The 229th Annual Conference (July 11-15, 2015) of the Church of the Brethren was held in the Tampa Convention Center, located at 333 South Franklin Street, Tampa, Florida 33602. Built in the very heart of downtown Tampa at the mouth of the Hillsborough River, this mid-sized Convention Center opened in 1990 with 600,000 square feet of event space, 200,000 square feet of exhibit space with a 30 foot ceiling, a ballroom accommodating over 2,000 guests, and 36 meeting rooms. The $140 million facility opened in October 1990 and hosts over 300 events each year. In 2012 it served as the media center for the Republican National Convention which met in the nearby Tampa Bay Times Forum. The word Tampa is thought to possibly mean sticks of fire in the language of the Calusa, a Native American tribe. This meaning could have resulted from the frequent lightening strikes in the area. Tampa is the name of the city and Tampa Bay is the entire area surrounding the bay which also includes: St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Bradenton, Largo, Gulfport, and ending just north of Sarasota. Two hotels adjacent to the Convention Center were the Embassy Suites and facing it next to the bay was the Marriott Waterside and the seemingly never ending Bayside Marina.
The area surrounding Tampa has experienced international culture as having first been ruled by the Spanish in the 1500s under the governance of Hernando de Soto. Great Britain later acquired Florida in 1763 as part of the treaty ending the French and Indian War. During this time the bay was renamed Hillsborough Bay after Lord Hillsborough who served as Secretary of State for the American Colonies from 1768 to 1772. A stipulation of the Treaty of Paris which concluded the American Revolution in 1783 was that control of Florida should return to Spain. And lastly, the United States purchased Florida from Spain in 1821. The city of Tampa now offers a rich cultural experience from the contributions of the British, Spanish, Cuban, and several native tribes. There are numerous world famous attractions in the area. Disney World is about seventy miles from Tampa, but just thirty miles to the east near Winter Haven is the lush expanse of Cypress Gardens, a botanical garden theme park opened by husband and wife Dick and Julie Pope in 1936, charging an admission price of 25 cents. Only a few more miles beyond is the famous Bok Tower, a National Historic Landmark commissioned by Edward W. Bok, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, successful publisher, humanitarian, and advocate of peace. This 250-acre garden and centerpiece 205-foot Singing Tower with its carillon bells is built on Iron Mountain, one of the highest points in the state of Florida.
Puerto Rico was welcomed this year as the twenty-fourth district, formerly apart of the Atlantic Southeast District. Johnathan Shively welcomed the new district of Puerto Rico and invited members to express their thoughts and expectations during the Sunday afternoon business session. Brethren congregations in Puerto Rico began the process of becoming the 24th district on January 25, 2014. Formerly the churches of Puerto Rico had been part of the Atlantic Southeast District which now includes the states of Georgia and Florida.
General Secretary Stanley Noffsingers term of service to the Church of the Brethren will conclude when his contract ends on July 1, 2016. In addressing the Conference Noffsinger said: I hope we make a decision to be a unified body of Christ in this particular community known as the Church of the Brethren ... We have an important voice, small that we may be--a voice that is sought after. So choose your words wisely because we are being sought out as followers of Jesus and another way of living. I pray for this church to flourish, to celebrate the goodness of our God and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the ever present knowledge that the Holy Spirit does not beckon to us but is ever present awaiting our attentiveness. I pray that we can respond with the way, the voice, and the action and behavior that would signal to the world that there is another way of living and it is a way of living of compassion and radical discipleship. Noffsinger was consecrated as the General Secretary for outgoing Judy Mills Reimer at AC2003 in Boise, Idaho. Over the past twelve years he has modeled Gods message of peace at world conferences on behalf of the denomination. A transition team has been appointed. The General Secretary serves as the Chief Executive Officer and Ecumenical Officer for the Church of the Brethren. Some of their duties include:
- Convenes the executive officers of the church as the Leadership Team
- Facilitates the development of the Church of the Brethren Executive Forum Leadership
- Articulates and interprets the mission, vision and core values of the Church of the Brethren, Inc.
- Reports to Annual Conference as the principle staff executive for Church of the Brethren, Inc.
- Reports to Standing Committee the work of the Leadership Team
- Coordinates arrangements and agenda for the Inter-Agency Forum
- Understands and directs the implementation of Annual Conference decisions
- Guides planning for all financial aspects of the Church of the Brethren and the Mission and Ministry Board
- Oversees management of Stewardship and Donor Development Staff
- Maintains and nurtures partnerships with institutions and agencies of the Church of the Brethren.
- Coordinates the ecumenical relationships and speaks on behalf of the Church of the Brethren as the Ecumenical Officer
Headlining the entire Conference was the crisis in Nigeria where militant Islamic extremist have been killing Christians and Burning Homes and Worship Facilities. Conference-goers enjoyed the EYN Women’s Fellowship Choir which first performed during the Saturday evening service as well as a few other Worship Services. They were frequently seen at numerous functions or just Relaxing between appearances. The kidnapping of hundreds of girls from a school (built by the Church of the Brethren) in the Nigerian city of Chibok remained a central issue. The Bring Back Our Girls rallying cry was captured in textile and oil by Sandra Jean Ceis, depicting the original 276 girls that were abducted and the several who have managed to escape. A Wall of Healing chronicling the thousands upon thousands of Nigerians who have been killed by militant Islamic extremist was presented during the Monday afternoon business session. Seventeen Nigerian representatives carried their Banners of Names throughout the delegate seating and then posted them in the Exhibit Hall.
On Monday afternoon President Rev. Dr. Samuel Dante Dali of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren) addressed the Conference, detailing the present state of affairs in Nigeria. With his wife Rebecca Dali standing by his side, he expressed a chronological account of the distressed situation in his native land and how the government rendered very little assistance.
While we were going through these attacks and sinking deep into the Boko Haram valley of death, we were cried out loudly to the government of our country for help. We presented the seriousness of our case to the government both in writing and in person, but the only response we received was flattery and empty promises. The government said that they would help us as long as it would not backfire on them, fearing repercussions from Boko Haram ...
With these responses, we felt very discouraged and nearly lost all hope in human effort. We decided to rely completely on God, the creator, and owner of the world. Then, you the Church of the Brethren suddenly and dramatically came to our rescue beyond expectation. You rescued EYN from the burning misery of Boko Haram. Since then you have been crying and groaning together with us. You have held our hands, walking with us through the valley of the shadow of death ...
So Brethren, it is right and imperative that I am standing here before you this day on behalf of the entire members of EYN to say thank you very much for your memorable support. We are very happy and proud to have you as our founding parents with all our limitations. EYN for generations to come will continue to be very grateful to all of you for your unconditional Christ-like love and care ...
My appreciation will be incomplete without recognizing and appreciating the contribution of the children of the Church of the Brethren, who, as we have heard did different things to raise money to support EYN. We will not forget the children of COB who have forfeited their own personal interests and went the extra mile to raise money to help EYN members. Particularly, the little girl who we heard forfeited getting a pair of special shoes and took all her money and donated it to EYN victims of Boko Haram. Also, we thank John Andrew’s son who raised some money to assist the parents of the abducted Chibok school girls, and many others who have done different things to raise funds to support EYN.
A militant Islamic extremist group formed in 2002 and known as Boko Haram has ravaged the northeast region of Nigeria, killing and bringing harm to Christians, Jews, Hindus, destroying homes and worship centers. It was stated privately by a former missionary to Nigeria that one of the reasons why the government is hesitant to act upon this militant group is because many of them have infiltrated the Nigerian army. Additionally, this source stated that there is no life insurance for Nigerian soldiers which means that families would lack financial stability, if Boko Haram soldiers would kill regular Nigerian soldiers.
Witness to the Host City gifts were brought to the front of the worship area by Conference-goers Sunday morning. In addition to these Host City Gifts the Conference presented a check in the amount of $3,951.15 to Tammy Charles, director of Donor Relations at Metropolitan Ministries, a donor and volunteer-fueled organization servicing the city of Tampa and four surrounding countries.
Jay Wittmeyer acknowledged International Guests from Brethren churches in Nigeria, Spain, Haiti, Brazil, South Sudan, Burundi, and Rwanda.
Brethren continue to embrace the advances in technology. Registration Desks were mostly empty after the first couple of days, possibly due to an increase in online registration. There was also a scarcity of notes on this years Message Board as compared to the Message Boards of several years ago. Text Messaging and cellular communication is becoming the staff of Brethren life around Annual Conference, necessitating fewer and fewer posted notes. The 2015 Mobile Device App continued the innovation which debuted at AC2014, placing an impressive amount of Conference Booklet information on mobile devices.
Steven Schweitzer, Academic Dean at Bethany Theological Seminary presented morning biblical studies centering on Biblical Covenants.
Annual Conference without the traditional Ice Cream Fellowship would be unthinkable, (but, it did happen at AC2010).
More than forty Insight Sessions were offered to better educate, enlighten, and equip individuals and congregations for more effective ministry. Topics ranged over a wide category of faith, witness, discipleship, worship, Brethren specific topics, heritage, clergy specifics, family life, youth specifics, inter-culture, health issues, and legal advice. These photos display a small but representative glimpse of the wider selection of presentations that were available to Conference attendees.
More than thirty booths in this year's Exhibit Hall provided an opportunity for Brethren to learn about established agencies within the denomination and the programs or services they offer, or special interest groups promoting their cause, or Brethren related commercial ventures, or to enjoy a glimpse of heritage and history.
2015 Conference Officers were Moderator David Steele, District Executive Minister for Pennsylvania Middle District; Andy Murray, Moderator-elect from member of Stone Church of the Brethren in Huntingdon, PA; and Secretary Jim Beckwith, Pastor of Annville COB, Annville, Pennsylvania.
Delegate seating around tables has become the Conference standard. This innovation from AC2012 frequently offered Delegates the opportunity to participate in Table Talk discussions concerning business and personal matters.
- There were no Unfinished Business items for this year, however there were three matters of business carried over from AC2014 because of constraints for time. Since these items were not processed in any manner, they were resubmitted this year as new business items. Two items were presented with no changes: Amendments to the Bylaws of the Church of the Brethren, and Interpretation of Polity Regarding Agency Financial Reports. The third item was divided into two new items of business by the Annual Conference officers: 1) Amendments to the Brethren Benefit Trust Articles of Organization, and 2) Polity Change Proposal from Brethren Benefit Trust.
- Amendments to the Bylaws of the Church of the Brethren, Inc. was accepted by a two-thirds majority vote as recommended by the 2015 Standing Committee, to adopt the 2014 Standing Committee recommendation which proposed that the amendments be accepted. This includes reference to the newly formed 24th district of Puerto Rico, and the renaming of the Oregon-Washington District to become Pacific Northwest District. Conference delegates also approved proposed changes in the bylaws of the Church of the Brethren that: clarify the term of service for a member of the board who is chosen chair-elect, and clarify that the full five-year term allowed for a director [board member] who serves less than half of an unexpired term is subsequent to that unexpired term, not in place of it.
- Interpretation of Polity Regarding Agency Financial Reports was accepted per the recommendation of the 2014 Standing Committee that Annual Conference Agencies will not be required to present their financial statements in Conference delegate packets, as long as their statements are available in printed format during the Conference. Standing Committee also urged the delegate body to affirm this action to be an interpretation of the current polity instead of a change in the polity.
- Amendments to Church of the Brethren Benefit Trust Articles of Organization was accepted by a two-thirds majority vote as recommended by the 2015 Standing Committee to amend the Brethren Benefit Trust (BBT) Articles of Organization. These include minor changes to style format and grammatical corrections; and major changes such as the legal understanding of BBT as an independent organization with a relationship to Annual Conference. The most significant amendment includes language that conveys an understanding that Annual Conference should receive instead of approve BBT’s annual report and newly appointed board members.
- Polity Change Proposal from Church of the Brethren Benefit Trust was accepted by a two-thirds majority vote as recommended by the 2015 Standing Committee that would permit: an incumbent member of the BBT board who is eligible for a second term to automatically become one of two nominees that Standing Committee recommends for Annual Conference election, with a recommendation from the BBT board.
- Mandate for the 2015-2017 Review and Evaluation Committee was adopted as recommended by the 2015 Standing Committee, to continue the practice of appointing a Review Committee in the fifth year of each decade, to evaluate the denomination's structure, how well it is functioning, the effectiveness of church agencies cooperating with each other, membership interest in denominational missions, and the viability of district goals. An interim report is expected at AC2016 with the final report to be presented at AC2017.
- Query: Future District Structure was returned to the Mid-Atlantic District as recommended by the 2015 Standing Committee. Many hours of discussion centered around this item of business because of a perceived conflict with the mandate of the Review and Evaluation Committee which is also an item of this year's business. Mid-Atlantic District executive Gene Hagenberger gave a presentation on behalf of the sponsoring district. Table-Talk discussions and microphone speeches revealed varying assumptions on current district structure sustainability, in view of the continuing loss of membership and how that affects districts, especially the growing inequality between larger districts with larger resources and smaller districts with little or no such resources.
Some microphone speeches raised concerns that a study committee on future structure might result in a duplication of efforts by the Review and Evaluation Committee, while others, conversely, expressed opinions that a study committee on the vitality of the denomination would look far beyond the narrow structural issues pursued under the Review and Evaluation Committee. Delegates finally decided that a study committee be formed to examine the broader concern of vitality across the denomination, congregations, districts, and the wellness of their interactions. A report is expected at AC2017.
- Resolution on Christian Minority Communities brought by the Mission and Ministry Board was adopted. The focus of the resolution concerns the severe persecution and diminishing status of Christian communities, especially in northeast Nigeria, north Africa, Palestine, Israel, Iraq, and Syria.
Because of the destruction of these Christian communities, the resolution cited Galatians 6:10: So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. The resolution further stated: We also are alarmed by the rapidly diminishing Christian communities in places such as Iraq, Palestine, and Syria. The elimination of these ancient yet still vital Christian communities would not only be a human rights disaster and a loss for the peoples of the region, but also a tragic loss of historic Christian witness in the land where the church first took root. and We reaffirm our commitment to stand with targeted minority groups across the world and call not only for increased awareness of their persecution, but for renewed efforts by the church and the international community to build solidarity and protect minority religious groups who are under threat.
- The resolution identified seven steps for Brethren to take in response:
- Praying for sisters and brothers in Christ across the globe
- Learning about the experience of Christians in places of persecution and conflict
- Extending expressions of love and support to those communities
- Committing to participate in interfaith dialogue and peace initiatives
- Supporting advocacy efforts of the church in places where it is in danger of disappearing
- Developing relationships with Muslim and other religious communities in the US in an effort for mutual understanding
- Reaching out with hospitality and welcome to those in our own communities who have entered the United States in search of refuge from persecution, violence, and threats to their lives and their faith
- Standing Committee met in special session with On Earth Peace concerning their Statement of Inclusion (September, 2011) that calls for full participation in ministry of everyone regardless of sexual orientation. Standing Committee asked On Earth Peace to re-examine its position in regard to the 1983 Annual Conference statement on Human Sexuality from a Christian Perspective, but OEP remained unwavering in its decision to retain the original language. Standing Committee responded at AC2012 with their own A Way Forward statement. Discussion this year proved to be emotionally restrained but futile. The AC2014 response states: Standing Committee does not support the 2011 Statement of Inclusion of On Earth Peace as an agency of the church, but we will continue to commit ourselves to walk in love together in the face of differing interpretations of scripture and Annual Conference statements and decisions. A few microphone speeches strongly objected to the OEP Brochure included in the delegate packet which depicted a statement and images which they believed to be contrary to Scripture.
- Report of Pastoral Compensation and Benefits Advisory Committee was accepted that recommended a cost of living adjustment of 1.0%.
- Total registered attendance was 2,075, comprised of 647 Delegates, and 1,428 Non-Delegates. This was about a 10% drop in delegate attendance from last years 719 at Columbus, a 15% drop from the last 10 year average of 762.3, and a 21% drop from the last 20 year average of 823.9. Since most Brethren reside in the Northern and Eastern states, this was a predictable change. See attendance chart below.
- Total offerings received were tentatively announced as $48,334.03.
- Delegate election resulted in Carol Scheppard being chosen as Moderator-elect to serve as the 2017 Annual Conference moderator in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is vice president and dean for Academic Affairs at Bridgewater College, and a member of the Lebanon Church of the Brethren in Mount Sidney, Virginia.
- Church of the Brethren Association for the Arts Quilt Auction raised $8,750 for the Nigeria Crisis Fund.
- Congregational Life Ministries executive director Jonathan Shively welcomed one new New Fellowship, Rios de Agua Viva (Rivers of Living Water) of Leicester, North Carolina. Special attention was given to the announcement of a new district. Puerto Rico became the denomination's 24th district. It was previously apart of the Atlantic Southeast District.
- Blood Drive collected 181 units with the help of many Dedicated Volunteers.
- Greensboro, North Carolina will be the host city of AC2016 in the Joseph S. Koury Convention Center/Sheraton Hotel, which claims to be the largest hotel/convention center complex between Atlanta and Washington, DC. Brochures were available at their exhibit hall booth.
- Review all Future Locations announced by the Program & Arrangements Committee.
- Saturday Evening, July 11 : Moderator David Steele - ABIDE IN MY LOVE
Steele is the Executive Minister of the Pennsylvania Middle District.
- Sunday Morning, July 12 : Rodger Nishioka - EMBODY A NEW COMMUNITY ... AMONG US
Nishioka serves as professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.
- Monday Evening, July 13 : Katie Shaw Thompson - CREATE A CLEAN HEART ... WITHIN US
Thompson has served as pastor of the Ivester Church of the Brethren in the Northern Plains District since graduating from Bethany Theological Seminary in 2012.
- Tuesday Evening, July 14 : Don Fitzkee - MY NEARLY PERFECT APPLE TREE (AND WHY I WANT TO CUT IT DOWN)
Fitzkee is Director of Development for COBYS Family Services, a Christian family service agency affiliated with the Atlantic Northeast District.
- Wednesday Morning, July 15 : Thomas Dowdy - CHOSEN TO BEAR FRUIT
Dowdy is the pastor of Imperial Heights Community Church of the Brethren in Los Angeles, California where he is passionately serving in intercity ministries.