Columbia Union Gears up for Ministry Beyond Pandemic, Reflects on Past Years
Leaders from across the Columbia Union Conference territory gathered today via Zoom for the union’s quarterly executive committee meeting—the last joint session before the union’s quinquennial constituency meeting, May 22–23.
Following worship by newly elected executive secretary Rick Remmers, committee members heard reports on ministries that have taken place over the past five years and what the future may hold—specifically a future where more churches and schools meet in person.
During President Dave Weigley’s report, conference presidents shared that many churches are already open, with the exception of many of the English-speaking churches in the Allegheny East and Allegheny West conferences. Most churches have made these decisions based on local and national safety guidelines and space logistics.
About 85 percent of churches in the Ohio Conference are now meeting in person again, reported President Bob Cundiff. Some are also starting to offer in-person Sabbath School again. Kettering, the conference’s largest church, is scheduled to reopen April 3. Though the church is physically large, only until recently has the member to space ratio been safe enough to meet in person.
The presidents offered the following updates:
Allegheny East Conference (AEC): All English-speaking churches are closed. Some Hispanic churches are open.
Allegheny West Conference: About 75 percent of English-speaking churches remain closed. Some Hispanic churches are open.
Chesapeake Conference: Seventy of the conference’s 72 churches are open. Six of its schools are fully in person, two are meeting virtually and two others are in hybrid mode.
Mountain View Conference: All churches and schools are meeting in person. President Mike Hewitt reports there were some rolling closures when there was an exposure to the coronavirus, but all churches are currently open.
New Jersey Conference (NJC): The conference, which is close to many urban centers, has lost 41 members to the pandemic, says President Jorge Aguero. But now 85 percent of churches are open and most schools are operating in a hybrid manner.
Ohio Conference: Some 85 percent of churches are open, with more opening soon.
Pennsylvania Conference: About 98 percent of churches are open and have been since June. President Gary Gibbs reports that most of them are running at about 50–60 percent capacity. Every church is also offering a streamed service.
Potomac Conference: Out of its 181 churches, 47 are open. Out of 17 schools, 14 are in person and three are hybrid, reports President Bill Miller.
Washington Adventist University (WAU): The school has operated in a hybrid model for the past year. Most classes are virtual, with the exception of nursing and some science classes on campus. President Weymouth Spence reported they have had zero coronavirus cases over the last year.
Moving Forward With Mission
Noting financial blessings and the ability of ministry to continue during the pandemic, Columbia Union President Dave Weigley shared, “God has blessed us in the midst of the pandemic, and we continue to go forward with the mission.”
Emmanuel Asiedu, Columbia Union treasurer, spoke about one of those blessings. When the pandemic started a year ago, leadership thought tithe would drop significantly, but “God has turned it around, and members have stepped up significantly,” he said.
There has been a unionwide decrease of only .44 percent, and, over the last five years, the union has provided $1.4 million in COVID-19 assistance for the conferences and Washington Adventist University. The union also provided a special reversion of $600,000 (combined) to the conferences and helped them obtain $987,500 for homeland mission projects from the General Conference and North American Division (NAD).
Asiedu also added that the North American Division reported a tithe of $1.1 billon in 2020—the highest amount ever—with a gain of 1.71 percent. Seven of the Division’s nine unions saw tithe gains he said.
The strong financial state should help the Columbia Union as it prepares to go into the next quinquennium, starting May 23 after the constituency meeting, where delegates will elect union officers and vote on proposed bylaws changes.
Dialogue on Race Relations Continues
Following up on a continuing conversation on race relations, Celeste Ryan Blyden, vice president for Strategic Communication and Public Relations, asked for feedback on the virtual union leadership summit, A Deeper Understanding of Race Relations, that committee members attended in February.
Henry Fordham, AEC conference president, shared, “I am encouraged. I want to remind everyone it just isn’t an event, but a continuation … ongoing.” He urged the committee to continue to be proactive in seeking to heal racial wounds. “It isn’t something we’re just reacting to when we have a problem in our communities—but we want to continue to work toward better relationships between our ethnic groups in our churches.”
Several members expressed a need to hear from all communities on this issue.
It’s important we speak up because the silence is deafening, said Cheryl Chavers, a member of AEC’s Calvary church in Newport News, Va. “The silence to me is an issue. I wish more people would acknowledge the pain [and walk alongside those experiencing it.]
Several members also offered gratitude for the event and urged the committee to take more steps. Eduardo Monteiro, NJC Evangelism director, said, “What we do today will shape the future. This history we’re making today is so important and will impact future generations.”
Weigley said he is committed to this issue and will have the union continue to work toward a positive outcome.
Continuing to Move Forward
Blyden and her communication team gave an update on the continuing Year of the Bible activities, including the many ways members can access the devotional books on social media and in the new Columbia Union Conference app. She also noted the growth in online and social media views over the past year as members increasingly turned to digital media sources, especially during the “isolating” pandemic.
Frank Bondurant, vice president for Ministries Development, reported that over the last five years, his office has helped secure $3.3 million for the union’s conferences and churches for mission, with $987,500 given in 2020. “A big part of my ministry is working with the General Conference in securing funds for projects in our conferences and churches. Imagine the impact these funds are making in the Columbia Union,” he said.
Bondurant also announced that the next union camporee will be themed “Relentless” and will take place August 10–14, 2021, in Summit Bechtel Reserve, W.Va.
Rubén Ramos, vice president for Multilingual Ministries, shared that between 2016–2020, the union welcomed 13,954 new members to the church. During this time, the multilingual family grew from 38,020 to 50,073.
At Ramos’ suggestion, the committee voted to affirm the work of the thousands of members who hosted small groups, witnessed to friends and family, and enthusiastically introduced people to Jesus.
In his report, Terry Forde, president and CEO of Adventist Healthcare, said, “No other year than this last year has our mission been tested in such an important way. Hopefully this is one of the last updates we have to give on COVID-19. It would be such a blessing.”
Forde noted that last year they reopened the former site of Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Md., to treat COVID-19 patients, helped deliver almost 30 thousand vaccinations and celebrated a year of partnership with Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Fred Manchur, CEO of Kettering Adventist HealthCare, shared the many ways Kettering employees are working in the turn the tide on the pandemic, including how they worked with a local Methodist church in West Dayton, Ohio, to provide vaccines to an underserved community.
In referring to the pandemic, Weymouth Spence, president of Washington Adventist University, said, “God has really taken care of us during this period." School leadership is optimistic about the upcoming academic year, and to-date has accepted 680 students for the fall semester, which Spence hopes will be in person.
Spence also noted that the university will continue to be active in issues of social justice—continuing conversations about justice, discrimination and equality and encouraging students to participate in the process. In partnership with the union, WAU will host a Keough lecture series on these topics to address actions Christians can take to make the love of Christ a reality.
Carson to Retire After 44 Years
Walter Carson, vice president and General Counsel, announced he will retire at the end of May. Carson has worked for the church for 44 years, the last 15 at his current position with the Columbia Union. Carson thanked the executive committee and said his time at the union has been a delightful opportunity. “From the perspective of the Visitor, I look forward to watching the progress of the great Columbia Union,” he said. (Look for a longer story about Carson in the weeks to come.)
Weigley ended the meeting, urging everyone to keep the upcoming constituency session in prayer. “This is God’s work. … This is God’s church. We need to keep the process in prayer.”