CHICAGO, IL (January 26, 2018) – The 2018 Midwinter Conference opened with a dinner and joyous concert Monday night and concluded with a communion service this morning. In the days between, Covenant ministers celebrated the denomination’s broad ministry while also addressing particular controversial issues.
The subtexts—and sometimes texts—of pain, compassion, praise, hope, and unity were addressed from the stage, in small groups, and during special sessions.
Standing ovations and tears bookended Gary Walter’s final president’s report to a Midwinter gathering. “Now 2018 will mark my 42nd year in Covenant ministry,” said Walter, who is retiring this year. “The Covenant is where I came to faith as a high school student. It is the community that has continually nurtured my own growth as a follower of Christ, and that of my family. It is the Church whose dedication to God’s mission has been so central to my own vocation. It is the relational center for so very many of our deepest and most cherished relationships. I’m not just in the Covenant, the Covenant is in me.”
Other leaders retiring from their current leadership positions also were recognized: Robert Owens, superintendent of the Southeast Conference as well as the denomination’s first African-American church planter; and Harold Spooner, who as former president of Covenant Initiatives for Care and a leader in other roles, has helped guide the denomination’s ministries of compassion, mercy, and justice.
Glenn Peterson was introduced as the nominee to be the next superintendent of the Canada Conference. He is currently the lead pastor at Hope Community Covenant Church in Strathmore, Alberta, and the conference’s director of church planting.
Walter spoke about the recent controversies related to human sexuality. He both reaffirmed the ECC’s position and reiterated the denomination’s commitment to provide resources for addressing the needs of LGBTQ people.
One of the most moving moments of the entire week came toward the end of Walter’s report when he introduced longtime friend, Covenant minister, and former denominational director of evangelism, Lon Allison, who is suffering from liver cancer.
Allison stood alone on the stage and sang a song that Walter had requested, “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus).” The lyrics conclude:
“And with your final heartbeat,
Kiss the world goodbye,
Then go in peace, and laugh on Glory’s side… and
Fly to Jesus,
Fly to Jesus,
Fly to Jesus and live
There were few dry eyes in the ballroom. “It totally wrecked me,” said one Covenanter, who like many others in the audience, had not known of Allison before that night.
As Walter concluded his report, he had difficulty finishing, as he told the gathering, “My vocational identity is not as President of the Covenant, my vocational identity is Covenant Pastor. For those whom I’ve disappointed, it’s still an honor to call you a colleague. And all of you, fare thee well as you walk in obedient humble service. Fare thee well as you go deeper in Christ, further in mission. Fare thee well, fare thee well. Go in peace.”
A Wednesday-morning plenary session led attendees through a time of prayer that included gratitude, lament, and hope. Other sessions were added to give people further opportunities to share their personal experiences, frustrations, and views on a variety of topics, such as immigration, race, and sexuality.
On Wednesday evening, Dave Kersten, dean of North Park Theological Seminary, introduced Mark Novak as the school’s 2018 North Park Theological Seminary Alumni Award for Distinguished Service. Novak has served the denomination in local congregations, as superintendent of the Pacific Northwest Conference, and executive minister of Develop Leaders.
The power of common ministry was celebrated throughout. During the final evening-worship service on Thursday night, pastors of churches that had been impacted by the recent natural disasters stood onstage to tell their stories, sometimes choking up, to thank the denomination for the continuing support that has sustained and encouraged them.
“Serve Globally” was the theme for this year, and its work was highlighted throughout. It included a talk by Mathew Jock Moses, the president of the Evangelical Covenant Church of South Sudan. He shared about the plight of South Sudanese in the ongoing civil war and the work his denomination had been able to do thanks to the support of other Covenanters.
The impact of the political divide in Washington, D.C., was felt by Covenant ministers. Roughly a half-dozen military chaplains were unable to attend because their orders were canceled due to the government shutdown. By the time the government reopened, it was too late for their orders to be re-issued. Develop Leaders provided scholarships for others who still were able to come but who had to pay their own way because of the shutdown.
During this morning’s communion service, the worshipers were invited to come to microphones to share Scripture texts that were meaningful to them. And then they broke bread together.
The conference was held at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare.
Videos of the sessions can currently be found on the Covenant’s YouTube channel and will soon be uploaded to a dedicated page at midwinter.covchurch.org. Portions of the services also are available on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/covchurch/