Delores Martin, left, Lay Leader of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, and the Rev. JW Park, superintendent of the Central Maryland District, serve communion at the opening worship of the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders meeting in Baltimore, Feb. 19. Photo by Erik Alsgaard

By Erik Alsgaard

Nearly 80 annual conference lay leaders from around The United Methodist Church gathered in Baltimore Feb. 19-22, taking the opportunity to learn a little about our church’s past, while looking at ways to shape the future.

Baltimore-Washington Conference Lay Leader Delores Martin welcomed the Association for Annual Conference Lay Leaders at its opening worship service Feb. 19. BWC Bishop Marcus Matthews preached at the worship service, which also featured a guest choir made up from the eight district superintendents of that conference.

“It was a delight to host this event,” said Martin. “It’s wonderful to see our connection in action in these people.”

The group, whose purpose is to strengthen lay leadership in the denomination and to enable a mutual ministry between lay and clergy, meets annually and rotates its location throughout the United States, according to Steve Furr, Lay Leader of the Alabama-West Florida Conference.

Furr has been president of the Association for three years. At a visit to a snowy Baltimore-Washington Conference Mission Center Feb. 21, Furr said the focus of this year’s meeting was conflict resolution. Dr. Jan Love, Dean at Emory University in Atlanta, was the facilitator for a day-long session on Feb. 20.

“If the church is going to get back into a growth-mode,” Furr said, “the laity have got to lead.

“It is through the association that annual conference lay leaders are trained for their tasks,” he added. “These leaders of laity,” he said, “then go back to their respective annual conferences and train district lay leaders and those in the local churches.”

The association includes people with a “wealth of talent,” said Furr, “including attorneys, architects, teachers and business leaders. All of them come together to further the Kingdom,” he said.

“We wouldn’t have a church if it weren’t for the laity,” Furr said. “Nobody would be funded, that would be for sure.”

Furr said he feels that the church is starting to come back to the awareness that this denomination started as a lay movement in the United States.

“If we don’t get the laity back and get them involved,” he said, speaking of the laity. “We have to have the ordained clergy and paid staff, but the laity are out there sacrificing and giving of themselves, too.”

Jim Nibbelink, Lay Leader from the Desert Southwest Conference, was previously Lay Leader in the West Ohio Conference. “I get a lot of learning, a lot of support, a lot of care, and I think I get a broader perspective on the general church,” Nibbelink said on why he’s a member of the Association.

He agrees with Furr that the laity are the backbone of the church. “We depend on the clergy for inspiration, for training and education, for encouragement and cheerleading, but we lay people need to be the ones out in the streets, doing the ministry of caring for the least, the last and the lost.”

Nibbelink added that lay people can be the catalyst for innovation and change in the church, and keeping the church relevant, thanks to their activity in the business world.

Simon Mafunda, from the East Zimbabwe Annual Conference, has been its lay leader for seven years. This was his second time attending the association meeting and he said he enjoyed the learning opportunities from talking with other United Methodists around the global connection.

“I see the global church at play here,” Mafunda said. “You know, we learn from each other and we need each other’s experiences in order to grow the church of Christ. As I go home from this association meeting, I go home with a wealth of knowledge and experiences from other people on how they’ve been doing ministry, and we copy from them.”

Mafunda is aware that while the church is not growing in terms of membership numbers in the United States, in Zimbabwe, the opposite is true. The East Zimbabwe Area shares a partnership ministry with the Baltimore-Washington Conference, one that Mafunda said is critical to continued growth in his country.

“We want to learn from them (churches in the United States) so that when our church is matured, we don’t want it to come down,” he said. “Either we want it to stay in a straight line or continue to grow.”