Organizers have announced that the next General Conference will be Aug. 29-Sept. 7, 2021, in Minneapolis, at the Minneapolis Convention Center as originally planned. Read more here. In his State of the Church Address, Bishop Ough calls upon us to do our best work as we face the new expression of the United Methodist Church, and lead through this time of uncertainty. Ough is forming a strategy team in the Dakotas Conference to create models for congregations and church leaders to live out their mission and purpose.
DOING OUR BEST WORK
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In this season of pandemic and postponement, we are called upon to do some of our best work.
If you are a delegate to the postponed General or Jurisdictional Conferences, you will be called upon to help shape the next church and select the next episcopal leadership. If you are a member of the Dakotas Annual Conference Session, you will be called upon to guide the conference through the financial and structural impact of the pandemic and decisions of the General Conference. If you are a pastor, you will be called upon to launch a new church. If you are a lay leader in your congregation, you will be called upon to champion a narrative of innovation, adaptation and missional focus. As a bishop, I will be called upon to walk with the Dakotas Conference in the aftermath of a natural disaster and in preparation for a new expression or expressions of our United Methodist Church.
We are all being called to a season of profound adaptive leadership and the changes that are and will be required of us. In almost every way, we are adapting to a changed environment – being a global church, the movement toward inclusion, the implications of COVID-19.
To give adaptive leadership in this season will require many skills and re-orientations. We will need to guard against being buried so deeply in our on-line worlds that we fail to notice the hungers for food, justice, racial reconciliation and access to equal health care that are going on around us. We will need to offer a realistic diagnosis of what is going on in our church. This requires the discipline and practice of listening to God and one another. We will need to commit to doing no harm to one another, so we can do the work of God. We will need to renew ourselves; we must first be disciples if we are to lead. We will need to remember that all positive movement toward the kingdom of God begins within our own hearts.
And, above all, we will need to stay connected to our values, vision and mission. Our Wesleyan tradition affirms the grace of God, a journey toward holiness, which is the love of God and neighbor, and life in connection.
In the Dakotas Conference, we are clear the core values that have shaped our identity and purpose are Jesus, Mission and Connection. We are committed to Jesus being the source of life and the center of all we do. We are committed to our mission of reaching new people for Christ and transforming the world. And we are committed to the connectional relationships and sinew that enable us to share one another’s burdens and multiply our missional impact.
The Dakotas Conference has the potential to model for the rest of The United Methodist Church what it looks like for all of God’s children to stay together and stay strong, not in spite of our differences, but because we respect and embrace our differences. We can model for the rest of The United Methodist Church that we are better together.
The postponed 2020 General Conference will take up the painful matter of schism because we have singled out one group of persons in our Book of Discipline and characterized them as being an exception to much of the narrative about the wideness of God’s mercy. Regrettably, this is not the first time in our history as a Methodist movement we have done this. The best work we must rise to in this season of postponement is the conciliar work to reconcile our faith in the wideness of God’s grace with the gifts and courage of the LGBTQ community who have always been a part of the Body of Christ.
I do not want the 2020 General Conference to determine the identity or fate of the Dakotas Conference. This work belongs to us. Let us do our best work in these days of postponement, even as we attend to the suffering and disorientation of the coronavirus pandemic.
To that end, I will soon be convening a Strategy Team in the Dakotas Conference with a three-fold purpose:
1. Imagine and develop a model or models for how we continue to carry forward our core values and our mission in a post-General Conference environment;
2. Design specific strategies that create ways for pastors and churches to participate in shared ministry and/or support services, innovative partnerships, and collaborative kingdom work while staying true to their convictions and callings; and
3. Design strategies for assisting every clergyperson and every congregation to find a place where they can best fulfill their contextual mission and vision.
The liminal time between the postponed 2020 General Conference and the re-scheduled gathering in August, 2021 is not something we would ever choose. And, we certainly would never choose the disruption of a global pandemic. But, these next 12-18 months can actually be an advantage for us. It is a time to move beyond urgent tactical, and often political, decisions to truly re-imagine our future.
WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
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I cannot begin to count the number of times during this pandemic I have heard the phrase, “We are all in this together,” or the related phrase, “We can get through this together.” I think it may be nearly as many times as I have heard the word, “unprecedented.”
For Methodists, this is not a new concept or a new emphasis or even a new strategy for managing disorientation. John Wesley invented “we are all in this together.” We call it connection.
Although Wesley was an organizational genius and is rightly credited with insisting there be a “method” or organizational purpose and direction to all of the movement’s spiritual formation as well as evangelistic and missional activities, he primarily understood connection as covenantal relationships. He promoted the transformational power of spiritual relationships, missional relationships and conferencing relationships.
Ironically, but for me not surprisingly, we are rediscovering the importance and strength of our Methodist Connection in this season of social distancing. Our connection is being re-invigorated. We have discovered that persons inside and outside our churches are yearning for connection, even while they remain six feet apart. We have discovered that the legacy of our face-to-face relationships in annual conferences, local church and fellowship meals enable our virtual meetings and on-line worship to work. We have discovered the Connection has allowed us to quickly move to address the human suffering created by the COVID-19 pandemic and other tragedies that continue to unfold, even as they are overshadowed by the pandemic. We have discovered that our Connection provides pension holidays and assists with Paycheck Protection Program applications and helps make clergy financially whole. We have discovered that superintendents are more connected to their clergy than ever before, and pastors more connected to their parishioners. We have discovered our Connection has enabled us to band together to do community worship services and feed those in our communities already experiencing food insecurity.
Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson in the North Georgia Conference first surfaced the hashtag #leanintotheconnection. Friends, the state of our church in the Dakotas will continue to be strong and vital if we lean into the Connection. We will navigate the liminal time between crisis and choice if we lean into the Connection. We will make productive use of a protracted season of postponement if we lean into the Connection. We can continue to be leaders in healing a broken world if we lean into the Connection.
In this season of trauma, uncertainty, physical separation, and the frustration and anxiety of unresolved schismatic forces in our denomination, let us continue to claim our strengths – connection, mission, the Good News of Jesus’ love and grace. Let us continue to trust that Jesus will show us the way we should go, even though we have never traveled this “unprecedented” way before. Let us be alert for the Risen Christ who always falls in with us and accompanies us on the way or walks through the locked doors in our lives and breathes on us the Holy Spirt and grants us peace.
The United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly — postponed from this May by the COVID-19 pandemic — faces multiple proposals to resolve longtime debate around LGBTQ inclusion by splitting the denomination along theological lines.
The Dakotas Conference General Conference delegatation held a Listening Session in March and posed three discussion questions for congregations to discern: