By Paul Black
PEORIA – The Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference gathered June 8-10 for its first all in-person conference session since 2019. The theme of annual conference session was A Time to Plant, A Time to Build, the third of four themes focusing on a quadrennial theme of God Has Made Everything Beautiful in His Time, based upon Ecclesiastes 3.
The Conference provided opportunity for celebration on a number of fronts. The Conference was again recognized for more than $6 million in giving to missions beyond apportionments in 2022, including $1,255,053 for the Advance and the sponsorship of 18 missionaries through the General Board of Global Ministries.
Special offerings during the Annual Conference included: $6,892 for the John Kofi Asmah School in Liberia; $7,778 for the Tom Brown Scholarship at Wiley College; $7,033 for the Joyce Helm Francis Endowed Scholarship at Africa University; and $6,720 for the Ordinands’ Trip to the Holy Land.
Bishop Frank J. Beard invited churches to submit videos celebrating its ministries as part of his Brag and Tag Tour. In all, seven congregations submitted eight videos highlighting ministries, all carrying the tag, “We’ve got Spirit, yes we do…we got Spirit, how about you?” The videos are now posted on the IGRC website at: https://www.igrc.org/brag-and-tag
Retired Bishop James Swanson was the preacher for the Opening Worship and Memorial Services and Bishop Frank J. Beard preached the Ordination and Commissioning service.
A total of 29 retirees with a combined 827.5 years of service were recognized. A Memorial Service remembering clergy, clergy spouses and lay members to annual conference that had passed away in the previous year and remembrance of eight congregations with a combined 1,270 years of ministry that have completed their mission – Blue Ridge; Eddyville; Cairo: Tigert Memorial; Mounds; Bloomington: Park; Chestnut; Lerna and Mazon.
On May 6, a special session of the annual conference approved the disaffiliation of 28 congregations, bringing the total number of disaffiliated congregations to 31. A Dec. 2 special session will include churches seeking disaffiliation before the sunset of Paragraph 2553 in The Book of Discipline.
In response to the upcoming sunset of Paragraph 2553, the Annual Conference approved a petition that will be submitted to General Conference for a new paragraph 2553. The proposed paragraph incorporates the provisions of the Conference’s disaffiliation process. Currently, each annual conference is given latitude dealing with specific provisions.
The conference also elected delegates to fill existing vacancies in the General and Jurisdcitional Conference delegations created from resignations of persons who have disaffiliated, a layperson who was commissioned as a provisional deacon and is ineligible to serve as laity; medical issues and work schedule conflicts.
Clergy elected the Rev. Jessica Baldyga of Pana, Ill., and the Rev. Dr. Curtis Brown of Springfield, Ill., as the second and third jurisdictional reserve delegates. Laity elected Susan Connor of Sullivan, Ill., and Sydney Pappas of Springfield, Ill., as jurisdictional delegates; and Kelsey Ross of Bloomington, Ill., Ann Wagle of Bismarck, Ill., and Curt Franklin of Springfield, Ill., as jurisdictional reserve delegates.
The Annual Conference approved a 2024 budget of $8,701,500 – a reduction of 28 percent over the past four years. With apportionments being relatively flat over the past 10 years, the $8,701,500 apportioned total is the lowest in the history of the 26-year-old conference that merged in 1996. The $405,353 reduction comes on the heels of apportionment collections of 91 percent in 2022 and a $245,000 surplus after revenues were expected to fall short of expenses by $700,000.
A major part of the 2024 budget reduction comes from the reduction of the number of districts from 10 to five, effective July 1, 2023. This is the first reduction in districts since 2005 when the Conference went from 12 to 10 districts. Districts will now be the size of two previous districts, with District offices located in Peoria, Champaign, Jacksonville, Springfield and Marion.
During the Cabinet Address, Superintendent Angie Lee outlined the strategy that will meet the challenge of supervising anywhere from 127 to 164 churches in a district. The strategy includes: implementing technology to simplify paperwork and improve efficiency; accessibility and availability through the five district offices; the deployment of associate superintendents in each district to identify, recruit and equip lay and clergy for ministry; inspire and coordinate district ministries and ensure care and support for clergy and families; and a proactive approach to engage and connect people that each superintendent serves.
The Conference also approved two of four petitions that previously had been approved in a November 2022 jurisdictional conference. The closest vote of the session came in affirming a resolution written by queer delegates concerning a Call to Center Justice and Empowerment for LGBTQIA+ people in The United Methodist Church. This aspirational document which has no force of changing the current Book of Discipline, passed on a 338-311 vote.
The Conference also passed another jurisdictional resolution, calling on persons who are leaving to lead with integrity and step down to avoid conflicts of interest. That resolution passed 409-235.
Two other resolutions – supporting the creation of a U.S. Regional Conference and supporting the removal of discriminatory language in The Book of Discipline – were left unfinished when the allotted time expired and the Conference voted 437-151 to leave its work unfinished.
Legislatively, the conference announced that the health insurance allowance paid to full-time pastors will remain at $17,500 for 2024. The conference also approved a 3 percent increase to its minimum salaries. In 2024, the salaries will go to $50,436 for clergy in full connection, associate members and provisional elders; and $46,282 for full-time local pastors. An amendment to increase the percentage to 5 percent was defeated 148-511.
Retirees under the pre-1982 pension plan will see a 2 percent increase to $861 per active service year in 2024, funded by a gift from Preachers' Aid Society and Benefit Fund.
The Clergy Session approved the election of three elders in full connection. They also approved the commissioning of five provisional elders and two provisional deacons; the election of one pastor into associate membership; and celebrated the graduation of two local pastors from Course of Study.
Membership stands at 105,917, down 3.27 percent. Average worship attendance is 31,615 and online worship totals 24,899. The 56,544 total shows a 6.19 percent increase of in-person attendance, but coupled with the online worship attendance dipping by nearly 19 percent, accounts for a net loss of 6.6 percent as persons return to worship from the pandemic.
Professions of faith showed an increase of 1,022 compared to 775 in 2021 – an increase of 24.2 percent. Baptism also showed an increase at all age levels to 1,468, compared to 1,236 in 2021.
The 2024 Annual Conference will be held June 6-8, 2024, at the Peoria Civic Center in Peoria.