The 225th Annual Conference (July 2-6, 2011) of the Church of the Brethren was held in DeVos Place, located at 303 Monroe Avenue, NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49503. The conference center features a 162,000 square foot column free space for exhibits or conventions, a performance theater, four ballrooms, and 26 meeting rooms. DeVos is home to the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and the Grand Rapids Ballet Company. Michigan is the eleventh largest state and the eighth most populated. Education is a premium in Michigan, offering 22 colleges and 29 universities. Grand Rapids is the second largest city in Michigan, and a three time All-American City. It gets its name from the Grand River which is the states largest inland river. Before roads and railroads provided faster travel, the 225 navigable miles of the Grand River served as a major transportation route. The city was built next to a large rapids (thus its name), much of which has disappeared from the installation of a low-head dam and fish ladder. The current rapids is actually a series of Smaller Ripples. Grand Rapids hosts several noteworthy museums, such as the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and the Van Andel Public Museum. Fountains and Water Art are possible from the Grand River's rich supply of water. Lengthy River Walks on both sides permitted conference goers easy access to a Relaxing Stroll. The usual catered buffet dining was served indoors and Al Fresco.
Annual Conference was previously held twice in Grand Rapids: 1950 and 1955. It was then held in the adjacent Civic Auditorium, a neo-classical building completed in 1932 which still remains apart of DeVos Place. The anchor hotel for this year was the Amway Grand Plaza, a 1981 renovation of the 1913 Pantlind Hotel offering 682 guest rooms, spas, gift shops, Meeting Rooms, and 5 restaurants. Skywalks above street level traffic offer greater safety. Many of the other downtown hotels also Connect to the same Walking Network that also includes Parking Garages. Some Brethren took advantage of Horse Carriage transportation. The Amway hosted numerous Insight Sessions and provided several ball rooms for Reserved Dinners. Monday evening (July 4) the downtown area was treated to a brief yet enjoyable Fireworks display.
Registration took place in the immense lobby where Attendees frequently stopped at the Bulletin Board and the Prayer Board. What would a Brethren gathering be without Four Square. Lunch & Dinner buffets were also served in the main lobby, and beautiful weather made Outside Dining especially enjoyable. Unfortunately, sound on the main conference floor was disappointing as reverberation was strong from the middle backward, and especially near the back wall of the large room. The suspect unlowered Middle Partition may have contributed to the poor sound quality. People seated in front of the Partition were able to sense better sound quality. Thus, seats at the front of the hall became a premium. During the Saturday evening worship service, and immediately following the receiving of the regular offering, worshippers brought forward School Kits that had been assembled and collected during the previous months. Church World Service will distribute these to needy children. Each of the twenty-three districts were asked to bring a Comforter (similar to a quilt) that would be sold during a silent auction to also benefit Church World Service. Tuesday evening continues to be the traditional time for the Children's Choir to precede the evening worship. Reflecting on the Conference Theme of Extending the Table, Moderator Alley arranged for a Special Table at each worship service. Each evening/morning, worship participants sat around this table to express harmony and unity of spirit.
A new first-time exhibit from the Council of District Executives appeared this year. Maps & Greetings were to the left, and various pieces of Resource Literature was on the right. District Staff have worked together since the early 1970s for these Statements of Purpose. Monday afternoon they presented their Annual Report to the delegate body. The high ceiling Exhibit Hall provided ample space for the usual booths from the Colleges, a lofty On Earth Peace, Brethren Press, SERRV, Church World Service, Mutual Aid Agency, Outdoor Ministries, and many other Projects & Interests.
Brethren Benefit Trust arranged for Free WiFi throughout the conference building. Technology is becoming more important to the Brethren as numerous Laptops and hand mobiles were seen on the main conference floor. WiFi first appeared at 2007 Cleveland in a very limited area. Bethany Theological Seminary again provided Webcasts through LiveStream.com which made it possible for anyone with a computer and Internet connection to view worship and business sessions.
2011 Conference Officers were Moderator Robert E. Alley, pastor of Bridgewater COB, Bridgewater, Virginia; Moderator-elect Tim Harvey, pastor of Central COB, Roanoke, Virginia; and Secretary Fred Swartz.
- A Statement of Confession and Commitment & Language on Same Sex Covenantal Relationships are two queries of business from AC 2009 which have been treated as one item. These queries initiated the Special Response Process for Controversial Issues, of which an upgrade to the original Special Response paper of AC 1988 was also adopted at AC 2009. For the past two years, districts and congregations have been following this Special Response framework to discuss the issues of homosexuality, same-sex relationships, and the relevancy of the 1983 Human Sexuality Paper.
Standing Committee's recommendation was to return both queries to their place of origin with the following: In light of the Special Response process, as outlined by the 2009 paper A Structural Framework For Dealing with Strongly Controversial Issues, the Standing Committee recommends to the 2011 Annual Conference that A Statement of Confession and Commitment and Query: Language on Same-Sex Covenantal Relationships be returned. (Amendment) It is further recommended that the 2011 Annual Conference reaffirm the entire 1983 Statement on Human Sexuality from a Christian Perspective and that we continue deeper conversations concerning human sexuality outside of the query process.
AC 2011 is the first time that the five step Special Response Process was followed at Annual Conference. Sunday evening during Steps 1 & 2 the Forms Reception Committee (a subcommittee of Standing Committee) gave a report summarizing the Special Response hearings. This amounted to over 1,200 pages of material representing 6,638 people who participated in 121 hearings. Their conclusion was that about two-thirds of the Church of the Brethren supports the Statement of Confession and Commitment, and about one-third reject it; and that about two-thirds reject Language on Same-Sex Covenantal Relationships, and about one-third accept it.
During the Monday afternoon Step 3 discussion on the two items, Moderator Alley cautiously guided the delegate body through the Special Response Process with the additional help of suspending Robert's Rules of Order. Time limit for speaking from the floor was reduced to one minute and no amendments could be offered. Conference secretary Fred Swartz explained to the delegate body what is meant by Return an item of business. It is one of seven possible responses to new business. To return an item may indicate several things, he said, among them that the concern already has been answered, that the concern may not be appropriate, or that it has prompted another way of responding other than a simple yes or no. In this case, he said, Standing Committee felt the concern was answered in another way. To return an item of business is not synonymous with rejection, he added, saying the Forms Reception Committee report indicated both query and statement served valuable functions.
Step 4 of the Special Response Process began Tuesday morning with delegates having their first opportunity to offer amendments and motions. Moderator Alley tested each by asking the delegate body if they wished to process the matter before them. A simple majority was necessary to proceed or dismiss. Several amendments and motions were offered by Delegates before the time of voting on the Standing Committee recommendation. Frequent calls for clarification, points of order, and questions or challenges to the Special Response process extended debate into the afternoon. During this extended period is was easy to sense that the Church of the Brethren is not of one mind on the matter of homosexuality. There was tension. There was disunity. There was unhappiness by almost anyone's definition of the term. One person condemned a national news network with blatant lying. Some appealed to science instead of the Bible. Some appealed to the Bible in place of everything. During the week a serious threat to an individual was made outside of the conference facility. General Secretary Stan Noffsinger was called to express dismay for the Leadership Team: We in the Leadership Team are grieved by this, especially if it is someone within our gathering who is responsible for the violence of this threat. Grand Rapids police began an investigation. Comments by delegates in the hallways and exhibit areas concerning the general mood of this years Conference were disheartening. Previous calls to forbearance were largely ignored. The desire to win overshadowed the desire to love.
The recommendation of Standing Committee with one amendment was adopted. A tally of the votes was not much different that the two-thirds originally cited by the Forms Reception Committee. Step 5 was a period of closure and reflection of the process. See also the following resources.
- Guidelines for Implementation of the Congregational Ethics Paper was a query adopted at AC 2010 and referred to a study committee that brought the following recommendations: The 1993 Ethics in Congregations paper be reviewed, revised, and updated; ... the revised document would also include guidelines and suggestions for a denominational process of accountability ... that these revisions be facilitated by Congregational Life Ministries staff in collaboration with the Council of District Executives and the Office of Ministry. The revised paper will return to a future Annual Conference for delegate approval.
- Guidance for Responding to the Changing of Earths Climate was adopted which asked, ...what is the position of Annual Conference on climate change, and how can we as individuals, congregations and as a denomination take concrete action to live more responsibly and offer leadership in our communities and nation? Standing Committees recommendation asked that the query: be adopted and that it be referred to the Washington Advocacy Office of the Global Mission Partnerships. Discussion and proposed amendments required the delegate body to return after the evening worship.
- Proper Decorum (orderliness, politeness) was returned as recommended by Standing Committee who stated that the query be returned with appreciation and that the district be referred to the section in the Annual Conference booklet entitled Accountability to One Another. One person questioned the history behind this section of the Conference booklet, particularly its source of origin and when it came to be included. No one was able to fully respond, although Conference Secretary Fred Swartz noted that it had been included for many years.
This query was largely in response to the wearing of specially crafted rainbow clothing or accessories which first appeared at AC 2009 that signaled ones position on certain issues both theological and political. Some regarded these colors as divisive while others contended they presented opportunities for open discussion. Adoption of this query would have requested Annual Conference to implement rules of appearance and behavior that may prove to be unworkable and unenforceable.
- New Vision Statement was recommended by Standing Committee to AC 2012 for adoption. It reads: Through Scripture, Jesus calls us to live as courageous disciples by word and action: To surrender ourselves to God, to embrace one another, to express Gods love for all creation.
- Four New Congregations were received by the delegate body: Peace Covenant Church near Raleigh, NC; Renacer in Roanoke, VA; Light of the Gospel Fellowship, Brooklyn, NY; and Mountain Dale Church in West Marva District.
- Afghanistan Resolution accepted from Ministry and Mission Board calling on the US President and members of the US Congress to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan, and contribute resources to restore and develop that country and its people.
- Report of Pastoral Compensation and Benefits Advisory Committee was accepted that recommended a cost of living adjustment of 3.6%.
- Total registered attendance was 3,200, comprised of 861 Delegates, and 2,339 Non-Delegates.
- Moderator Consecration took place Wednesday morning. It was an Emotional Moment for Moderator Alley during the traditional passing of the gavel to Moderator Tim Harvey. It would have been a difficult task for any moderator to preside over such an emotionally tense and politically charged Conference. In his closing remarks Moderator Harvey said: ...being called as moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference has made me realize the depth of the body of Christ. During this past year (and especially during the week at Grand Rapids) Ive learned how deeply you love the church.
- Robert Krouse was nominated from the delegate floor (even though two candidates were already on the prepared ballot) and then elected as Moderator-elect. He lives in Fredericsburg, PA, and pastors the Little Swatara Church of the Brethren. Krouse will serve as Moderator of the 2013 Annual Conference in Charlotte, NC.
- Bev Anspaugh served as the Music Coordinator.
- Blood Drive endeavored to reach their goal of 200 units, assisted by Count Dracula who roamed the building searching for willing volunteers.
- Association for the Arts Quilt Auction raised a total of $5,085 to benefit the Global Food Crisis Fund. The silent auction for the District Comforters was $3,240.
- Program & Arrangements Committee announced that GREENSBORO, North Carolina, will be the location for AC 2016.
- Saturday Evening, July 2 :
Robert Alley, A TALE OF TWO TABLES, Moderator and Pastor of the Bridgewater COB in Bridgewater, Virginia
- Sunday Morning, July 3 :
Craig Smith, THIRD DAY PEOPLE, District Executive of Atlantic Northeast District
- Monday Morning, July 4 :
Samuel Sarpiya, WE ARE A GIFT WITH A PROMISE, Rockford Community Church, Rockford, IL
- Tuesday Evening, July 5 :
Dava Hensley, THE INVITATION LIST, First Church of the Brethren, Roanoke, VA
- Wednesday Morning, July 6 :
Stan Noffsinger, LETS PARTAKE: CALLED TO..., General Secretary, Church of the Brethren