2023 Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference

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It was 137 years ago when two Methodists from the racially segregated Delaware Conference had the idea to bring higher education to African Americans in Somerset County, Maryland. With nine students and two educators, they started a school that grew into the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. 

Today, the university educates 3,000 students. On June 8-10, United Methodists returned to this place of legacy and possibility for the 239th Session of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference.

Looking toward a post-pandemic future, members expressed enthusiasm and a sense of challenge about the church being freed to pivot and grow in new ways that embrace missional planning and transformation. “All About Love” was the theme.

This theme enabled the clergy and lay members from 416 churches to embrace some of the deeper items on the agenda with a spirit of grace.

Conference members voted to approve the disaffiliation of 92 churches, which left the denomination over issues related to homosexuality. The churches followed a process outlined in Paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline, which calls on them to pay some specific costs. The aggregate value of the disaffiliation payments that will be received from the 92 churches is $5,146,426.31, reported the Rev. Joseph Archie, the Dean of the Cabinet, who brought the motion on disaffiliation.

In their speeches for and against the disaffiliation, the 343 voting members spoke in bittersweet terms about severing ties with the connection, one of the defining traits of The United Methodist Church that brings churches together in shared mission and ministry.

“I’ve looked at the churches on the list, and I believe every one of them has a heart for Jesus,” said one member. “They’re leaving the connection; they don’t leave the Gospel.”

The Rev. Erica Robinson Johnson, the conference’s chief administrative officer, prayed before the vote. “We have been on a journey that has had mountains and valleys, a journey that has taken us into places we never imagined it would go, and you have been with us every step of the way,” she prayed. “No matter what the outcome of the vote, remember that we are still your beloved children and you are the one who will meet us in the next steps to come. We pray that your will be done, and that love will prevail.”

Love was the focus of the opening sermon, delivered by Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, the episcopal leader of the Peninsula-Delaware and Baltimore-Washington conferences.

“We have many ways of proclaiming to the world that we are Christians, the bishop said. “However, the Gospel writer makes it plain that the only way to demonstrate, pronounce, proclaim and prove that we are in relationship with God through Jesus Christ is that we love one another. Ah, beloved, let us not lose our identity, our witness, the hallmark of who we are because we will not love one another. … How we part will determine whether we are embodying our identity as disciples. It’s all about love.”

She challenged those present to move beyond generalized, Hallmark ideas about love. “Love is not an emotion; it is an action,” she said. Love means “extending oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. … Love is as love does.”

In love, said Bishop Easterling, “We become God’s walking Word,” not a word written on tablets, but the Word written on our hearts. We draw others to Christ by the light that shines within us. We give ourselves away in love!”

At the session, the bishop and conference members honored William Westbrook, who has given himself away in love and ministry for 29 years as the conference treasurer and director of administrative service. They also explored how to become vessels of God’s love in a thought-provoking Bible study on “Living the Lord’s Prayer,” led by Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar.

In the two-hour study, Bishop Devadhar noted that Jesus’ disciples did not ask Jesus to show them to preach, or do miracles or do ministry, instead, they said, “Lord, teach us to pray,” because they realized “it was the power of Jesus’ prayer that enabled him to do what he did.”

The bishop agreed with other leading theologians that if somebody requests a brief summary of Christian faith, “the best thing to do would be to write Our Lord’s Prayer.” But just saying the prayer and actually living it, are two different things. We are challenged, “to work for the extension of the Reign of God,” Devadhar said. “The secret of a successful ministry is to do all we can and submit to God’s will.”

Bishop Devadhar continued this theme of living out one’s faith in the sermon he delivered for the Commissioning Service, in which he encouraged all United Methodists to “roll up their sleeves, put their minds in gear, and be filled and moved by the Holy Spirit. … Go with ‘urgency and passion,’” he said, and live so that others “see the servanthood of Christ in you.”

In a heated debate, conference members also considered recently proposed changes to the Peninsula-Delaware policies on health benefits for retirees (and their families) who retired, but have not yet reached the age of 62, the age required to receive a pension benefit from the denomination. The motion was referred to the Board of Pensions and Health Benefits for further consideration.

Members also approved a recommended increase in health and dental insurance coverage. There will be a 10% contribution increase for participants and a 20% contribution increase for local churches. This is the first such increase in three years.

In addition, members heard several reports from leaders. The Rev. Jackie Ford, the conference Director of Connectional Ministries outlined the church’s Missional Action Planning initiative, which calls on churches to take the next step to engage in partnerships to serve their communities and grow in discipleship. Ford outlined the resources being provided, including the Congregational Development Pathways, to enable 100% of conference churches to become 100% vital. Vital churches, she said, see all the people, live and love like Jesus, deepen discipleship and multiply their impact.

Members also took action on and heard reports about several areas of ministry and mission.

In Stewardship, members:

  • Passed a 2024 Covenant Funding Plan, including an apportionment total of $4,962,466 to support ministry needs, which is a 1.7% increase over 2023.
  • Approved an increase of 8.7% in the minimum clergy salary, to $46,999 for full elders and deacons, $43,404 for provisional elders and deacons and $40,598 for full-time local pastors; and an increase of $200 per year for each year up to 20 years of pastoral service.
  • Elected Paul Eichelberger, the current chief financial officer of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, to serve as the new chief financial officer of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference.
  • Celebrated the ministry and voted to close Emmanuel United Methodist Church, founded in 1869 in Mardela Spring, Maryland and Bethany United Methodist Church, founded in 1887 in Crocheron, Maryland.
  • Received $15,928 in offerings for the Clergy Assistance Fund, Board of Ordained Ministry Scholarship and the Congo Partnership.

In the area of Leadership, members:

  • Commissioned three elders to serve as provisional clergy: Shawn Shaw Barnett, Zachary Leonard Brown and Keisha Rosena Dukes.
  • Commissioned Ruth Campbell to serve as a deaconess in ministry as a physician’s assistant at Eastern Correctional Institution.
  • Celebrated the lives of 22 pastors and their spouses in a Service of Remembrance.
  • Voted to replace delegates who had withdrawn from the General and Jurisdictional Conference delegation with clergy member, Rev. Chris Pennington and lay member Glenn Pruitt.
  • Bid farewell to Conference Lay Leader Carlene Phoenix, who ended her term this year.
  • Celebrated the ministry of Certified Lay Ministers, licensed local pastors, retirees, and pastors celebrating ordination anniversaries at a Service of Celebration.
  • Were encouraged to participate in a variety of leadership training events sponsored by the Center for Vital Leadership.

In Discipleship, members:

  • Learned how local churches and the conference support such ministries as the Board of Child Care, which cared for 13,000 vulnerable children in need last year; Volunteer in Mission teams, which are re-starting their work after the COVID pandemic; the United Methodist Committee on Relief; and the Immigration Law and Justice Network, formerly known as Justice for our Neighbors, which provides legal assistance to migrants in 19 offices across the country.
  • Heard about how the Catalyst Initiative, a congregational pathway to vitality, helped broaden the outreach and discipleship of Asbury United Methodist Church in Salisbury by providing practical tools and insights for community partnership and outreach.
  • Were introduced to Auggie Lanford, the new executive director of Camp Pecometh, which provides a place of play, prayer and transformative moments through its summer camp and retreat programs.
  • Showed their support of the Congo Partnership, which offers job training, feeding programs for children and the elderly, access to fresh water, education and literacy training, vision and other health care services.
  • Honored the ancestors who once inhabited the land and called on “the one who creates through thought,” to walk with us — “Wiitkutoohsinaan.” Peninsula-Delaware’s Committee on Native American Ministries is involved in creating a resource to preserve the Nanticoke language.

The 240th session of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference is scheduled for June 13-15, 2024.

Statistics

Membership stands at 58,998, down 3,341 from the previous year. 

Worship attendance stands at 17,244, up 563. 

Church school attendance stands at 3,509, down 248. 

Professions or reaffirmations of faith for 2022 — 557, up from 2021 — 202.

Adults and young adults in small groups for 2022 — 8,624, up from 2021— 620.

Worshippers engaged in mission for 2022 — 11,636, up from 2021 — 432.

Melissa Lauber, Baltimore-Washington Conference director of communications.

 



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