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State of the Church Address: You Have Never Traveled This Way Before

By: Bruce R. Ough, resident bishop, Dakotas-Minnesota Area

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and the Lord Jesus Christ, risen and present with us every moment of every day, through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I thank you for the privilege of sharing some reflections on the state of the church in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and the postponements of the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences.

I invite you to pray with me. 
                 Holy, gracious and ever-faithful God,
help us to always turn ourselves to You.
In clarity and in confusion
 in delight and in distress,
in peace and in pandemic, 
in proceeding and in postponement,
in comfort and in chaos, 
                  may our minds and hearts
find their way home and rest in you, O God;
for your thoughts and your grace
are ever stayed on us, your beloved people. 
                  In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.


The word “unprecedented” became overworked and tiresome weeks ago! I have used this term countless times to describe our current reality. As overworked and tiresome as it has become, it is our go-to descriptor because none of us have previously experienced such a rapid onslaught of a disease and consequent economic collapse. None of us in The United Methodist Church has previously experienced a postponement of General Conference or Jurisdictional Conference. We have never been called upon to lead through a pandemic of this magnitude or postponement of this consequence. In an overused and tiresome word – we are in an “unprecedented” season in our journey. This is the state of the Dakotas Conference.

But, as we know, this is not the first time the people of God have confronted unprecedented circumstances. As Joshua prepared to lead the Hebrew tribes in an unprecedented crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land, God gives orders for how to cross over. The Lord says to Joshua:

I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9, CEB) 

And, as Joshua’s officers move among the people giving final directions for crossing the Jordan, they conclude with these words which are instructive for people of faith in any unprecedented age or circumstance:

You will know the way you should go, even though you have never traveled this way before.  (Joshua 3:4b, CEB)


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If I say nothing else of consequence in these reflections about the state of the church in the Dakotas Conference, please hear this:  I could not be more pleased or proud of the manner in which the clergy, lay leaders and our congregations have responded, and continue to respond, to the pandemic. Even though you have never traveled this way before, you have been faithful, courageous, strong spiritual leaders. You have trusted the Lord would show you the way you should go. Because of you, the church never closed – it just moved to new platforms. Because of you, Holy Week and our great canticle of hope – Easter – could not be stopped, or delayed, or diminished, or defeated. Because of you, the COVID-19 infection curve has been flattened and lives have been saved.

The stories and examples of your creativity and adaptability are heart-warming and transformative. You are perfecting on-line worship. You are conducting drive-in worship services. You are promoting and practicing social distancing as an expression of our commitment to heal a broken world. You are feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. You are advocating for our immigrants. You are cheering our health care professionals and supporting our essential workers. You are doing on-line Bible study and discipleship groups. You are using your phones and IPads and window visits to stay in touch with vulnerable and sheltering-in-place parishioners. You are being the Body of Christ. You are lifting up the name of Jesus in remarkably fresh ways. You are being good shepherds of an overwhelmed people.

And, in the process of keeping the church open and holding true to our mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” we are learning much. Amen! We are learning that the old adage that “the church is not the building; the church is the people” is absolutely true. As on-line worship attendance soars in many of our communities, we are learning that there are people hungry for the gospel of abundant life in Christ, both within and outside our current memberships. I realize we are struggling to measure on-line worship or to determine how valid the numbers really are. But, I remind you, we are a people that embrace the doctrine of prevenient grace. Never discount that the curiosity of an individual or family tuning into your on-line worship, for even a short time, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Many of you know my personal faith story. I came to saving faith through watching a few minutes of a televised Billy Graham crusade.

We are learning anew that our people are generous and desire to support the ministries of the church during this season of uncertainty and chaos. We are learning that change – even rapid, unplanned change – will not destroy the church. Now more than ever before, we understand that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

It has become an inescapable fact that everything will now be different, but that does not necessarily equal bad. Rather, it means opportunity to be unshackled from “we have never done it that way before,” or from entrenched church politics and conflicts, or our obsession with legalistic, regulatory, structural-oriented, decision-making filters. We are learning that the church is most alive, most relevant, most vital when it stands in solidarity with the suffering and impoverished and those yet to come to our sanctuaries.

Friends, thank you again for your courage, creativity, resilience and adaptability during these weeks of crisis. But danger lies ahead; or at least the possibility we will miss a new beginning.


We are currently in a liminal space between an ending and a new beginning; between crisis and choice. The season of crisis is beginning to end, albeit slowly, carefully and in a series of staggered or gradual steps. As you know, I recently encouraged our Dakotas congregations to begin to develop detailed plans for safely returning to in-person worship, but to go slow and take the entire month of May to do so, if necessary, and certainly in communities with a high number of COVID-19 infections.

The season of choice will soon begin to return. And, we have an unprecedented (there is that word again) opportunity to re-launch every one of our congregations in the Dakotas Conference. Never before has every church been thrown out of its building by a pandemic. Never before has there been so much disorientation. Never before have we had to learn so much in such a short period of time. Once the initial crisis calms, every congregation will have the choice to return to “normal” or to re-invent themselves based on what they are learning about themselves and their neighbors. Will your new normal be a new church, or a return to a pre-disruption, pre-pandemic normal?

For the past six or seven years, we have been utilizing a number of congregational transformation processes in the Dakotas Conference – namely, Journey Renewal, MCCI and multiplication training— to assist churches in launching new life cycles. We have learned some things from these processes that are key to the post-pandemic re-launch of our churches.

Re-launch requires what Gil Rendle refers to as Level Two leadership. Level One leadership is about the energy and learning that accompanied being thrown into the COVID-19 context for ministry. Level Two leadership won’t be about how to fine tune on-line worship or giving. It will be about asking and responding to the questions about the choices we must now make. Questions like:

  1. What are we learning about ourselves and about our ministry and about our neighbors?
  2. What is God doing in our midst?
  3. To what is God calling us after shelter-in-place?

I also like the Level Two leadership questions recently articulated by Rev. Fred Vanderwerf, the Minnesota Conference’s Southern Prairie District Superintendent:

  1. What is surprising us right now? How are we experiencing God’s presence in a way that was unexpected?
  2. What are we recognizing we need to put aside, put away, or let go of forever?
  3. What expressions of the church are being born that we can help midwife?

The window for these courageous, re-launch conversations may be surprisingly brief. When it is finally safe to fully return to our church buildings, many congregations and leaders will be sorely tempted to rush back to the familiar. This is absolutely understandable given the emotional and vocational stress of having to make decisions so quickly and trying to care for an established congregation while creating or maintaining platforms for those yet to be reached.

Another key learning of our transformation processes that will inform re-launching our post-pandemic churches is that the churches best positioned to emerge strong from the changes imposed by shelter-in-place will be the ones that had the clearest sense of purpose and had embraced our Wesleyan commitment to the evangelistic task before the pandemic. Some congregations may have to painfully admit they cannot name the purpose of their church’s ministry. But, the good news is this liminal season between crisis and choice can be used to dream and determine your church’s purpose and create the narrative of the church you discern God is calling you to be.

I have been overwhelmed by articles with predictions and recommendations for the post-pandemic church. I am sure you have experienced the same. I don’t have time to curate a list or summarize the articles in this address, but I do encourage you to review the several articles and resources Doreen Gosmire, our Dakotas Conference Director of Communications, has shared. Or contact Rev. Ben Ingebretson, our Director of New Church Development, for ideas and strategies for re-launching your congregation. You are entering the season of choice. I urge you not to miss the opportunity to choose a new normal that is life-giving and positions you to reach new people.


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 Disciplineand 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.


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.


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