Laity Celebrated at Thursday Dinner

By Audrey Stanton-Smith

Laity delegates and friends filled the Richardson Ballroom at the Charlotte Convention Center Thursday evening for a Celebration of The Laity Dinner at General Conference.

“We’re celebrating laity in ministry, and that call is my passion,” West Virginia Annual Conference Director of Lay Servant Ministries Kim Matthews, who is serving as a reserve delegate, said at the dinner. “I’m so glad to be here.”

Beside her, West Virginia Conference Delegate Rich Shaffer commented on the friendly spirit of this year’s General Conference.

“The atmosphere throughout General Conference has been so welcoming,” Shaffer said. “The laity are all getting along. We’re all just friends, and it’s been like a homecoming.”

Judi Kenaston, chief connectional officer for The Connectional Table, a West Virginia Conference delegate, and laity, said the connections throughout General Conference remind her just how instrumental laity have been to so many leaders, including herself.

“When I was in college, my campus pastor nominated me to be on the campus ministry board for Annual Conference,” Kenaston said.

As the time approached, meeting time increased, and Kenaston considered excusing herself from attending so that she could prepare for final exams.

“But a lay woman from my town who was also on this board called and said, ‘I’m going to pick you up and take you to this meeting.’ She was hard to say no to, and I didn’t, and every meeting after that, she came and picked me up. … She made sure that I did what I was asked to do, and I am indebted to her. She put me on a path, and all of it was the result of laity taking action and being supportive of a younger person.”

Hosted by United Women in Faith, Discipleship Ministries, and United Methodist Men, the dinner welcomed table sponsorships from general secretaries, boards, and agencies and was free for lay delegates, several of whom took the time to publicly celebrate the role of laity in The United Methodist Church and at General Conference.

“We are here to celebrate the great work of God that the laity in this room and in the Church have done,” said LaToya Redd Thomson, president of the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders.

Thompson talked about her childhood in Mississippi, where her parents influenced her by reading of The Book of Discipline and then their putting love into action.

“They weren’t just reading it, but living it out, standing for justice in church council meetings and then going out and doing the nurture outreach in the community and making sure people in the low-income areas around the church that I grew up in had food, had school supplies, had things that they needed,” she said. “They made me the person that I am and the lover of United Methodism that I am today.”

Referring to Thomson’s address to General Conference earlier in the day, United Women in Faith General Secretary and CEO Sally Vonner said the influence and contributions of laity have strengthened the denomination throughout its history.

“I am grateful for the polity of The United Methodist Church that includes equal lay participation, voice, and our vote,” Vonner said.

United Women in Faith is the official women’s organization of The United Methodist Church. For 155 years, the organization and its predecessors have impacted local and global communities.

“We advocated and created ways for women to be involved as missionaries and deaconesses, a movement that still lives on today, praise God,” Vonner said. “We also led and supported women to be seated at General Conference to begin with, as well as ordained as clergy and elected bishops, and also advocated in calling the Church to continue the work of racial justice.”

Vonner, who is also serving as a reserve delegate from the North Texas Conference, said laywomen throughout history have tackled “the hard work of the world without hesitation, to transform the lives of the most vulnerable among us, and the underserved in the world, particularly women, children, and youth.”

United Methodist Men Interim General Secretary and CEO Bishop James Swanson, a retired bishop from the Southeastern Jurisdiction, also addressed the crowd by thanking laity involved with United Methodist Men’s priorities of evangelism, mission, and social impact. He cited the importance of Scouting ministries, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Amachi, a prison ministry program.

“We’ve made it our priority to not just talk about what we want to see happen with men, but we’re taking this directly to our local congregations,” Swanson said. “The place where evangelism and disciple-making take place is in the local church. … We’re trying to do some things that we have not done before, which means we need your prayers.”

Among those new things are a rebranded logo and an app, United, which gives users free access to devotionals and other support for men in their journey of faith and life, empowering them to become authentic disciples of Jesus Christ.

“We are not just pancake eaters. … We are embarking upon a whole new adventure,” Swanson said.

That spirit of adventure makes laity “the backbone” of The United Methodist Church, said Rev. Jeff Campbell, general secretary and CEO of Discipleship Ministries.

“I am a product of strong lay leaders, lay leaders who taught Sunday School, who taught me to love the Bible, lay leaders who encouraged me to go on mission trips and taught me what it meant to serve,” Campbell said. “Every step of my journey, it was strong lay people who guided me and supported me in my spiritual walk. It can’t be overstated—the importance of you all and the work that you do.”