From left, Ms. Martha Stokes, Bishop Lewiis and the Rev. Tom Berlin.

Conference event shares information on upcoming General Conference

By Forrest White

As head of the Virginia Conference delegation to the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, Martha Stokes has invested countless hours in study and prayer and conversation, preparing herself as best as she can for the three-day gathering in St. Louis, now less than five months away.

This journey has taken her into local churches around the conference, where she has heard divergent opinions on issues related to human sexuality, on ordination of self-avowing gay and lesbian clergy, and on same-sex marriages. 


  Madeline Pillow, conference director of communicaitons, opens the Q&A session.

“I’ve been wonderfully surprised at times, when people come up afterwards and say, ‘We recognize, even in our congregation that we have lots of differences of opinion, but we didn’t realize until today how much we love each other,’” Stokes said on Sept. 26, at the Commission on a Way Forward Q&A event held at Reveille UMC in Richmond and livestreamed throughout the conference at 10 other sites and online.

“When we have the opportunity to really be open and authentic and honest with each other in a very respectful, loving way we can work through those differences and realize what is most important is the care and concern we have for each other across those differences.”

At the 90-minute Q&A event, Stokes joined Bishop Sharma D. Lewis and the Rev. Tom Berlin – lead pastor at Floris UMC in Herndon and clergy head of the Virginia Conference delegation to General Conference – to provide an overview of the work done by the Commission on a Way Forward and to answer about 15 questions, some submitted in advance, some on the night of the gathering. The live event was attended by some 400 persons at live sites around the conference and by almost 1,300 persons online and in the days directly following the event. 

The questions ranged from procedural – what will happen at the Special Session and what if no plan receives the required two-thirds majority vote – to practical – how might the plans presented by the Commission impact clergy appointments and what if churches within a charge don’t embrace the same option within a plan.

One person asked if the 22 delegates from the Virginia Conference – 11 clergy, 11 lay – would be voting based on what their home churches want for the future.

“Delegates vote their own conscious,” Berlin said, simply.

  The event was livestreamed to 10 locations around the conference.

“It really comes down to what we are each hearing God say in terms of the way forward, the future for our church,” Stokes said. “It is really a spiritual time for delegates to not only do what you might think of as the book work, having to look at all the legislation, and then to really be vessels, to have made that time of our own preparation one in which we listen to what God is calling us to be as the church.”

On multiple occasions, Berlin encouraged those attending and those watching via livestream to take time and read the 90-plus page final report of the Commission. Many of the more than 30 submitted questions are answered in the report, he said.

Bishop Lewis urged all those listening to continue in prayer, to continue to trust that God is in the miracle business.

“It is not a time for us to be afraid,” she said. “It is a time for us to continue in our churches to have conversations. The worst thing we can do is to isolate ourselves and not have conversations.”

Lewis reiterated her six 2019 Guiding Principles:
• Clergy and laity lead with a non-anxious presence.
• Pray for our church’s mission and way forward daily for four minutes (2:23-2:36 a.m. or p.m. or at another time that fits your schedule). Pray for the General Conference, the 864 delegates, the 22 delegates from the Virginia Conference, and for the “power of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide our delegates. “
• Pursuit of the UMC mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We must continue in our churches to focus on four ministry areas – engaging in ministry with the poor, improving global health, developing Christian leaders, creating new and renewed congregations. 
• Pursuit of the Virginia Conference vision “to be disciples of Jesus Christ who are lifelong learners who influence others to serve.”
• Strive for unity in the Virginia conference. “Be careful what you say, be gentle,” Lewis said. “We have persons lives and souls in our hands.”
• Keep our promises (retiree pensions and healthcare; global commitments such as in Mozambique and Cambodia) 

  The event was hosted at Reveille UMC, Richmond.

The panelists saved the most poignant question until the end – Someone wanted to know their greatest hope and greatest fear for the gathering in St. Louis.

Berlin’s great hope is passage of the One Church Plan because it provides a “generous unity.”

That plan, Berlin said, honors the fact that the United Methodist Church has progressive and traditional people, as well as “a whole bunch of us in the middle” with some leaning left and some leaning right and it tries to “create a space for everyone.”

“My greatest fear … I think if some or many of us have to part, it’s very important that we part with a blessing,” Berlin said. “It’s very important not to do this work in ways the world looks in on us and says, ‘You’re just like us. The rule of Christ really isn’t in your hearts.’ It’s important for us not to hold each other in contempt or anger or judgment, but to understand that principled people can come to different decisions.”

-Forrest White is news associate with the conference Communications office. 




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