Belita D. Mitchell, pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Harrisburg, Pa., has made history as the first African-American woman to serve as moderator of Annual Conference. "Jesus never intended the church to fail," she told the Conference when she preached on Sunday morning. "I don't believe declining membership is a part of his mission plan."
Delegates faced a lengthy and complex business agenda. In a leading item of business, the Conference approved phasing out the Brethren Medical Plan's medical insurance component for active ministers. The health insurance coverage will be phased out no sooner than Dec. 31, 2007. Brethren Benefit Trust (BBT) will work to assist ministers who are in the plan to find alternate coverage.
The decision came as delegates approved a report of the Brethren Medical Plan Study Committee appointed in 2005 by Annual Conference. BBT called for the study, announcing that the plan was in a "death spiral" of decreased membership, erosion of a good spread of risk, and increased health care costs and premiums.
The plan has offered health insurance for pastors, church employees, district employees, employees of Conference agencies and affiliated agencies and institutions, and their families.
The committee recommended BBT phase out medical insurance for ministers and retirees, while continuing to explore viability of the plan for agencies, which have 100 percent plan participation, and continuing to offer longterm disability, life, vision, and dental insurance.
The report was approved with two changes, that BBT include "members of the ministers' group who are currently retired or retire in the future and who are age 65 or older" as it explores viability of the plan for agency employees, and that BBT "mutually assist in finding" alternate medical coverage for current participants.
In addition to the Brethren Medical Plan, the following business was addressed:
- Intercultural Study Committee report: The report was adopted. Based on Revelation 7:9, the report engages the denomination in intentional steps to become intercultural. Changes are prescribed for all levels of the church, including making intercultural inclusion a part of vision statements, hiring processes, and continuing education for ministers and agency staff.
- Review and Evaluation Study Committee report: The Conference adopted the ten recommendation of the report. The first recommendation merges the General Board and the Association of Brethren Caregivers (ABC) into an entity called "The Church of the Brethren," with the new board also replacing the roles and functions of the General Board and the Annual Conference Council, uniting them into a single body. An amendment struck "USA" from the end of the name of the new entity. The recommendation also encourages On Earth Peace to join. The Conference named an implementation committee: the executives of the General Board, ABC, On Earth Peace, and Annual Conference, and elected members Gary Crim, John Neff, David Sollenberger.
- Doing Church Business Study Committee report: The report was received "as a resource and study information" and "as possible options for future Annual Conferences." The item was continued from 2006, after referral to the Program Feasibility Committee for study of the financial implications.
- Christian Churches Together: A recommendation that the Church of the Brethren become a full participant in Christian Churches Together (CCT) was approved.
- Query: Reverse Membership Trend: A lengthy recommendation from Standing Committee was adopted. The query called for solutions to declining membership in the church. The answer refers to the Great Commission, points to a 1981 study "Diminishing Membership in the Church of the Brethren," and recommends actions to be taken by congregations, districts, and church agencies.
- Query: Child Abuse Prevention: The query was referred to ABC.
- Query: Annual Conference Schedule: Concerns of the query, which was prompted by the financial burden of holding an annual meeting and the rise of new communication technology, were accepted and passed to the Conference leadership.
- Update to Annual Conference Polity: A recommendation for a change in location rotation for Conference, to increase attendance by holding the meeting more often in the east, nearer the center of Brethren population, was approved.
- Adjustment to the cash salary table for pastors: A 2.7 percent increase for 2008 was adopted, presented by the Pastoral Compensation and Benefits Advisory Committee. A group of ministers came forward during the committee's report to express concern about the phasing out of health insurance. Chair Linda Frey Barkdoll pledged the committee's support. "We would urge delegates and everyone present to support pastors and their families," she said. "It is critical that health insurance is offered."