Submitted by Rev. Cindy Gregorson, NCJ Mission Council Member, Minnesota Annual Conference
Picture credit: Eric Swanson
Delegates to the General and Jurisdictional Conference of the North Central Conference were hosted by Wespath and the North Central Jurisdictional Mission Council on October 20-21 in a gathering to build relationships, discuss strategy and learn about key issues that will come before the General Conference 2024.
Wespath kicked off the presentations by outlining the changes and rationale for the proposed new clergy retirement plan and the commitment to sustainable investment. Andy Hendren, General Secretary of Wespath, in welcoming the group stated firmly that Wespath is and will always be an agency of the United Methodist Church and investments will be based on the Social Principles in our Book of Discipline.
The new proposed clergy retirement plan is in response to the annual conferences and the Wespath board stating we need to limit on our on-going pension liability which comes with defined benefit plans. The new proposed plan will be a completely defined contribution 403b plan. The contribution will be made up of three components: a flat dollar contribution for every clergy ($150 per month), 3% of pay, and a matching contribution of up to 4% of pay. Some unique features are that student loan payments can be counted towards the matching contribution, clergy would be automatically enrolled at a 4% matching contribution unless they elect otherwise, and Wespath will continue to use the Life Stage Retirement Income Plan to replicate as closely as possible, the life time income assurance of the defined benefit plan.
There is legislation being proposed to General Conference that would ask that fossil fuels be one of the areas that we exclude from Wespath Investments. Wespath’s response was that fossil fuels are challenging to exclude given how pervasive their use is in our society from plastics to agriculture as well as energy, and to do so, removes us from those corporations and board conversations where we can work for change, and so they were asking for that legislation to not be supported.
The delegates then turned their attention to three major topics: regionalization, removal of the restrictive language in the Book of Discipline related to LGBTQI persons, and to the future of the United Methodist Church.
The presentation and conversation on worldwide regionalization was led by Rev. Dee Stickley-Miner and Rev. George Howard, both of whom are connected to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters.
Rev. Stickley-Miner framed the conversation by asking delegates to reflect on John 3:16-17 and what is required of us to love the world? To see who we may not already see, to hear who those we may not already hear, and to love as God loves the world. To know all people created in the image of God. That where they live and their cultures thrive, have already been blessed by God.
Rev. Howard reminded that group that we have been having the conversation about regionalization for 150 years. In 1924 the Board of Missons proposed the US be a Central Conference. It was defeated. In 1966, 250 people gathered in Green Lake, WI to discuss the global nature of the church. Since 1996, there have been tasks forces and proposal to every General Conference on regional conferences and ways to re-structure the so the church would not be so US centric as well as how to make the Book of Discipline adaptable to other parts of the country.
The legislation and enabling petitions for regionalization being presented by the Standing Committee on Central Conferences were grounded in the following values:
- Decolonizing our mission, relationships and structure
- Agency-power to make decisions to lead with integrity
- Self-determination within connectional system
- Stewardship of all gifts
- De-centering the United States
- Unity that is defined and strengthened
- Focus on mission and ministry
- Maintaining our Wesleyan theological doctrine and identity
After a review of the legislation, the delegates had an opportunity to listen to five voices from the central conferences on their perspective and hope for regionalization. Delegates were asked to name a word, phrase or image of what they heard. Some of the words lifted were: stay UMC, all voices heard, regionalization is a gift of hope to uphold inclusivity and unity, making decisions for ourself, can make more effective plans for our region, will not feel like so much of an intruder or stranger to GC, absurd to follow a Book of Discipline based on US government structure and laws, freedom and flexibility for our culture. This was followed by a time of praying for each of the persons that spoke to us.
The second conversation occurred around the dinner table where the gathering was invited to sit with people they did not know well. Again, through a series of questions, and listening to videos of people sharing their perspective, delegates and mission council members were invited to reflect on what is foundational to them about why full inclusion matters, and what about removing the restrictive language regarding LGBTQI persons at this General Conference matters to them personally and to us as a church collectively, and to consider how can we elevate our voice in sharing that urgency and perspective with others.
The Future of the UMC and Strategizing as a North Central Delegation was the focus of the third conversation on Saturday morning. Diane Brown, NCJ Secretary shared that Bishop Bickerton has convened a working group to consider the shape of episcopal leadership going forward given the significant season of transition that we are in, and that the Episcopal Fund is projected to receive a 23.9% cut in the proposed budget from GCFA. Each jurisdiction is looking how they would manage with fewer bishops differently. Currently we have 39 US Bishops, 25 Central Conference bishops, and 5 more that have been approved for Africa but not yet filled. Of the 39 US Bishops nine (9) bishops will reach mandatory retirement in 2024, and three (3) more in 2026. Table groups were invited to discuss what were their hopes and dreams for the future of the church. Through canvassing of delegations, we are probably close to 75-79% of delegates aligned with a more inclusive church. However, that would not reach the 50% majority required to pass legislation. The movements within the United States need to build relationships and support to the movements within in the Central Conference committed to staying United Methodist. Dave Nuckols, lay, Minnesota and a member of the Connectional Table, reminded the group that while the United States will have largely completed disaffiliations in 2023 and is moving on, this is still a very live issue outside the United States, particularly in the Africa Annual Conferences and that the UM Africa Forum is an organization that is committed to staying United Methodist and seeking to gather folks to build unity and coalition in this direction. A survey was conducted for the preferred ways the NCJ Delegates would like to collaborate and prepare for General Conference and an invitation was made for interested folks to join in a strategy team to help shape that work.
The large group time concluded with worship and communion focused on the Becoming Beloved Community vision of the North Central Jurisdiction, led by Rev. Carol Zaagsma, clergy, Minnesota. Legislative committee groups convened after lunch for specific conversation and relationship building across delegations.