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Passion and practicalities at Methodist Conference 2008

By Paul Titus

Loaders of tomorrow - Wesley College Students played a prominent role in the Methodist Conference's opening sessions and devotions.

With some important decisions reached and some contentious ones postponed, Methodist Conference 2008 was a largely harmonious affair. It was harmonious too because music and dance were an important part of the proceedings.

Some of the key decisions of Conference will affect the way parishes and synods use their capital, how parishes provide housing to their presbyters, and who can serve as synod superintendents. Conference also formally established a Public Questions Network to promote social justice issues, created new lines of oversight for

Trinity Theological College, and approved a new covenant with the Anglican Church.

Thornier issues that Conference asked the Church to consider further over the following year include Commissioner John Hinchcliff's proposal to thoroughly restructure the Church, a new model of presidency which would see a two year term of office and bi-annual conferences, and whether to move from a living allowance that is the same for all presbtyers to differential rates of pay.

President Rev Jill van de Geer and vice president Ron Gibson gave this year's Conference the theme 'Living our Faith with Passion and Compassion'. They gave an address on the topic during their induction service. In it they challenged Methodists to build faith communities and confront suffering with justice and love.

The themes of passion and compassion were appropriate too given the prominent role Wesley College played during Conference 2008. Manukau hosted the gathering and the opening weekend of welcome, induction, farewell and ordination was held at Wesley College. Wesley students were prominent during those events and during later evening worship sessions. Conference-goers learned about the compassion that is at the heart of Wesley College's work and witnessed the passion of the students' performances.

Jill van de Geer says she felt people came together at Conference and being at Wesley College gave Conference a family feel. "It is important to pay tribute to the school. The young people were very courteous and friendly. They were excellent hosts."

Music was ever-present during both the ceremonial and business sessions of Conference 2008, not surprising given that both Jill and Ron are musicians (and Ron is brother to legendary hymn writer Colin Gibson). Five choirs – from Auckland, Manukau, and Hamilton – performed during the induction and ordination services, a cultural evening showcased the talents of the Church's Pacific Island and Maori young people, and morning worship sessions led by Collin Gibson naturally featured plenty of music. Colin also composed a series of light-hearted ditties to be sung during the business sessions.

Another notable occasion during Conference was a noon-time communion service hosted by the Methodist Church's gay and lesbian ministers. Organisers expected 30 to 40 people to attend but more than three times that number did so.

An important task of Conference is to select the next presidential team. In 2010 the president will be Rev Alan Upson and vice president Lana Lazarus. Both are widely experienced in the Church. Alan is currently superintendent of New Plymouth Methodist Parish and Lana is an administrator in the national office of Te Taha Maori.

Key decisions

President Jill van de Geer says approving new laws proposed in the Property Committee's report was one of Conference's major decisions. The new laws give district synods a greater role in deciding how Church properties are used and what happens to the proceeds when properties are sold.

Jill says approving new laws proposed in the Property Committee's report was one of Conference's major decisions. The new laws give district synods a greater role in deciding how Church properties are used and what happens to the proceeds when properties are sold.

Methodist Connexional Property Committee executive officer Greg Wright says the Committee exhorted the Church to be bold in seeking ways to free up capital locked up in underutilised buildings. He believes Conference decisions prove it has been.

"The new laws call for parishes to review their property and deposits every five years with the Connexion and their synod to see if they are meeting their mission strategies. Synods now have the requirement to help parishes form a strategic view of their properties as part of the synods' strategic plan.

"If a congregation has property that is beyond its requirements, the synod can help it decide how the capital in that property could be better used. If decisions are made on the basis of the synods' strategies, the Church will get a better fit between its resources and requirements," Greg says.

Conference also approved a relaxation in the existing requirement to use only registered architects to design alterations and buildings. Registered architects will continue to be appropriate in many cases but now parishes can, for example, use a kitchen design firm to redesign a parsonage kitchen or a specialist house design and build firm to provide a new parsonage.

Changes to stipend rules Conference adopted include provisions to allow parishes and boards to rent presbyters' own home in order to provide them suitable accommodation.

Financial services manager Peter van Hout says doing this may have a cash flow impact on some parishes, and they will need to factor it into their budgets.

"On the other side, presbyters who receive rental income may become provisional taxpayers. We would strongly advise presbyters seek independent tax advice if they receive rental income from residential property," Peter says.

Another Conference act that has financial implications for presbyters is closure of the Supernumerary Fund from February 1, 2010. Peter says the Board of Administration's prime objective is to ensure those who are currently dependent on the fund are not disadvantaged when the Fund is changed.

"Adequate arrangements will also be made to provide for the retirement needs of those in Full Connexion who are not members of the existing fund. The Board and the Trustee have listened to concerns raised at Conference and will arrange roadshows on topics of interest during the first quarter of 2009."

Rev David Bush says his first Conference as general secretary made him realise how little time Conference has to complete its work and the discipline required to make the most of that time.

David says approval of the covenant between the Anglican and Methodist Churches was significant. He likens it to a parent and child acknowledging their relationship after a long time apart. He notes that in England Anglicans and Methodist cooperate closely in many ways and he expects the relationship to continue developing here.

"Conference's decision to accept in principle lay district superintendents was also significant. It has come about because there is greater recognition of the ministry of lay people and because the Church no longer has the ordained people available to hold all its leadership positions."

One of the matters that will return to Conference next year is whether to move to a two year rather than a one year presidential term with Conference held every two years rather than every year. The proposal includes discontinuing the office of vice president and making the president a full time, paid position.

Whereas Conference expressed general agreement over a two year term with a full time president, there was disagreement over having one person fulfill the presidential role. The chief concerns were that the proposed model would make it more difficult for lay people to hold the office of president.

A more detailed summary of Conference 2008 can be found on the Methodist Church of NZ website.