McAlilly preached the closing message to the conference, it became clear where those flowing waters were going, indeed, where they had been leading all along: out from within the walls of Brentwood UMC or away from the virtual participants’ screens, and into missional relationships with the world, so that, as Bishop McAlilly remarked, “the people who have not had the promise, love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness of Jesus poured out on them can receive it.”
Bishop McAlilly encouraged conference attendees to realize the importance of reflecting on how the United Methodist Church has nurtured their faith. Reflecting on his own experience in the UMC, Bishop McAlilly said, “Everything I know about Jesus, scripture, and servanthood, I know from the Church that named me and claimed me and taught me and loved me – sometimes, in spite of myself.”
He thanked the conference for its cooperation and graciousness during this season of transitioning into the TWK conference, but maintained that this is just the beginning. “We haven’t crossed the finish line,” said McAlilly, “we have to cross the river Jordan, we have to go out into the world and continue telling the story of Jesus and looking for the last, least, and the lost – the ones nobody else has seen.That’s what it means to follow Jesus.”
In the conclusion to his sermon, Bishop McAlilly implored the members of the TWK conference to unite in mission. “What if, when we leave this place, we went back, not to the fussing and fighting, but got on board with Jesus and did the thing we’ve been ordained to do? … Go! Follow Jesus, feed the flock, and love.”
At the end of it all, the inaugural TWK Annual Conference was an encouraging, celebratory, and Spirit-filled experience, one that will be remembered for years to come.
Links to more information as well as recordings from the annual conference live stream are available at https://twkumc.org/video-ac2022/
The 2023 Tennessee-Western Kentucky Annual Conference is scheduled to be held June 19-21, 2023 in Memphis, TN.