Tribute Service preacher Rev. Glenn Conaway, of Trinity UMC in Mullica Hill, opened with a story of his own. He said that on the first Sunday of May in 2011 he was preparing to cross one thing off his bucket list by running the Broad Street 10-mile run. While he had a love for distance running, his schedule and sore knees had not allowed him to train properly. “I was feeling scared,” he said. “What if I can’t do this? What if I can’t finish?” He took off running, the theme of Rocky blaring, but around the seventh mile, he hit the wall and felt as though he didn’t have the energy to continue. He said a little lady who was banging on pots and pans, cheering the runners on, called out his number saying “620, you can do it! Don’t you ever give up.”
Conaway said that like the old woman banging on her pots and pans and the many other race supporters, we also have a cloud of witnesses who have been encouragers to our faith. “We are running with a cloud of witnesses all around who are encouraging us to never give up,” he said. Conaway gave biblical examples of Noah who built an ark without a cloud in sight, Joseph who was sold into slavery and Noami who had buried her husband and sons. He said that these were people who at times had hit the wall. “Their stories of faith, their commitment to God inspired us to go on.”
He said that during the Tribute service, we remember laity, clergy and clergy spouses who had served as encouragers to us. He recalled the teacher who showed up each week with her flannel board, one who had given up a week of their own time to spend time at a camp called Misery, choir directors who had taught us to sing, and one who fed the word to youth each week, even if it was something they didn’t like. “Today we celebrate and praise God for the men and women who have finished their faith, living and telling the story of faith. Theirs is a story with eyes fixed on Jesus,” said Conaway. “What about us? Are we going to run with the clouds and encourage someone, throw off our entanglements and pray that the Holy Spirit will boldly call us? Are you in it for the finish or not? And if so, look around you, you are running with the clouds”
Following Conaway’s sermon, there was a time of remembrance as the names of all laity, clergy spouses and clergy who had passed since the last Annual Conference were read. The service concluded with Holy Communion.
Rev. Dr. Robert Williams, General Secretary of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and Historyshared a celebratory moment of recognizing the 175th Anniversary of the Annual Conference as the business of the GNJAC began. “It was Wednesday morning, April 26, 1837, when the New Jersey Conference commenced its first session at Newark, New Jersey with Bishop Beverly Waugh in the chair,” shared Williams. He said there are still handwritten minutes from it that are housed in the archives at Drew University. “Any anniversary or review of the past must also be forward looking,” said Williams, but he also commented that he hopes the conference will not develop amnesia and forget its history.
Several awards were presented Thursday afternoon celebrating the ministries of clergy, laity and churches. The Harry Denman Evangelism Award was presented to Rev. Jerry D. Ruff and Shirley Stewart. Ruff, was the pastor of Sicklerville UMC for 27 years where attendance grew from 175 people to 500 under his tenure. He is currently serving a new church start at Sharptown North. Stewart, a member of Parkside UMC in Camden was presented the award for starting an 8 a.m. worship service, which provides spiritual food and breakfast for the homeless in her community each week. The Rev. Robert Steelman Award, which commends a church for their ministry of affirming and celebrating their own local history, was presented to Delaware Valley UMC, a congregation that just celebrated their 100th anniversary. The Harry Seese Memorial Scholarship was presented to Rev. Michael Smith, of Tabernacle UMC in Erma, who plans on participating in some exciting continuing education opportunities. The Christian Unity Award was presented to Rev. Thomas J. Korkuch, Debi Hall-Dean and Emley’s Hill UMC. Korkuch was recognized for his work with Community Hospice of Bergen County which is housed within his congregation, Westwood Church. Hall-Dean was celebrated for organizing a community mart that allowed community children to start the school year with sneakers, book bags, paper, pencils and more. Emley’s Hill UMC was affirmed for their community food pantry. Finally the Francis Asbury Award was presented to Dave Dellett, a lay member of the GNJ Board of Higher Education.
Bishop J. Michael Lowry challenged GNJ leaders to brave the storm and offer the drink that will quench life at its deepest. He referenced the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” and showed several clips. “We’ve taken Aqaba, but the struggle continues,” Lowry challenged. He said that in the film taking Aqaba wasn’t enough. “They were willing to brave everything to bring the news that the situation had changed,” he said. Lowry said that not even the threat of death kept them from sharing the message.
“A new generation has risen and they are asking us why it took so long to tell them,” he challenged. “The essence of offering the drink that will quench life at its very deepest.” He traced the Christian movement saying we had grown from a tiny persecuted community to a large Christendom, but now we were back to being marginalized. “It’s time for us to brave the storm,” he said. “We must stop offering membership in the officer’s club and instead offer the drink of life.”
Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar opened his Episcopal Address with a celebratory moment, recognizing the great things happening in the GNJAC. “For the first time in 45 years we have a net gain of membership!” he said. “I have no words to say except thank you, thank you, thank you!” Drawing upon a theme found in the book That Used to Be Us, which looks at how Americans are no longer the most advanced in areas of business and finance in the world, he said “that used to be us.” Unlike the book, he also looked at “that continues to be us,” and “that will be us.” The Bishop said, “God was, God continues to be and God will be.”
Bishop Devadhar reflected on the Methodist church of the past. He said that around 1910 when President Theodore Roosevelt was embarking on a trip to Europe, he was told that the Pope would arrange a place for him to speak, as long as Roosevelt didn’t embarrass him by talking to the Methodists. “Who were these Methodists that the Pope, serving in 1910, would caution a former president against meeting?” the Bishop asked. “ At the time, the Methodists, including the former Methodist Episcopal, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church, were starting an average of one new church per day. These Methodists were part of the largest and most influential Protestant denomination in the United States and engaged in mission activities in countries all over the world. These Methodists were characterized by a fervent and deeply rooted spirituality.”
The Bishop said that the Methodist church of that time continues to be us. He said that as a church we continue to be involved in world-wide missions in many ways including giving leadership scholarship to students from other countries and continued relief work in Haiti. He said in this quadrennium, the United Methodist Church started 60 percent more new churches then it did in the previous four-year period, uplifting several of GNJ’s own new church starts including Sharptown North, Barnegat Anew and Cornerstone UMC.
“We were not humble in 1910. We were far too triumphant. We may never again be the dominant denomination in our country,” said Bishop Devadhar. “We should not worry about that if we remain true to our calling as people of God. The challenge for us, as individuals and together as an expression of the Body of Christ, is to embrace humility.” He said that while on his renewal leave in India, he had the opportunity to witness by poor coffee harvesters, who showed much joy for life despite having little material possessions. “If anything, the history of our denomination that has taken us from a height of being the dominant Protestant Church in America to one that struggles to find a new identity that can still make disciples and transform the world, should make us humble,” said the Bishop. “Humility is a far better trait to aspire to as we seek to give witness to our faith in these days. Humility teaches us to rely on God.” He went on to say, “The irony of humility is that once you claim to have it, you don’t have it.”
Bishop encouraged the GNJ leadership, saying that it will continue to be us. “While we may never again be the dominant denomination we once were, we will be a Church of service and witness,” he said. “We will be a creative minority, who with humble hearts seek to live out what it means to be the hands and feet of Jesus today.” The Bishop said attendance has increased at the Bishop’s convocation and many leadership gatherings. He said he is also hopeful that we are a church that is becoming younger and younger as he sees all the young people who have gone to Taize and come to Ocean City Youth Weekend.
The Bishop said he didn’t know if this was the last time he would be addressing the conference in this manner. “Let me make this clear: no matter what, we all belong to God and no matter who leads this Conference, with me or without me or in spite of me, you have a great future to embrace that is positive. You will be a shining light of service and witness for Greater New Jersey.”