Disability & Accessibility, Diversity, Ministry, Pastoral Life, Women in Ministry

A Brief Summary of the 2022 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference of the UMC with Suggestions for Accessibility

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A Brief Summary of the 2022 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church with Suggestions for Accessibility

The Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference (NEJ) of the United Methodist Church was held on November 2-4, 2022 in College Park, Maryland. The theme was “One in Ministry to All the World.” Approximately 150 delegates, including both laity and clergy, were seated and able to vote. Delegates represented the entire Northeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, including the following conferences: Susquehanna (the conference to which I belong), Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Upper New York, New York, New England, Eastern Pennsylvania, Greater New Jersey, Peninsula Delaware, and Baltimore Washington.  

During the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, we worshipped together, heard reports, celebrated retirees, and participated in Holy Communion together. We also approved the following pieces of legislation: a resolution to provide childcare during NEJ, the endorsement of the Christmas Covenant (with amendments). a resolution entitled “leading with integrity,” that encourages those with leadership positions within the UMC who plan on exiting the UMC to “lead with integrity,” and a resolution entitled “Queer Delegates’ Call to Center Justice and Empowerment for LGBTQIA+ People in the UMC,” which calls for justice and empowerment for the LGBTQIA+ community “within and beyond our churches and agencies.” (Source: https://susumc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/2022-NEJ-Summary.pdf)

I (Rev. Rebecca Holland) was originally an alternate delegate; however, because other delegates were not able to attend, I was called on to serve as a regular delegate. While I was there, I had the opportunity to advocate for both clergy and laity with disabilities across the entire Northeastern Jurisdiction. When the opportunity presented itself, I gave a brief speech from the floor that addressed the importance of accessibility (especially when using technology to meet virtually) and encouraged the planning to committee to include an accessibility coordinator when planning future meetings of the NEJ. It was an honor to serve as a delegate at NEJ and I was grateful for the learning opportunity.

Interviewing Candidates from A Disability Perspective: “As Bishop, how will you work to include and empower clergy and laity with disabilities?”

Delegates to the Northeastern Jurisdiction had the opportunity to interview episcopal candidates on the day before the conference (November 1st). We were divided into small groups and each of the nine episcopal candidates that had been endorsed by their annual conference and/or an official caucus of the UMC met with each group for approximately forty minutes.

On October 31, 2022 (the day before the interviews were to take place) each group was given three questions from the Committee on Episcopacy that we were all required to ask the episcopal candidates. Each group was also permitted to work together to create some unique questions of our own. We wrote these questions down in a list and submitted them for approval to the Committee on the Episcopacy.

I shared with my group that I am very passionate about disability ministries and that I would like to ask each episcopal candidate, “As bishop, how would you work to include and empower clergy and laity with disabilities?”

I was very grateful that my question was approved by both my fellow group members and the Committee on the Episcopacy. We asked this question to each of the nine episcopal candidates and were able to hear their responses.

Suggestion for the future: When we talk about inclusiveness, people with disabilities are often overlooked. This is partly because many disabilities are invisible. It is my hope that in the future a question that relates to disabilities will be provided as one of the required questions. That way, every group who interviews episcopal candidates will have the opportunity to hear their responses.

Accommodations and Accessibility at NEJ 2022

We began gathering for the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference on October 31,2022. Delegates interviewed episcopal candidates on November 1, 2022 and the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference officially began on November 2, 2022.

American Sign Language was provided throughout the entire gathering. The ASL interpreters did an excellent job and I was happy to see them. Their presence was a clear signal to everyone present and everyone watching online that the NEJ is working toward being accessible and inclusive for all people.

However, open captions were not available until the second day of our gathering. These captions were helpful, but they included many typos and incorrect transcriptions because they were computer generated.

As a delegate with a visual impairment, I also had some difficulty voting because the electronic device because it was not accessible. The electronic voting device looked like a small TV remote control, but none of the buttons had tactile bumps on them. (For example, most telephones with keypads will at least have a raised dot on the five). I was able to make my device work most of the time, but in the future an accessible option would have been greatly appreciated. If I were completely blind, I would have been unable to vote using the handheld device.

Most of the documents, including resolutions and lengthy amendments made from the floor, were provided in an accessible digital format to all delegates. I applaud the NEJ for taking this inclusive step. This is very helpful to delegates with visual impairments because digital documents can be enlarged or read aloud by smart devices.

Yet, for all the strides we have made with accessibility, there is still room for growth. One very important document was not provided in a digital format: We were only given a print copy of the list of episcopal candidates and their corresponding numbers. Every episcopal candidate and any elder present at NEJ was assigned a number. We entered those numbers into our electronic devices to vote. I was able to enlarge this list using my iPad, but this would have been an especially helpful document to have in an accessible format.

Suggestion for the future: In the future, it would be helpful to have live captions throughout the entire conference. It would also be helpful if all documents were provided to delegates in an accessible format. Finally, it is my hope that in the future an accommodation would be provided for delegates who are unable to use the electronic voting device.

A Possible Solution: Include an Accessiblity Coordinator During the Planning Stages

I know that addressing these challenges can be complex and possibly quite expensive. That is why I suggested from the floor of NEJ that an accessibility coordinator be included when planning the next gathering of NEJ.

The next gathering of the NEJ will be in Western Pennsylvania, and I know that they have a very active and talented Disability Ministries group. I am hopeful that with their help the next gathering of the NEJ in 2024 will be even more accessible. Accessibility is an important part of inclusiveness.

Other Key Points:

–Directors of Connectional Ministries delivered a report on the progress made on the Call to Action against Racism which had been adopted by the NEJ in 2016. The report highlighted progress made throughout the Northeastern Jurisdiction as we work together to fight the sin of racism. The report also inspired a discussion about the intersectional nature of racism. Delegates reminded us from the floor that racism is “not just a black and white issue,” and that it impacts all of us. Many delegates shared about their own personal experience with racism and systemic oppression. As a jurisdiction and a church we have made great strides, but it is still clear that we have much work to do around dismantling and disarming the sin of racism.

–Rev. Hector A. Burgos-Nunez, district superintendent of the Central District in the Greater New Jersey Conference, was elected as bishop. He is the first Hispanic/Latino bishop elected in our jurisdiction. He has been assigned to serve the Upper New York Conference as their bishop.

–Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and Bishop Sandra Steiner-Ball will continue to provide episcopal coverage for the Susquehanna Conference.

–The next jurisdictional conference will be held in Western Pennsylvania in 2024.

–General Conference will be held in Charlotte, North Carolina on April 23-May 3, 2024.

Further Reading

If you are interested in more information about the 2022 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, you can read the The Daily Christian Advocate which was published each day of the Conference.

If you would like to see photos of the 2022 NEJ, they can be found here.

About the Autor: Rev. Rebecca L. Holland is a visually-impaired, Filipino-American author and pastor serving in Central Pennsylvania. She is an an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and the author of Through My Good Eye: A Memoir in Verse, The United Methodist Church and Disability, and Hope for the Broken: Using Writing to Find God’s Grace. She blogs about faith, books, and disability awareness. She can be reached by using the contact form on her author website.