SEJ Opens with Worship, Business, Balloting

11/2/2022

Photo: The North Georgia Delegation gathers.
By Jessica Brodie
 
LAKE JUNALUSKA, North Carolina—Delegates, reserves, bishops, volunteers, and members of the media filled the seats of Stuart Auditorium early Wednesday, Nov. 2, for the first day of the 2022 session of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference.

The morning began with a stirring worship service preached by Bishop James Swanson with a standing ovation and a call to remain a fearless church even amid anxiety over uncertainty, then a time for Holy Communion led by Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett.

Business began as Swanson called the meeting officially to order at 10:39 a.m., with roll call, setting the bar, adoption of the agenda, and the day’s first major item of business: determining how many bishops to elect.

With overwhelming approval by hand vote, the body agreed with the Committee on Episcopacy’s recommendation to elect three bishops this year instead of the authorized five. The COE cited as their main rationale financial responsibility given the uncertainty over disaffiliation, noting two bishops would be asked to serve two areas until September 2024.
The first ballot, to vote on three episcopal nominees, was taken just before noon.

Swanson stated results would not be revealed until after a lunch break, as there were some write-in episcopal nominees beyond the nine nominees currently up for consideration.
 
Untroubled hearts
Opening worship began with a processional hymn, then a time of congregational centering, wit the body facing first east, then south, then west, then north, as they prayed for guidance, purification and wisdom from the Lord.

“Christ brings healing and celebration,” said Worship Coordinator Dr. Sam Parkes, reminding all that they comprise many families, but “all human.”
After a Scripture reading from John 15, on the vine and the branches, Swanson preached a powerful opening sermon on his key takeaway from that story: Without Jesus, we can’t do anything.
Just as the disciples back then struggled with anxiety over uncertainty, we too have uncertainly.

But even with all that is going on, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled, Southeastern Jurisdiction,” Swanson said.

He noted that even the Avengers got worried and wondered if could defeat Thanos; it is natural to struggle with this.

“So often we get through life by denying what is going on. I’m not going to deny the fear and anxiety that’s in this room right here. But I hear him again: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Despite all the plotting that may be going on, do not let your hearts be troubled.”

Swanson said we often get too tied up in the things we want to see happen. Instead of allowing the Spirit to lead us to God’s vision, “We’ve already designed the church in our own image and likeness.”

We must understand from where our help comes, Swanson preached to resounding applause: Jesus.

“Forget your agenda,” Swanson said. “Stop for a minute and say, ‘Despite what I want, nevertheless—let your will be done.’”
 
Sacred grounds
Swanson, of the Mississippi Area, presided over the morning service, first calling on retired Bishop Richard C. Looney. Looney led the body in an opening prayer that emphasized the connection of vital local churches

“Let the prayer of St. Francis become our own,” Looney said, asking the Lord to help bring love where there is hatred, faith where there is doubt, hope where there is despair, and light where there is darkness.

After a reminder by Swanson of the importance of the mask requirement “out of utmost care and concern for each,” Conference Secretary Anne Travis came to the podium for roll call and quorum certification.

As she approached the podium, Swanson offered deep thanks at her stepping in to serve as secretary in the unexpected passing of Brad Brady, who was elected in September 2021 and served until his death this February.

In a voice thick with unshed tears, Travis called for remembrance of and a moment of silence for Brady, as well as bishops and delegates who passed away in recent years. Travis led roll call and set the bar of the conference, then established the agenda, noting their goal was to complete all balloting by lunch Thursday, Day Two of SEJ.

Next, Lake Junaluska Executive Director Ken Howle welcomed all to what he called “these sacred grounds” of Lake Junaluska, noting SEJ began meeting at Lake Junaluska in 1956.

He said Lake Junaluska was a neutral and uniting place of God, “a place where we can come together, put aside our differences and be in worship and fellowship together.”
 
Body to elect three bishops
Rob Martin then brought the report of the Committee on Plan of Organization and Rules of Order 2022, stating recommended changes include a revision to the number of members for the nominating committee and the tellers from a specific number that can fluctuate (currently set at 30) to the simpler two per annual conference, as conferences have merged and will likely to continue to do so. He also noted the name change from United Methodist Women to United Women in Faith.

Next, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson brought nominations from the Council of Bishops, noting that Julie Hager Love will step in as new SEJ secretary starting Jan. 1, 2023, and noted the secretary designate after 2024 would be Kathy James.

Travis then provided balloting instructions and led the body in a test vote.

Steve Furr, Committee on Episcopacy chair, next recognized those bishops who retired in September 2021—Bishops Paul Leeland, Hope Morgan Ward, Mary Virginia “Dindy” Taylor and Lawson Bryan—as well as Swanson, who is requesting to retire Dec. 31.

Furr also introduced the COE’s recommendation on electing three instead of five bishops. He said their decision was not a quick one and involved looking at extensive data from the general church and the jurisdiction.

“We think three is the appropriate number of people to elect for the 2022-2024 term,” Furr said.

The vote, taken by hand at 11:45 a.m., passed overwhelmingly.
 
First ballot taken before lunch break
After a video showcasing the important ministry of Gulfside Assembly, the body participated in another test ballot—this one on favorite color. With a successful test complete, Swanson invited Bishop Ken Carder to lead prayer before the first ballot.

Carder did so, asking the Lord to grant all gathered “purity of motives, calmness of spirit, clarity of mind and unwavering commitment to God’s boundless love and relentless justice for all of creation.”

The first ballot, allowing people to vote for their choice of three episcopal nominees, was taken just before noon and closed at 12:07 p.m.

Jessica Brody is editor of the South Carolina UMC Advocate. 
 

Balloting Continues Into Afternoon Session

By Madeline White
 
Bishop Sharma D. Lewis, episcopal leader of the Richmond Area, presided over the afternoon session beginning at 2:15 p.m. on Wednesday, November 2, 2022.

Ballot #1 was shared, and there was no election.  Three hundred and fifty-two (352) votes were cast and three hundred and fifty votes were valid (350). Two hundred and ten (210) votes were needed for the election. The Rev. Tom Berlin, episcopal nominee from the Virginia Conference, received 180 votes.

Bishop Bill McAulily joined via Zoom to share the report from the Committee on Coordination and Accountability. Before the report, during a moment of personal privilege, McAulily shared his thanks for all the expressions of concern following his injuries in a major car accident in August. McAulily began medical leave on November 1 and is now working toward the next stage of his recovery through outpatient therapy.

He then gave the Committee on Coordination and Accountability (CCA) report which can be found on pages 55-58 in the Advanced Daily Christian Advocate (ADCA).

The Committee brought a recommendation that the SEJ CCA and SEJ Council on Finance & Administration (CFA) streamline their structure into one committee.
A vote was taken by a show of hands, and the motion was approved by the body.

According to Book of Discipline Paragraph 405.1, any individual who receives 10 or more votes as ballot write-ins are given 10 minutes to come to the podium and are added to the episcopal nominee ballot.

Three individuals received 10 or more votes on Ballot #1.

The Rev. Dr. Zachery Beasley, Mississippi Conference, spoke first. He said he felt he is called to this time of the church not because he has all the answers but because he feels God has equipped him for this time.

The Rev. Robin Deese, South Carolina Conference, spoke next and began with a prayer. She shared she wanted to be transparent and shared that she does not believe homosexuality is a sin and that LGBTQ individuals can be called by God, ordained and serve UMC churches well. She also shared that this is not the only issue  the church faces.

The Rev. Rob Martin, Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference, who sees the vision of the church is that God is not done with United Methodists and United Methodists should not be done with belief in grace and acts of justice and mercy.

After the speeches, Deese dropped her name for consideration for the episcopacy.

Bishop Charlene Kammerer, retired, prayed before Ballot #2.

A video was shown about the Hinton Rural Life Center, a retreat and conference center in the Appalachian Mountains of Western North Carolina, that is also a mission agency that works alongside neighbors at the Safe and Healthy Home Repair ministry. Hinton seeks to enhance the long-term quality of life in rural areas.

A video was also shown about Abundant Health Ministries reminding the body to breathe for 60 seconds.  The video added a moment of levity and laughter for the entire SEJ body before the second ballot was taken.
 
Ballot #2 results were shared at 3:23 p.m. It was an invalid ballot. The body prepared for a third ballot.

An update was given from the SEJ Archives and History Vice Chair Mike Feely. Of note, records of the Southeastern Jurisdiction (SEJ) will move to Pitts Theology Library at Emory University in Atlanta. The Heritage Center in Lake Junaluska will close in December 2022 to prepare for the move.

Ballot #3 results were not ready to be shared. Bishop Lewis recessed the body until 4:05 p.m.
 
 Madeline White is the communications director in the Virginia Annual Conference.
 

Evening Session: A Second Election


By Aimee Yeager

On Wednesday evening, as delegates returned to Stuart Auditorium for the day’s final business session, the white lights strung around a giant Christmas tree could be seen across the lake, the reflection shimmering in the water. An usher, in high spirits, called out in a sing-song voice, “Calling all delegates! Let’s elect some bishops!”
It 7:34 p.m. when presiding Bishop Leonard Fairley opened the evening session with the announcement of the results from ballot eight. There was no election during the eighth round of balloting.

The session moved forward with a report from the Agenda Committee by Bishop Swanson. On Wednesday afternoon, the Agenda Committee, organized earlier Wednesday morning, discussed whether the three resolutions presented Wednesday morning would come before the Conference. All three of the resolutions were presented by a progressive arm of the delegations seeking to move The United Methodist Church towards full inclusion of persons in the LGBTQ community.

The responsibilities of the Agenda Committee can be found on page 32 of the Advanced Daily Christian Advocate.

The Agenda Committee determined that all three of the resolutions were out of order and recommended that the resolutions not be printed or distributed to the delegation.
Carley Johnson, lay delegate from the Florida Conference, asked for an appeal of the committee recommendation. The body heard one speaker for this motion and one against.
Bishop Fairley first called for a vote on the request to appeal, which ultimately passed. Paper copies of the resolutions were distributed to the delegates, who were asked to consider the resolutions overnight. The resolutions will be heard and discussed during Thursday morning’s business session.

The business session continued with the ninth round of balloting.

While the results were being tabulated, the delegations saw a video from the Intentional Growth Center before Rev. Lisa Yebuah (North Carolina), Rev. Darryl Dayson (Western North Carolina), Bethany Harting (Kentucky), Maggie Taylor (Tennessee-Western Kentucky), and Sam England (Holston), took the stage for the Young Adults panel discussion on the future of The United Methodist Church.

Rev. Dayson described the place and time we find ourselves in right now as “pivitol” describing the work as “incredibly daunting, but also beautiful.”

“I think we’re in a ‘normal’ time,” says England. “It’s not a good or a bad time. This is a normal time. Both in the history of The United Methodist Church and in The Church, things have been in flux. Things are always changing….At times, I think we can be myopic and fail to situation our present in the church’s history. And that can be to our disadvantage.”
“In the spirit of not doing things the way we have always done things…” Bishop Fairley laughed as he paused the young adult panel to share the results of ballot nine.

“Marinate,” Bishop Fairley encouraged the delegations, “while we look at these ballots.”

During the ninth round of balloting, Rodrigo Cruz from the North Georgia Conference received 11 write ins (one vote more than the 10 needed to make the ballot.)

“This is a holy moment,” Rev. Cruz said, “and I don’t take it for granted that I am standing right here right now. That being said in the next 18 months, we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

While humbled and grateful for this display of love and confidence from those who voted for him, Rev. Cruz declined the nomination.

The full results for the ninth ballot are as follows:
  • 352 valid ballots out of 352 ballots cast
  • 212 ballots needed to elect
  • Ballots Received:
    • Connie Shelton – 198
    • Edith Gleaves – 174
    • Ken Nelson – 150
    • Sharon Austin – 62
    • Iosmar Alvarez – 57
    • Amy Coles – 41
    • Rodrigo Cruz - 11
Following Rev. Cruz’s speech, Bishop Fairley opened and closed ballot ten before returning to the young adult panel.

“The last two years have felt like an inflection point in our communities – in the world and in the church,” Rev. Yebuah reflected. “I think what was different was that we were not as distracted because we had to shelter in place, things slowed down, and so we paid attention to things differently. What are things we need to pay attention to now?”

“The mental and physical health of our clergy and lay people,” Taylor quickly replied. “We are wearing people down slowly and surely to where the church is no longer a place of respite, no longer a place of hope. We are obsessed with controlling people and have a deep desire to keep in place systems that require people to check a box. God does not have that box. If we were able to get rid of that box, we could get healthy and move forward as a vital church.”

Once again, Bishop Fairley, paused the panel discussion for the results of ballot ten, which were as follows:
  • 350 valid ballots out of 350 total ballots cast
  • 210 ballots needed to elect
  • Ballots receive:
    • Connie Shelton – 197
    • Edith Gleaves – 178
    • Ken Nelson – 148
    • Sharon Austin – 74
    • Iosmar Alvarez – 52
    • Amy Coles – 43
There was no election from the tenth ballot.

As the clock ticked closer to the scheduled time for adjournment, Bishop Fairley asked the body if they would like to open one last ballot. The question received an overwhelming request to continue the vote. Following the will of the body, Bishop Fairley opened ballot eleven.

Rev. Yehbua continued the young adult panel discussion asking the panelists to share their dreams that feel possible for the Church, “What do you believe She is capable of being?”
“What gives me hope is my Conference,” shared Rev. Dayson. “That we can stand united and share our hopes of who God is calling us to be. As we decide who is leading and who is following,we’ve been able to do that in some really beautiful ways. And I know you all here feel the same way about your communities. You love the church.”

Sam England, a law student, shared, “As someone who spends the year studying law and political science, I reach May and June with an empty gas tank, but I show up summer after summer to work with children and youth that continually amaze me and they give me hope. I know we are divided, and I don’t have the solution. There are a lot of things I don’t know; but this I know, that out of the mouth of babes - who are anything but incompatible - comes prophecy, comes words that can take us beyond anything we can imagine. And if there is anyone here looking to find a fount of hope, I would say get involved in children and youth ministries.

“Our words create worlds,” said Rev Yebuah, who closed by offering up a blessing over the four young adults on the panel, asking the body to lift their hands over them.

The best days of The United Methodist Church are not behind us,” said Bishop Fairley, “they are in front of us. I hope that each of you deep down in your spirits were able to feel the hope. Even though we were stopping and starting [the panel discussion to vote,] the Holy Spirit was right there in the middle letting us know what really matters and what a gift we have been given.”

Results of ballot 11 are as follows:
  • 350 valid ballots out of 350 total ballots cast
  • 210 ballots needed to elect
  • Ballots received:
    • Connie Shelton – 206
    • Edith Gleaves – 176
    • Ken Nelson – 139
    • Sharon Austin – 77
    • Amy Coles – 50
    • Iosmar Alvarez - 42
There was no election from the eleventh ballot.

The body elected to continue their work into the night to hear the monitor’s report and cast ballot 12.

While waiting for the results from the twelfth ballot, the delegations saw videos from Gammon Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School.

Rev. Connie Shelton was elected as the 2nd new bishop for the Southeastern Jurisdiction during the twelfth round of balloting receiving 213 ballots of the 210 needed to elect.

“Thank you,” Rev. Shelton said as she expressed her gratitude to the delegates. “There are no words… SEJ, let’s not give up on one another. God is inviting us into this new way, through open hearts and open minds and open doors.”

The full results from ballot 12 are as follows:
  • 349 valid ballots of 350 ballots cast
  • 210 ballots needed to elect
  • Ballots received:
    • Connie Shelton – 213
    • Edith Gleaves – 173
    • Ken Nelson – 128
    • Sharon Austin – 78
    • Amy Coles – 52
    • Iosmar Alvarez - 41
The business session closed at 9:34