GNJ's newly ordained and commissioned take the stage at the 2018 Annual Conference session in Wildwood. Photo by Shari DeAngelo

Ground Breaking and Historic Annual Conference

WILDWOOD – Living up to its theme of “Miracles Everywhere” Greater New Jersey’s 2018 Annual Conference session left room for the Spirit to go off script and have its way in the hearts and minds of attendees. It was the largest attendance in GNJ history with 1,400 people converging on The Wildwoods Convention Center on May 20-22, speaking and singing in six different languages. Groundbreaking legislation was approved to take action to desegregate public schools for 271,000 Black and Latino students  by joining a lawsuit against the state of New Jersey. A budget was approved reducing shared ministry amounts apportioned to congregations and a growth of worship attendance in 2017 was celebrated.

Several miraculous testimonies of God’s wonder-working power through United Methodists of Greater New Jersey were shared, collected, and rejoiced over. Two partnerships with Tanzania and Puerto Rico Annual Conferences were approved and Leadership 100 was enacted as a part of  a new strategic plan equipping and cultivating 100 clergy and 100 laity who make disciples who make disciples. The plan continues GNJ on a path to develop transformational leaders through 2023 and commits to the Miracles Everywhere Campaign to raise $5.2 million for Next Generation, a student ministry seeking to make 2,000 youth and young adult disciples, A Future With Hope to develop 30 Hope Centers in five years, hurricane recovery, and missional partners in Puerto Rico and Tanzania (see related article).

“Thankful for the Spirit-filled hope that always rises up when we come together as United Methodists!” said Northern Shore District Superintendent Gina Hendrickson. “I am blessed to serve GNJ because together we are a Holy Spirit force that transforms people’s lives, communities and the world! Miracles abound!”

GNJ, along with Annual Conference voters from around the globe, re-voted on one of two constitutional amendments dealing with women’s equality. The revote was announced to the denomination after an error was reported in the wording of the amendments previously voted on at the 2016 General Conference. In a humbling and powerful declaration, Bishop Mande Muyombo of the Tanzania Annual Conference’s North Katanga Episcopal Region addressed GNJ’s annual conference session and publicly apologized for misinterpreting the amendment.

“This is a bigger issue that needs to be addressed at all levels of society,” he said. “Please, don’t be shy, come and challenge us [Tanzanians], we have to be transformed.”

Schol affirmed Muyombo’s commitments and leadership, reminding GNJ that  U.S. Annual Conferences also failed to pass the amendments.

“We too, here in America, need to be transformed as well,” said Schol.

“Lead on for justice,” Schol declared in his Episcopal Address. “Lead on to start new faith communities. Lead on to make the next generation of disciples. Lead on to grow vital congregations. Lead on to be one church. Lead on to grow our diversity and to be culturally competent. Lead on to proclaim that God wants women to lead men. Lead on to end segregation in our schools. Lead on! Hope on! God is ready to do miracles everywhere! Lead on!”

Rev. Hector A. Burgos, Director of Connectional Ministries, led a leadership address that included remarks from Rev. Sang Won Doh, Chair of the Connectional Table, Rosa Williams, GNJ Lay Leader, and Rev. Iraida Ruiz De Porras, Chair of the Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministries. These leaders shared their visions for a new strategic plan, the progress made in fulfilling mission and the next steps the Spirit is leading GNJ to take in the years to come. They celebrated new faith communities, the success of Team Vital, Coaching, PaCE, Mosaic Ministries, IGNITE, intercultural competence and the work of an Immigration Task Force. They outlined how GNJ will assist 100 congregations to grow from one church size to the next, grow intercultural competency, develop the Next Generation of disciples through summer camps, IGNITE, and campus ministries, and strengthen the resourcing of the laity.

GNJ welcomed eight newly commissioned Provisional Elders, five newly Ordained Elders, one Deacon, one Associate Member, eight transfers from other conferences and or denominations and 19 new local pastors. Powerful and miraculous testimonies were shared of God’s healing and the power of prayer. Particularly moving was the story of Rev.Heather Valosin who against all odds successfully underwent a risky and potentially life-threatening emergency surgery.

“Heather Valosin, you blessed my soul with the reminder that God is present in our highest joys and deepest pains,” said Nicole Caldwell-Gross, Director of Mission. “Thank you for being living evidence of God’s miraculous power: everywhere!”

Twenty-four  retiring clergy were recognized for their 550 years of service. Rev. Ron Watts delivered a powerful sermon during the Service of Remembrance that honored the 27 clergy, clergy spouses and lay members who have passed on during the last year.

The conference was led in joyful worship with praise songs sung in six languages, a 50 plus member choir and a special guest performance by Mark Miller during the Service of Remembrance.

“These people… they were my people for the past four days. Some of whom I literally just met, others that are pastors, mentors and friends that I’m lucky enough to be in community with on a regular basis,” said Kate MacLennan of Haddon Heights, expressing thanks for the opportunity to “make some crazy fun music.” “My voice is tired, but my heart is so full,” she said.

The prayer team, led by Rev. Gina Yeske, GNJ’s Director of Small Groups, coordinated 40 days of prayer before Annual Conference and set up prayer stations throughout the convention center. The prayer team prayed for every delegate by name and prayed over every seat in the convention center before the Ordination Service on Sunday night.

Conference attendees worked in unison, systematically helping pack 30,000 meals to support the Rise Against Hunger organization’s effort to feed people around the world with a bold mission to end world hunger by 2030.

“What a wonderful day at Annual Conference!” exclaimed Juel Nelson, Director of Leadership Development. “The ordination and commissioning service was just beautiful! What a gift these clergy are to our conference. The testimonies were blessed, music was moving and the Spirit was powerful! Miracles everywhere!”

Bishop Schol closed the session with moving testimony calling GNJ to go deeper in conversation with each other and with conference leaders about questions they have regarding the governance and legislation before the body. The conference goes down in history as one in which profound decisions were made and plans enacted to transform our community, state and the world. Attendees left inspired, recognizing the miracles in their midst and realizing that they too are part of making those miracles happen.