AC Day 2: Bishop says 2 new directors will help begin conference ‘pivot’

June 05, 2023
By Alan Wild

OWENSBORO, Ky. – Two new staff members were formally introduced Tuesday, June 5, during the opening plenary session of the Kentucky Annual Conference – the Rev. Dr. Kimberly Pope-Seiberling, director of New Church Development, and the Rev. Dr. Tina Patterson, director of Connectional and African American Ministries.

The two positions were announced previously by Bishop Leonard Fairley in an email announcement, but he was able to personally share the news with the Annual Conference just before introducing Pope-Seiberling and the NCD team to talk about new church initiatives – as Fairley put it, “starting the pivot” after Sunday night’s session to approve the disaffiliation of 286 churches in the conference.

Earlier, morning worship highlighted Fairley’s sermon on the importance of Showing the Love of God – this year’s theme for Annual Conference. 

UMC rebirth in Kentucky
The NCD report began with the team’s co-chairs, the Rev. Dr. Eric Bryant and the Rev. Adam Sparks, talking about the work around new church initiatives that began months ago, once the scope of disaffiliating churches became known.

Bryant and Sparks held regular meetings with the Rev. Kevin Burney, director of Ministerial Services, and the Rev. Brad Smart, dean of the Bishop’s Appointive Cabinet, to talk about the new initiatives and help the Cabinet identify areas of strategic focus. That collaborative work extended to the Board of Pensions.

“We deeply appreciated Bishop Fairley’s leadership, direction and clarity of expectations for NCD going forward,” said Bryant, who was NCD director from 2017-2020 before becoming senior pastor at Christ Church in Louisville. Because of COVID-related budgetary concerns, the NCD director’s position has been left vacant for the past three years.

Sparks used his portion of the presentation to talk about the three key areas NCD and the conference are initially targeting: suburban Cincinnati in the Northern Kentucky District, the Cadiz area in western Kentucky, and a revitalization project involving Fuente de Avivamiento in Lexington – with more initiatives to come.

Sparks said the ministries likely will look different depending on the contexts, but the goal is to have a United Methodist presence in every part of the state. He also emphasized that “in each of these areas, this was Sprit-led and lay-led work before it ever became NCD work.”

Pope-Seiberling, who started as NCD director May 1, comes from the West Ohio Conference. Fairley said that he recalled talking with her on the phone when she was a finalist for the job and how he believed she has the skills set needed to help start new churches in areas hard-hit by disaffiliation.

A few minutes later, when Pope-Seiberling was speaking, she joked that she remembered the conversation – which lasted just eight minutes – slightly differently. She said Fairley asked her, “Can you do this job?” She said, “Yes, I can.”

But Monday, she said she needed to amend her answer: “I can’t do this job by myself. Laity and clergy of the Kentucky Annual Conference, I need your help. And we can’t do it together, either. We need God’s help.”

She said that in travels during her first month, she heard of an increased need for connectionalism and assistance in equipping faith communities to reflect the new normal. She also mentioned “lighthouse churches” – churches around the conference that are stepping up to help continuing members but also to reach out to hurting people in the community. (Free yard signs for churches to place out front announcing that they are lighthouse churches are available in the conference’s temporary office on the second floor of the Owensboro Convention Center.)

Pope-Seiberling also said that NCD will introduce a concept known as “breakthrough prayer,” a tool designed to help churches understand that the only good reason to invite people to church is to help people know and understand God’s love.

Another priority will be to identify continuing members and to reach out to them to connect or reconnect with them. She also is exploring the possibility of setting up a conference online worship tool so people across the conference have access to quality worship, regardless of location.  

After the presentation, Fairley talked about how excited the Cabinet was to learn that the new initiatives are coming. He also stressed that they will reach every corner of the conference, not just the three areas initially identified.

General Conference elections
Four laity and three clergy members for General/Jurisdictional Conference are to be elected during the 2023 Annual Conference. In introducing the topic, Fairley said the votes are provisional, pending Judicial Council clarifications on filling openings left by disaffiliations and withdrawals. Conference Secretary Darren Brandon said he will hold on to the election results while awaiting word from the Judicial Council.

Three of four lay candidates – Tess Welch, Sarah McGinnis and Lesley Williams – were elected on the first ballot. Another vote is planned to fill the fourth slot. A clergy election ballot was taken but was ruled invalid because of a problem.

General Conference – delayed three times because of the pandemic – is scheduled for spring 2024 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

CFA budget report
Kim Keller, chair of the conference’s Council on Finance and Administration, and the Rev. David Garvin, conference treasurer, gave first reading to the 2024 budget. Keller said the conference is trying to be responsive to those challenges. The 2024 Annual Conference budget will be about $4.5 million – a significant cut – and the conference apportionment rate will again be 10%.

The two additional directors’ positions are included in the 2024 budget, and the number of district superintendents is being reduced to five from nine. They also said there are a number of other financial sources available to help fund gaps. Future Annual Conference sessions also will cost less to produce.

Garvin stressed that “God’s not finished with us, missionally or financially,” even though how the work gets done will look different.

“The budget still has millions of dollars with hundreds of churches, tens of thousands of United Methodists. God has blessed us, if only we will have the eyes to see it and the courage to follow it,” he said.

The report will be formally approved Wednesday.

Clergy and laity sessions
As usual, the clergy and laity sessions followed Opening Worship in the morning. The clergy session was held in executive session as usual, but the laity session was public and streamed on the conference’s platforms.

There was some discussion about the pain of lay members whose churches have disaffiliated. Lew Nicholls, interim Kentucky East lay leader, noted that Sunday “was a sad day,” but it marked the end of one season and the beginning of a hopeful season.

The session concluded with three young adults in the conference, Eliza Love, Erin Rice, and Tess Welch, presenting words of hope that included a reading from Nehemiah, Chapter 8. They also had bookmarks on hand posing five questions for people to ponder:
  • What is the nature of God?
  • Who are we called to be?
  • What are we called to do?
  • How is God inviting you into deeper relationship?
  • Where do you have joy?
Ordination & Commissioning Service
  • Ordained as elders during the Monday evening service were: the Revs. Claudia Nava-Galloway, Elizabeth Louise Smith, and Dustin Woods.
  • Commissioned on the elder track were: the Revs. Jason Elam and Jordan LeeAnn Hunter.
Bishop James Swanson, who retired Jan. 1, 2023, as Mississippi Annual Conference bishop, preached. In his introductory remarks, he said the people deserve honor and praise by raising the consciousness of the five people being ordained or commissioned.

During his rousing message, he said: “The God I serve works in the midst of darkness,” and even in the darkness of despair and hopelessness, “God is not through with you yet! … There is hope even in darkness!” His words and delivery drew enthusiastic applause more than once from the clergy and laity.

As he wrapped up, he left the stage and went into  the crowd, preaching, shouting and high-fiving, calling for “joy in the morning,” adding, “I got two good words that will bless your soul: Good morning!”

“The God I serve is making way even in the darkness – bless his name, yes he is!” Swanson said to more enthusiastic applause.

Earlier, the ecumenical greeting was brought by the Most Rev. Bishop William F. Medley, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Owensboro. Medley mentioned in his remarks the ecumenical relief work that took place after the deadly western Kentucky tornadoes in December 2021.

“In a moment of dire need and terrible loss, our people and pastors did what we should always do: We served the least among us,” he said, adding that during tragedies, denominations often find they have way more in common than they have differences.

View all the photos from Monday's proceedings and worship service.