The Second Sunday of September has been designated as ALASKA CONFERENCE SUNDAY across the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church. This is a day to highlight and celebrate the unique ministries of the Alaska Conference and to take a special offering to support these missions and ministries. That coming Sunday is September 11, 2022.
On that Sunday (or another Sunday during the Fall) it is hoped that our Alaska churches and those in our sibling conferences will collect an offering to support some of those ministries in Alaska which rely upon support beyond the local communities in which they minister.
This year we celebrate our three Mission Churches! These are three congregations who are unique in their remote geographical settings, their attention to persons living in poverty, and their ongoing reliance on outside support to sustain pastoral leadership. On this Sunday, you are encouraged to either make a donation to your local church and mark it for one or more of the mission churches or to give online using the Advance numbers at umcmission.org.
The ministries we are highlighting are:
Willow UMC & Community Food Pantry
Willow Alaska United Methodist Church (Advance 931511) — Serving impoverished rural communities around Willow by meeting spiritual and physical needs.
Willow Community Food Pantry (Advance #931520) — Working in partnership with area churches and groups to meet emergency needs of families and address food and heat insecurity.
http://www.unalaskaumc.org (Advance #931855) — Ministering to the Bering Sea fishing fleet, processors, stranded crew members and the community.
Nome Community UMC
Alaska Churches (Advance #931027 — SPECIFY “NOME”) — Particular need for addressing high heating costs in winter, building upgrades and upkeep, and pastoral support.
It is just a couple of years ago that we actually had to “head off to” Annual Conference in person. For some it was a short commute. For others, a longer drive. For still others, a plane trip or ferry ride or maybe a combination of two or more.
Our in-person “holy conferencing” meant securing a place to stay, packing bags, making sure clergy robes weren’t too wrinkled, and having hard copies of the Pre-Conference Journal and Addendum to pull out for when the reports began. It meant looking forward to seeing friends from across the conference, laity and clergy alike; some that we hadn’t seen in a year. It meant watching families connect again between (and during) meetings. It meant sharing coffee in the back of the church meeting place or picking up “the good stuff” on the way to the morning sessions. There was time to break bread, and not just the virtual kind.
Gathering in person also meant that we could conduct our work differently. It’s much easier to understand people when you see facial expressions. It’s much easier to work through disagreements and misunderstandings when you have the actual give-and-take of discussion and debate. And when people are passionate, seeing that passion in person can be contagious (in a good way and not the way we’ve been talking about it for the last eighteen months).
While I truly understand and support the reasons for conducting Annual Conference online for the second straight year, I confess that I did not approach it with the same level of excitement I’ve approached our annual gatherings of the in-person variety. Behind the scenes there are whole lot of technical details to work out which bring some amount of worry. The agenda, by design, is tight so to limit surprises which can be hard to navigate through the multiple tabs, screens, and devices of our new Zoom world.
In a sense, this is now familiar territory. We’ve been at this for a while. But I did not enter into our sessions expecting the experience to be as life-giving or as fun as I have found our intimate, face-to-face Alaska Annual Conferences over the past twenty-four years.
Yet, even with this year’s online experience, the Alaska Conference leaned heavily into a new reality, a new kind of connection. This was the start of something new.
First, more than in the past, we could see how strongly we are connected to the Greater Northwest Area. This was evident at the start in a shared Opening Session with our sibling conferences of Pacific Northwest and Oregon-Idaho. Many of our leaders have been working collaboratively for a long time and so it made sense to have our Lay Leaders and our General Conference Delegations present their reports together. It was clearly a sign that we are not in this by ourselves and that we have partners and co-conspirators as we dream and build towards being a church where “Love Never Ends.” Moreover, this connection allowed us to pull our worship leadership from across a vast area, helping us see the diversity of our extended ministry setting. Yes, I missed seeing some of the familiar Alaskan faces. But I did enjoy seeing a lot of new ones.
Second, even without the postponed General Conference making it official, we used our Annual Conference time to live into “Mission District” status with Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church. We have shared so much over the years. We have shared a bishop. We have shared support staff. We have shared in a Cabinet and appointment-making. Many of our Alaska clergy have the PNW Conference as their “home conference” and many of our Alaska laity have deep connections with churches and people in the area as well. The delay of General Conference 2020 has meant that our two conferences can work together slowly, deliberately, making sure we enter this relationship in a manner that is free of colonialism and recognizes our commitment, together, to the work of anti-racism. Conducting one of our sessions jointly allowed us to further live into and gave us all a little taste of what it may look like going forward. I think we’re going to work together well.
There were some very “Alaskan” parts of our Annual Conference, though. As usual, we were all collegial while working through our agenda. Even virtually, we Alaskans have a lot of long-term relationships to lean on and the intimacy of our conference allows for some of that familiarity to be seen even online. We had some celebrations for our own as we recognized Emily Carroll’s ordination and Murray Crookes’ commissioning and as we welcomed new clergy. And while there was no refreshment table for the “water cooler talk” that happens in the back rooms of our normal gatherings, WhatsApp provided a space to chat with each other in an informal way.
I don’t know what the future of our Annual Conference gatherings will look like or whether they will ever be entirely in-person again. My hunch is that, like many of our churches, we’ll have a hybrid model. Some will be able to be there in-person and some will Zoom in from afar. And while I may lament this and look back with some nostalgia to “the way it used to be” it is clear that we’ll be OK. It’s a good thing, too. We have a lot of work to do living into the future God has in store for us.
When I reflect on previous Annual Conferences, I remember opportunities to personally connect with fellow members, many of whom I don’t get to see in person very often. Through those connections I am updated with not only them and their lives, but also what is happening within their local church ministry setting.
The continuing impact of the pandemic and our need to meet virtually frames this reflection while at the same time we expanded this year’s Annual Conference as we gathered as one episcopal area (with Pacific Northwest – PNW, and Oregon-Idaho – OI) for our opening and closing sessions and even shared a session with the PNW conference as we agreed to work in partnership as we more purposefully begin to live into being a Mission District of that conference prior to the completion of the multi-step process which we anticipate will confirm that change. It is an exciting time as we jointly work toward creating something new and different.
Through the joint/shared Great Northwest – GNW Annual Conference we all were gifted to some spirited music leadership from outside our area which allowed us in our virtual settings to sense the energy as we engaged in the opening and closing of our sessions, creating energy in our virtual setting.
Within the shared GNW opening session, the joint presentations from the three conference Lay Leaders, the six First Elects from all three conference delegations, as well as the message from our Bishop helped us connect with our conference theme “Love Never Ends” while also helping us not only consider our own conference issues, but also those of our episcopal area, jurisdiction, and denomination.
Acknowledging where we gather and whose ancestral land it is that we are on continues to add important meaning for me each time we begin our meetings with that recognition. My hope is to try to learn and more fully understand the full and complete history of the place we currently find ourselves and to be part of addressing appropriately the needed reparations that hold both value and meaning.
Within our own session, I was very appreciative of the beautiful memorial service as we honored and remembered those from among us whom we’ve lost since we last gathered. This has always been special to me as we reflect on the many ways these individuals have gifted us through their lives and witness.
I found the video clips interspersed as filler throughout the virtual meeting an effective way to fill those transition pieces of time while also educating all of us on different ministries within our church. I would like to be sure that all potential ministry areas are made aware of this opportunity for future gatherings so that even more can be prepared and made available for this kind of use and promotion within future gatherings.
As the body gathers to do some of the administrative work of the church it is always helpful to be sure that enough information is shared with those tasked to take action through their decisions. On every issue, the pertinent background information should be shared along with a proposed recommendation and the rationale behind that recommendation in order to help with providing access to important/relevant information. In in-person gatherings it is easier to have conversation/discussion to supplement printed materials on such topics and though there are ways to accomplish that within the virtual environment, it doesn’t seem as natural and can be more challenging to accomplish.
The Lay Member orientation that I held in addition to the area-wide Laity Session was an attempt to create some of that kind of space while also identifying key people who could be contacted prior to the start of our sessions for assisting with broadening our understanding as well as help answer any questions.
I’m excited to recognize all those who are in varying stages of preparing for ministry as they relate to our conference Professional Ministries Unit!
Additionally, I am grateful to all those who serve our conference in varying ways as reflected on the Nominations report. The work of the conference happens in part thanks to the commitment of time and energy by all those listed there. Thank You!
Our delegation engaged participants in responding to some of the content of current delegation conversations and extended an invitation to those who wanted to engage in continuing conversation.
We also committed to help engage churches and ministries of the conference, as well as other faith communities in fostering an Alaskan discussion on nuclear disarmament and an Arctic Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.
Our sense of collaborating in ministry was also expanded with the joint creation of a Cross-Conference Vitality Commission.
As we closed the Annual Conference in a shared session, we learned more about our sister conferences through the sharing of actions specific to each one.
Our final celebratory piece was the ordination of Emily Carroll and the commissioning of Murray Crookes.
It became clear to me that through collaborative work between clergy and laity as well as across conferences that even more can be accomplished.
I ran the Little SU 50K race this weekend. It was a beautiful day out in the Alaskan wilderness with breathtaking views of Mt. Susitna. It was also clear and cold with temperatures hovering in the negative single digits which made running in the shifty, dry snow even more challenging.
At around Mile 20, I hit the proverbial wall. I had been running for a good 4 hours or so and my body was starting to give up. My brain and all my muscles were screaming, “What on earth were you thinking signing up for yet another one of these crazy races?!” My pace had slowed to a steady shuffle at that point with my head down, just watching one foot go in front of the other, trying to find the most solid part of the snowy trail packed by bikers, skiers and runners in front of me.
Just then, a biker passed me and said, “You’re doing a good job! I can’t imagine running in these trail conditions. You got this!” and moved right along. Those words made such huge impact on me. I felt a smile come to my face. I lifted my gaze to catch a glimpse of the rider pulling-away and in the process, I realized again the beauty that was all around me. I straightened my back and felt my strides lengthen and my pace pick up once again.
Words of Affirmation
Late last week, a small group of Alaska United Methodists who work in public health sent me this open letter to share with you, their fellow Alaska United Methodists:
Dear United Methodist Siblings across Alaska,
We know it has not been easy to be the body of Christ during this time of Covid-19. Thank you for your faithful diligence in learning how to create and participate in worship online; to create and participate in discipleship groups, and committee meetings online, in being leaders in making and encouraging mask use and other mitigation measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Thank you for your faithfulness in seeking to DO NO HARM and DO GOOD by ceasing in-person gatherings during the times of widespread community transmission. Your sacrifice HAS made a difference.
With vaccines rolling out to some of our most vulnerable, and infection rates across the state dropping, your willingness to refrain from gathering is helping your fellow Alaskans. We are not yet out of the woods, but the needle is moving in the right direction, and a part of that is thanks to your willingness to sacrifice in-person gatherings the last ten months. Hang in there just a little bit longer, because we can see the Light at the end of this long dark tunnel, and the day is fast approaching when we will be able to safely gather again.
Thanks for helping to do your part of Loving Neighbor as self as together we stand strong against COVID-19.
Your fellow Alaska United Methodists,
Sarah Aho, MPH: Epidemiology Specialist, State of Alaska Rebekah Porter, RN, MSN, MPH: Nurse Epidemiologist, State of Alaska Elizabeth Ripley, President & CEO, Mat-Su Health Foundation Heather Harris, MPA: Director, Anchorage Health Department Sandra Woods, MS, DrPH, RN, Nurse Educator
A Word of Thanks
Friends, today, almost to the day, marks the 11th month of our pandemic response. Next month will be an anniversary of sorts, one we may not necessarily want to celebrate but certainly need to take mental note of. We have been doing this for almost a year now: Worshipping online; keeping our sanctuaries closed to all but a few who “produce” worship; keeping our buildings closed except for essential services; adopting mask, sanitation and social distancing measures; meeting and caring for each other via Zoom; worshipping outdoors; reimagining what ministry and life together looks like during this time – all in the name of doing no harm and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
And while the vaccinations seem to be working in driving the daily cases and hospitalizations down, we still do not see the end clearly in sight. In race terms, we still do not see the finish line yet we know that we are closer to it than we were a day before.
And so as we push on, putting one foot in front of the other, almost running completely on fast depleting reserves, trying to will ourselves from day to day, week to week, I am thankful for the words of Sarah, Rebekah, Elizabeth, Heather and Sandra essentially saying: “You’re doing a great job!” I join my voice to this chorus in saying: Thank you! I appreciate all that you have done, the sacrifices you have made, the challenges you have risen to, the pivots you have so quickly taken, and the grace which you have given each other during this time. I see you. And more importantly, God sees you and says, in the words of our Transfiguration text last Sunday, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.”
May these affirming words give us the strength and the encouragement to finish this race set before us. And may all who come behind us find us faithful.
Your fellow disciple,
Carlo Rapanut Alaska Conference Superintendent
P.S. The 5 original signers of the open letter are giving us the opportunity to sign-on to the letter, as a way to affirm and encourage each other. Here’s a link to do so: https://forms.gle/YSptdwdKQLGLeCd49
Your Alaska General Conference Delegation has been hard at work throughout these winter months. We have been listening to voices of those outside of Alaska and working with others who have put much effort into legislation already submitted to General Conference. We have been discussing what we might offer to help our church move beyond the conflicts that have divided us.
This is our attempt to offer a pathway so all of our churches — in the United States, around the globe, liberal, conservative, and centrist — can see a future for their congregation, for their conference, and for the larger church.
Connected to the 66 pages of legislation is a three-page introduction which explains much of what we are thinking and hoping and how, while almost all of the text of the legislation is borrowed from others, it is newly put together into one document. It tries to honor the work of others in a package that can “get enough votes.”
While faithful people have provided us with legislation such as “The Christmas Covenant” and “The Protocol,” we have been concerned that no one piece of legislation will receive enough votes to pass at the postponed 2020 General Conference, leaving our churches without a path out of this wilderness. And, if one of them were to pass, we are concerned that General Conference would still be defined by “winners” and “losers,” harming the witness of The United Methodist Church.
After listening to supporters of “The Christmas Covenant” legislation, we ensured that the regionalization of that legislation would be front and center to maintain unity while keeping geographically-centered issues from defining the whole denomination. However, to help with passage of the legislation, we did not include any items that would require a constitutional amendment.
We included the formation of a Regional Conference in North America from the Connectional Table Plan to be consistent in regionalization.
We listened to proponents of The Protocol and included a pathway out of the United Methodist Church for those seeking a more Traditionalist Methodist expression.
We were in dialogue with Wespath, which manages the pensions of United Methodist clergy, knowing that we need to continue our care of retirement benefits for the future church.
With humility we recognize that is almost entirely the work of others. While we know it is not perfect, and potentially falls short of what other plans and petitions hoped to achieve, we pray that it accomplishes “enough” so that it can pass. And we pray that, if it passes, almost all churches in our denomination can see how they can live into the future they believe God has planned for them.
We encourage you to read the introduction and the legislation.
At this point, it is our offering to our church and we hope to be in dialogue about it.
We offer it with a couple of caveats:
We know that there are a lot of moving pieces to General Conference and there may be bigger changes coming than we realize, changes that will bring new paths forward.
We know that we are just a small conference with just a couple of votes at General Conference. We’ll need help from others to have this enter the General Conference conversation, to be perfected, and to pass.
We hope it does enough to move us forward.
Jim Doepken, Clergy Delegate to General Conference