God's Word for today

Friday, 25 July 2008

Central District Synod 2008

As indicated waaaaaay back in a previous blog, here is the news from our recent Synod. Because this report was presented to our Circuit Quarterly Meeting last night, there is a fair bit of emphasis on what "our guys" were up to...

We give thanks to God for allowing the members of the South Rand Circuit Quarterly meeting to appoint us as their representatives at this year’s District Synod, and it is with pleasure that we present our report. The purpose of this report is not to provide a “blow-by-blow” account of all the happenings of this year’s Synod, but rather to provide highlights of the main events, items discussed, and resolutions taken.

Opening of Synod
The theme of this year’s Synod was “Come, Holy Spirit, heal and transform Your people”, and given the political and social turmoil currently being experienced in Southern Africa, there is no doubt that we need to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into a Church that is both prophetic and hospitable.

In his opening address, Bishop Verryn once again gave thanks to both laity and clergy for the sacrifices that they made in carrying out God’s calling of ministry, especially at a time when people “who are created in the image of God” have been displaced as a result of xenophobic and criminal violence in their communities. He emphasised the fact that “all people have an unalienable, indelible place in God's consciousness.”

Citing a recent occurrence at Central Methodist Mission where a lady gave birth to her child in one of the toilets, Bishop Verryn indicated that just as apartheid sought to divide people based on race, thereby diminishing the worth of those who were not members of the privileged group, so in the New South Africa we continue to use divisive “poisons” such as race, class, country, language, education, etc. with which to measure the value of people. He challenged the Synod that it is the Church’s role to take away this mask of prejudice and hate, and let us see people as in the image of God.

Ordinands and candidates
A number of ministers, having completed their studies and probation, were presented before the Synod for final screening and approval as ordinands. These precious brothers and sisters in Christ are to be ordained into the Ministry of Word and Sacraments with the imposition of laying on of hands at the forthcoming Conference.

South Rand Circuit was well represented, with Rev Pumla Mtshiselwa (Mondeor) and Rev Thandeka Dintlhe (Kibler Park) among those to be ordained this year. Rev Kaiser Thibedi (Imvana Trinity) has also completed the second phase of his probation, and his application to advance into Phase 3 (preparation for ordination) was accepted.

At the other end of the journey of training for the ministry, South Rand Circuit was also well represented with two out of the seven candidates for the ministry (Christine Laubscher and Steven Jones) coming from our neck of the woods.

HIV Voluntary Counselling and Testing facility
Recognising the scourge of HIV / AIDS in South Africa, a facility whereby Synod delegates could be voluntarily tested was set up. While it would have been hugely symbolic for a large contingent from the Synod to avail themselves of this facility, time unfortunately did not allow for a specific slot to be worked into the Synod programme, with the result that only 15 people came forward to be tested.

Use of languages other than English for Synod business
It was recognised by the Synod that many delegates do not speak English as a first language, and felt that the use of other languages would promote inclusivity and engender greater participation in the proceedings. Unfortunately, given the vast amount of business that needs to be concluded during the three days that Synod takes place, use of one common language is necessary.

Synod therefore decided that while the business of Synod would be conducted in English, delegates should feel free to address the Synod in the language of their choice, with interpreters on hand. A number of the delegates did in fact use this opportunity to express themselves in their home languages, resulting in wider participation than in previous years.

Election of District Bishop
Elections were conducted for the position of District Bishop, since Bishop Paul Verryn’s third term of office as Bishop expires at the end of 2009. In addition to the incumbent Bishop, there were four nominees for the position. However, as voting was about to commence, Bishop Verryn announced that he would not be making himself available for re-election, which meant that a new Bishop for Central District was guaranteed. Bishop Verryn’s withdrawal from the list of nominees was seen by many as a courageous step, and he was given a standing ovation by the Synod.

The voting was tight, going to a third ballot, but eventually an emotional Rev Peter Witbooi was confirmed as the new Bishop of Central District from 2010.

Rev Witbooi acknowledged his predecessor’s guidance and leadership, and expressed his gratitude to Bishop Verryn for his experience and expertise, from which Rev Witbooi intended to draw extensively. Regarding the direction in which he sees the District taking, his main concerns are the causes and consequences of crime, ethnic and racial intolerance, and the impact of the widening gap between rich and poor on the Church and its ministry.

Election of Presiding Bishop
All twelve Districts of the Connexion participated in elections for the Presiding Bishop, as the term of the current incumbent, Bishop Ivan Abrahams, also comes to an end next year. Once the votes from all the Synods were tallied together, Bishop Ivan Abrahams was confirmed as Presiding Bishop for 2010 – 2012.

Report on the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary Project
A new Methodist seminary for the training of future ministers is in the process of being established on the University of kwaZulu-Natal’s Pietermaritzburg campus. It is named after the late Rev Seth Mokitimi, who was elected as the first black President of the Methodist Conference in 1964.

Rev Jack Scholtz presented a DVD outlining current developments, including the purchase of land for the seminary as well as accommodation for students and academic staff. Thus far R22.6 million has been spent, with a further R66 million earmarked for the completion of the project (according to the brochure handed out at Synod). Thus far around R35 million has already been raised for the project from donations and other sources, while the sale of Church property under the Jubilee 2008 programme is expected to raise a further R13 million.

While there was a degree of excitement at the establishment of a world-class training facility for future Methodist ministers, concerns were raised regarding the cost thereof – the total of which was reported as R93 million. Ongoing running costs of such a facility are also likely to be substantial, and questions were raised concerning the perceived current lack in the training of Methodist ministers that would necessitate the establishment of such a facility. Given the context of a country ravaged by unemployment, high food and energy prices, HIV / AIDS, and abject poverty, a number of Synod delegates felt that the Church has more pressing priorities.

Ministerial benefit schemes
Benefit schemes operated by The Methodist Church of Southern Africa for its clergy came under the spotlight – in particular, the Supernumerary Fund and the medical scheme.

With regard to the Supernumerary Fund (which in lay parlance is the pension fund for clergy), Rev Dimitris Palos led a spirited discussion concerning the use of the actuarial surplus in the fund. He reminded delegates that the Supernumerary Fund was in parlous financial shape some years back, with the result that the ratio of church contributions to that of members was increased from 1: 1, as provided for in the rules of the fund, to 3: 1. Since then, the financial position of the fund has improved significantly as a result of these increased contributions, and it now has a healthy surplus.

As a result of the fund’s healthy financial position, Conference took a decision during 2007 to reduce the Church’s contribution to the Supernumerary Fund back to the statutory 1: 1, and divert the additional contributions into a general fund to be used for other projects. Part of the funding for the new Methodist seminary would come from this fund.

The Synod expressed strong disapproval of this decision, firstly because Districts and Circuits were not consulted prior to this decision being taken by Conference, and secondly because there are issues of justice that need to be addressed. Rev Palos cited an example of one minister with 40 years’ service rendered mainly in an urban context receiving a monthly pension of R6 000, while another minister with similar years of service would receive only R2 000 per month largely due to being placed in rural contexts. This iniquitous disparity is yet another legacy of apartheid, and one that the Church needs to address.

The Synod consequently passed a resolution requiring that the Conference 2007 decision be rescinded; that the Circuit contributions that had already been diverted into the general fund be reinstated to the Supernumerary Fund; and that mechanisms be investigated to redress imbalances in pensions arising from past iniquities.

There was also widespread unhappiness about the Church’s medical scheme that is administered by Pharos. It was pointed out that while the benefits provided by the scheme are reasonably comparable to those provided by other schemes, particularly given the relatively low contributions that ministers are required to make compared to most corporate schemes, the main difficulty arises from the fact that service providers need to be paid up front.

A resolution was therefore passed, requesting the Methodist Connexional Office to investigate the possibility of having the payment mechanism changed to one where the service provider is paid directly by the scheme, and any portion to be contributed by the minister be recovered from their stipends.

District treasurer John Storey presented his financial report for 2007, which included statistics on membership as well as how District finances were spent. He complimented the Circuits on their timeous submission of their 4C and 4S Schedules, with only two Circuits having failed to submit their schedules by Synod (compared to five Circuits last year).

An interesting statistic presented was the average level of giving per member. Based on 65 475 members in the District and total giving of just shy of R90 million, the monthly average was R115.

The main financial problem at District level remains the high level of arrears, although the situation has improved when compared to the previous year. The District treasurer expressed his thanks to Brian Hovelmeier who is the District Finance Committee member responsible for chasing up the arrears.

The issue of contributions by organisations to the District budget was discussed, with approximately 10% of the District income to come from this source. This is in recognition of the fact that much of the costs of running the District are incurred on the work of the organisations. While the principle of organisations being assessed was generally accepted, there was resistance from the Women’s Auxiliary, who cited lack of funds for this purpose.

St Stithian’s College
The Rector of the College, which has campuses in Randburg and Sandton, presented its annual report for 2007 to the Synod. The ownership of the College vests in a trust created upon its establishment, but there is a strong Methodist presence on both the board of the St Stithian’s Trust and the College Council.

While the College continues to hold its place among the top private schools in the country, concern was once again expressed that such institutions tend to be elitist and the fees charged prove to be a massive barrier to all but the wealthier sections of society.

Retirement of Rev Thenjiwe Mahlakalaka
In a moving service on the Saturday evening, the Synod bade farewell to Rev Thenjiwe Mahlakalaka, who served at Central Methodist Mission and goes on retirement at the end of 2008.

As is tradition at such services, the retiring minister places a stole across the shoulders of one of the ordinands, and Rev Pumla Mtshiselwa had the honour of being the receiving ordinand this year.

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