Bishop Bickerton's Episcopal Address

Bishop Bickerton's Episcopal Address


Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton

6/8/2017


 

PHOTO BY STEPHANIE PARSONS

New York Annual Conference 2017

 
Before I begin my remarks, I want to say a heartfelt word of thanks to so many of you for your unbelievably warm and affirming welcome to New York.  I have said to so many that I have been blessed by a warm welcome everywhere I have been privileged to serve but never more so than I have here in New York.  Sally and I have been overwhelmed by the constant and consistent words of support, acts of kindness, and expressions of generosity that have made us feel as if we have come home.  We are very blessed people and you are the source of that blessing.  We are especially grateful to Evelyn Brunson, Betty Sohm, and the members of the Episcopacy Committee for your constant and consistent attention to us.  Thank you.
 
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace[e] with me, . . .   For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.  And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,  having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.  (Philippians 1:3-11)
 
  • When we moved to White Plains last September we were more than curious about the new area that we had moved into.When we started inquiring around about our new surroundings, more than one person said to us, “You’re living in White Plains.  You know, in less than an hour in every direction you will find something new and exciting.  It is, in many ways, the best possible area in which to live.”
 
It didn’t take us long to find out what our new neighbors and friends were saying.  To the northwest, we are less than an hour from the beautiful Catskill mountains.  To the northeast, it’s the coastline.  To the southwest it’s the uniqueness of Long Island.  To the south, it’s the city and all that it offers.  And to the west, it’s the majesty of the Hudson River valley.  It’s a pretty complete package.
 
It didn’t take me long to figure out as well that that same diversity is found in the breadth of the New York Annual Conference.  As you know, and as I have found out, just fill in the blank with any ethnicity, theology, economic status, church size, or particular passion you can think of and you will find it here in New York.  While it is tempting to focus on an area where you feel a persuasion or comfort, the New York Annual Conference is deep and wide when it comes to creating an accurate and comprehensive picture of the people called Methodist in this part of God’s world.  Based on our most recent figures, this is how our Annual Conference breaks down ethnically:
 
                                     Churches                    Membership                   Clergy (active)
Asian                            34  (7.6%)                   8,395  (8.5%)                  55  (18.8%)
African American          56  (12.4%)              19,283  (19.7%)                79  (27%)
Hispanic                       10  (2.2%)                   1,894   (1.9%)                 39  (4.6%)
Native American            0  (0%)                           87    (.1%)                    0   (0%)
Pacific Islander              1   (.2%)                       219    (.3%)                    0   (0%)
Multi-Racial                  32  (7.2%)                      709    (.7%)                    3   (1%)
White                          317  (70.4%)                67,111  (68.8%)              139   (47.4%)
 
TOTAL                        450                               97,698                            293
 
From the boroughs of New York to the forks of Long Island to the cities and towns of Connecticut to the mountains and countryside of the Catskills to the beautiful flow of Hudson river valley we have quite an Annual Conference. 
 
Over the last six months I have been actively engaged in robust conversations and visits in all parts of this place we call home.  I have had two sets of District Days (thanks to my cabinet colleagues for their hard work in getting me to the places I needed to be), ongoing discernment with our staff, conversations with the Connectional Ministries Visioning Team, and sit downs with every group I could conceivably spend time with.   At each stop on the road, there have been some amazing confirmations that this diverse Annual Conference has much to celebrate:
 
  • I want to highlight and celebrate our Annual Conference Staff. It is no secret that our conference staff has had to endure the loss of a bishop, a director of Connectional Ministries, and a director of Congregational Development and Revitalization.Those three key positions have caused major transitions in relationships, work load, expectations and the amount of work that could be expected. Added to that was the transition involved in a major building renovation.
 
NOTE: “We really want you to come to New York, but we don’t have any place for you to work.”
 
What I discovered is that we have a deeply committed group of servant leaders who have bonded together in mission/ministry, work for/with one another to get the job done, and have done whatever it has taken to keep this ministry going in the midst of adversity while maintaining great integrity each step of the way. Over the last year they have focused on how to demonstrate radical hospitality internally, how to refocus their work externally, and how to put up with a new leader with grace.They continue to explore how to not make the focus of ministry all about 20 Soundview and how they can be better and more effectively deployed throughout the Annual Conference.They do not seek it, but I believe they deserve your thanks.
 
  • The same could easily be said of our Cabinet.They too have been through a tremendous transition in recent years.To adapt to five different leadership styles and personalities over the past four years has been monumental.There were points where they not only didn’t know who was coming through the door but they also didn’t know what was going to be the next style of leadership they were going to have to adapt to.I cannot speak to the thoughts and feelings of previous bishops who have served during this difficult transition period, but I can say that over the last nine months I have never been more proud of a group of people than I have of this group.
  • They have been sacrificial in their service.
  • They have been adaptable in their style.
  • They have been willing to walk down any path I have taken them.
  • And they have become cherished friends and colleagues on this new journey.
  • We have created a working covenant for our work, have established clear goals for our behavior, have willingly held each other accountable, and are actively working on our life together.
 
Of particular note, one of the first things we did last fall was re-define and structure cabinet.  While the appointive cabinet by Discipline still is confined to the role of the district superintendents and the director of Congregational Development, the cabinet saw the permanent additions of our DCM, Treasurer, Bishop’s Assistant and the City Society Director to our team.  Each have added tremendously to the strategic focus with Matt adding programmatic insight, Ross providing financial integrity, Bob doing needed research and providing essential links between the episcopal office and any number of groups, and Bill linking the work of the City Society with the ministry of the cabinet.  I especially am grateful to the members of the City Society Board for their willingness to allow Bill Shillady to be a part of our team.  That willingness has born fruit already as new and exciting ventures in the Bronx and in Brooklyn are unfolding.  Those new ministry ventures would not be moving forward with such dispatch had the regular, ongoing conversations and strategies not taken place around the cabinet table. 
 
  • We have also gotten very deliberate about building team in a new configuration of an Extended Cabinet.I remain convinced that much of the success of any group depends on the depth with which you build relationships.We continue to work on this but it has been critical that we bring our ministries of the laity, Volunteers-in-Mission, Camping & Retreats, Archives, Communications, the Conference Secretary, and the Frontier Foundation together for mutual relationship building, accountability and visioning.It is all about team and the only way to do that is to build relationship together.The willingness of these persons to do just that is a testimony to their character and a key indicator of the deep potential we have to become highly effective and focused in our work.
 
  • But the real story is about those roads that branch out from White Plains, the places those roads take you, and the journey you experience along the way.Over the last nine months I have experienced some exceptional conversations about mission and ministry with some amazingly gifted laity and clergy.But it’s more than just conversations – it’s what you experience that is taking place:
    • Things like an unbelievable connection of mission/ministry that is taking place at Clinton Avenue in Kingston, NY, the revival of purpose & vision in Monticello, a homeless ministry and significant outreach in Middletown, and things like the Repair Café in New Paltz.
    • Relational & entrepreneurial partnership ministry with the community & businesses at Hartford North, deep and thoughtful pastoral ministry in Newtown, and a vital connection between education and the church at Windsor, Trinity.
    • Ecumenical partnerships in Norwalk, cooperative ministries throughout New York/Connecticut, and collaborative efforts among pastors in places like the NOW Cooperative and Yorktown Heights.
    • Immigrants are feeling safe and affirmed at Hicksville, our UMC in Plainview has focused clearly on its mission/vision/core values and has a desire to be the most relevant congregation in the conference in five years, a community garden in Amityville is feeding the poor and a new columbarium in the same site is connecting death with resurrection, an after-school program in Westbury is connecting the ministry of the church with the needs of the community, and a new prayer garden ministry in West Hampton is providing a place of solitude and refuge for the weary traveler.
    • Union UMC in Brooklyn has taken a building in need of severe renovation and not let that stand in the way of providing an amazing ministry to youth and children that is offering hope/healing, a revival of potential & possibility at Immanuel in Brooklyn is bringing new life to two congregations on the brink of closure, pews are bursting at the seams at Tian Fu Chinese UMC because of relevant ministry and inspiring worship, engaging and purpose-driven ministry is happening at First Flushing, and the deep spiritual and grace driven ministry of St. Alban’s: Grace is intentionally leading people into the heart of God.
    • The inclusive reconciling ministry of St. Paul’s/St. Andrew’s in Manhattan, the joyful worship at Park Avenue, satellite efforts of Christ Church with Broadway: Temple, the strategically positioned open door come as you are approach at Manhattan: First, Spanish, the drive and focus for ministry at Bronx: Co-Op City, and the vital connection between the community and the church at Epworth in the Bronx.
 
Wow!  And if I haven’t mentioned you, in large measure it’s because I haven’t gotten to you yet.  What I have found along those roads leading from White Plains are faithful attempts to be the Body of Christ and ministries that have found a way to do that which is absolutely essential for any vital ministry in the 21st Century:
  • Understand the context of the community where your church resides,
  • Be unafraid to take people deep into the heart of God in spirituality,
  • Build relationship with the members of that community.Demonstrate that you hear them, understand them, and are offering them something that they need in order find hope and abundant life,
  • Have a clear sense of mission,
  • Unapologetically employ the word evangelism to offer people an alternative in their life that will rock their world with the grace and love of God through Jesus Christ.
 
Over the last nine months I have preached with an interpreter three times and been in conversations where I haven’t had any idea what was really being said, eaten food that I had no idea how to pronounce or even describe, been chauffeured by Superintendents, some of whom need to be reported to the authorities for their driving techniques (whose identities will remain nameless in this report Julia), and been exposed throughout to the breadth and depth of an Annual Conference that, while diverse, is demonstrating life and commonality around the gospel of Jesus Christ and the ministry of unconditional love and acceptance for anyone who will come.
 
  • When I sat down at my first cabinet meeting I asked a simple question about protocol and procedure of our meetings:when do cabinet meetings start and when do they normally end?The answer surprised me: “It’s all about the roads bishop, all about the roads. If we start any earlier than 10:00 we can’t get here and if we adjourn later than 4:30 we may as well stay until 7:00 because we can’t get out of here.  You see, around here driving is measured in the time it takes to get somewhere, not the miles.” 
 
I don’t know that I totally believed that until Sally and tried to get home from Long Island on Mother’s Day.  We sat and sat and sat.
 
When you add to that the unique style of driving these roads in New York and Connecticut (cut in, cut out, speed up when there is a slowdown, squeeze in when there is no room to do so) and it is easy to say that these roads reveal a very clear reality that demands a very complex strategy to navigate.
 
The same is true for the life of this Annual Conference.  There are some very clear realities that demand very complex strategies to navigate.
 
Take, for example, our staff.  The transition of leadership, the arrival of a new bishop, and the displacement from our home base of operation at 20 Soundview are all realities that been complex and, at times, difficult to navigate.  Those realities, at times, have created silos and have caused the temptation to create independence rather than common mission and teamwork.  We have had to re-group and make real sacrifices of time and energy in setting a new standard and creating a new sense of mission and purpose.  It hasn’t been easy.  It’s complex. 
 
A part of that complexity is a realization of what you have, or don’t have, in order to meet your dream.  As I have traveled across the Annual Conference I have discovered one experience after another that has revealed a story which describes this Annual Conference in a way that I was not aware of.  My guess is that you are not aware of it either.  In this role I have the benefit of seeing it all, watching it from the balcony, the 30,000 ft. view, if you will.  That view has revealed to me that there is a great need to tell the story of ministry here in New York in a way that is encouraging to ourselves and inviting to others.  In many places where there is a longing for “the next right answer,” that answer does not have to be invented, only replicated.  Quite often we do not need to re-invent the wheel – we just need to become aware that the wheel exists and is functioning just fine in some other settings.  It remains a puzzle to me why, in the midst of the greatest media market in the world, this Annual Conference only has a ½  time communicator.  Joanne Utley has done great work under the time constraints she faces.  But there is a need for us to move boldly into the heart of this 21st century, navigate these complex roads with expert driving, and realize that inviting people into the heart of God these days has a lot to do with how we communicate the story we believe in.  This year it is my hope that we will realize the need of what a full-fledged, pedal-to-the-metal communication strategy and realize what that approach will do for us and for others.
 
Likewise, I have found over these few months that having great driving skills just isn’t enough here in New York.  I can bob & weave & strategically hit the gas & squeeze my way into a crowded line of traffic all I want, but if I don’t have patience and peace it won’t be long before someone finds me on the side of the road suffering from heart failure.
 
I know that this Annual Conference has a history of having someone on our staff to focus on the spiritual side of our journey.  I believe that it is time for us to re-visit what it means to give priority to spiritual development.  We are really good at any number of trainings: Bible School, disaster response, safe zones, etc., etc.  But our action must be centered on a clear theological base and a strong spiritual foundation.  It is my intention to nurture these conversations in the next year and find clear ways to intentionally lead us together into the heart of God through spiritual renewal and vitality.
 
I know that this is right and strategic and necessary.  The inside story on the State of the Church here in New York is not a good one.  We are currently in the midst of a long and steady drop that has now reached the point that it can no longer be ignored.  Look at these numbers.  From 2007 to 2017, this is the story of our decline:
 
In a ten-year period
 
Decline 2007-2017
Membership: - 31,996
Attendance: - 9,150
Professions of Faith: - 669
Baptisms:  - 964
Confirmation Students: - 826
 
These numbers alone signal that we have much work to do and that the time for that work is now.  There is no time to waste.
 
 There are other clear realities.
  • Would you please stand if you are over 65 years of age.Thank you.
  • Please stand if you are 55-65.Thank you.
  • Please stand if you are 45-55.
  • Please stand if you are 35-45
  • Please stand if you are 25-35
  • Please stand if you are 18-25
  • Please stand if you are under 18.
 
I took a chance in having you go through that exercise but it was a pretty safe bet.  That simple exercise alone illustrates one of our clear realities:  we are much older than we should be.  The lack of youth and young adults in this venue, for example, is a dangerous precedence to maintain.  Annual Conference should be an incubator for leadership development and should be a place that seeks and receives the insight and relevant wisdom from a younger generation.  This reality is not just true for Annual Conference.  It is a reality facing our clergy and a glaring reality in our pews.  Even in places where there is a desire to grow larger by growing younger there is a clear reality summarized in this comment by one of our parishoners:  “Bishop, how does a church filled with old people attract a younger generation?”
 
Complex questions like that one demands complex answers that are not necessarily found in traditional ways.  It is my intention to convene a strategic summit on youth and children’s ministries to begin robust conversations about how we can meet this clear reality with clear strategies on how to navigate the road in front of us.  Friends, if we do not do this, the unfortunate reality before us is that we will die with a relevant theology that could not find any modern application.  I dream of an Annual Conference session with 200 youth delegates helping to lead us into the future.  I dream of thousands of confirmands eager to learn what role God plays in their lives.  I dream of opportunities beyond the local church where youth are building relationships and finding meaning in the midst of confusing times and I dream of parents & church leaders combining their efforts to fulfill the vows made at a baptism to join to together to raise our children in the Christian faith.  I cannot dream this dream alone, however.  Won’t you join me?
 
There are several other specific realities that I want to report on in this State of the Church. 
 
  • First, I have been amazed at the power of what collaboration can do.I have already stated to you that the intentionality of bringing Bill Shillady and the work of the City Society into close proximity with the work of the cabinet has done wonders in a short period of time.
 
We are having robust conversations about how we are going to take back the city of New York for the work of Jesus Christ with strategy and purpose.  But it begs the question: “What about the rest of the Annual Conference?”  I have been in conversation with Ellen Knudsen and the Frontier Foundation board about building upon the renewed energy in our foundation with the vision of becoming a more effective agent of leadership development and church growth in our Annual Conference.  The Foundation has done excellent work in stewardship education but there is a wider scope of possibility that lies untapped.  The building of the Foundation’s endowment with a clear vision of potential avenues of service can begin, over time, to replicate the great work that the City Society does in the boroughs of New York with meaningful and impactful ministries of outreach, evangelism and mission throughout greater New York and Connecticut.  Granted, it will take time to realize this goal.  But it is a field waiting to be tilled, planted, and harvested.
 
  • Second, in doing demographic work with David Gilmore, I have discovered that there is an area of need in our Annual Conference that must be addressed with greater purpose.One of the ethnic categories that describes who we are is titled, “Hispanic” or “Latino.”
 
But, as many of you know, in the New York Annual Conference that is a woefully inadequate descriptor.  We have Puerto Rican, Caribbean, Brazilian, Argentinian, Mexican, and so on that each bring unique cultural traditions and approaches.  In the lean years of our quadrennial transition, one of the things that got lost and diverted was the National Hispanic/Latino Plan.  In a demographic where the rise of the Hispanic population is dramatic, our numbers reveal that we are not being as effective as we can in reaching the groupings of this population with meaningful ministry, outreach, and nurture.  It is my intention to re-examine a plan for the expansion of Hispanic/Latino ministry in this Annual Conference to meet that growing need.
 
  • In every group that I have met this year I have discovered uniqueness in ethnicity, theology, and practice with one interesting reality:No matter the group or the cause or the issue, the longings in each group is the same.I hear about deep longings for meaning and purpose, a need to become intentional about the use of our resources, the need to make disciples, an urgency to move forward, a desire to grow spiritually and improve our muscle as a vital church.
 
I have taken exhaustive notes in every one of those meetings and been struck by the commonality we have that is, in large measure, not seen or realized.  Because of the unfortunate events of transition in leadership surrounding Bishop McLee’s death and the arrival of a series of interim leaders, there has been a vacuum that has emerged in terms of our “why” and our “what?”
 
  • Why do we exist?
  • Why do we do what we do?
  • What is our central mission?
  • What is the vision God is putting in front of us to follow?
  • What are the core, foundational drivers that give root and meaning to what we value and long for as a people of faith?
 
Now, I need to admit to you that I lead a somewhat boring life.  How do I know?  Well, I read Conference Journals!  Tim Riss is my hero.  Our Conference Journal reveals that there is a group that has been formed that has never met.  It is my intention to re-start the Long-Range Planning Commission with the purpose of bringing before this Annual Conference a specific mission, vision, and core values for our existence as well as a strategic plan for how we intentionally move forward as an Annual Conference in mission and ministry. 
 
My humble observation is that there are too many silos operating and not enough collaboration, too many independent efforts and not enough coordinated strategies, too much individualism and not enough accountability, too much secularization and not enough spiritual focus. 
 
Some in this room may be saying, “Oh no, not again.”  I must admit that I have been taken back by the number of Strategic Visioning Committees that existed when I came.  We do not need a strategic vision committee for every group or organization within this Annual Conference.  What we do need is a coordinated and strategic approach for how we are going to use our gifts and our resources and our contexts to bear witness to how our God is at work in our midst and available to anyone who has a longing, a need, a hurt, an empty spot that needs healed and filled.  I look forward to this work that lies ahead and providing you updates on our progress and recommendations for action at our next Annual Conference Session.
 
  • If we were to get into a car and travel anywhere in this country, we would soon discover a reality about our current highway system.With rapidly deteriorating bridges and insufficient lanes to accommodate the growth of traffic we are facing a critical juncture in the manner in which we are able to navigate our vehicles.
 
That reality has some clear parallels with the current state of the church here in New York.  In our highway system, there is an intersection of two realities that has a great deal of traffic but has no traffic signal at the crossroads.  This potential collision course is a source of great concern.
 
Through the hard and faithful work of our local churches, District Committees on Ministry, and Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry we are seeing a rise in the number of persons responding to God’s call on their lives.  These persons are traveling on a road to ordained or licensed ministry that is exposing them to pathways and possibilities for service that are dramatic and exciting.  Yet, just around the corner is an intersection that provides a significant challenge.
 
In our Annual Conference, we are also experiencing a dramatic rise in the number of local churches that are moving from full-time to part-time service.  Currently in our Annual Conference it takes approximately $125,000 to meet the salary, benefits and housing obligations that it takes to support a full-time pastor.  An increasing number of our churches are honestly expressing that they can no longer sustain this level of support and maintain some semblance of a ministry program. 
 
As I have traveled across this Annual Conference the past few months I have also discovered that there is a growing number of churches that are renting out their facilities to outside groups with no mission or vision attached to those contracts.  This is a dangerous practice, one that has given rise to a growing concern on the part of those who are supervising these various churches.  These arrangements are designed simply to keep the doors open and receive income to pay the bills.  This speaks more of survival than it does of a strategically discerned pathway and possibility of disciple-making.
 
There is even a deeper reality than that, however.   In multiple locations, the groups that are renting our facilities are other churches from other denominations.  In investigating this practice, we have discovered that in many of those settings, those churches are averaging significantly higher numbers of worshipping members than our own churches are attracting.  It begs the question, “What they doing that we are not doing?  Where are they finding a life we cannot generate?  How long can this model be sustained before we face a church closure with a lease agreement attached that cannot be sustained if a church is discontinued and abandoned?”
 
This collision course between the rise of called servants into ministry and a decline in the number of churches that can sustain those calls is of major concern to us.  It greatly hinders our ability to recruit the brightest, best, and most gifted persons we need to address our various contextual needs.  It limits our ability to put the right person in the right place at the right time to do what is needed to pave the road of effective disciple-making in a certain setting.  And it creates a survival mentality that quickly digresses into a mode of desperation that not only cannot sustain itself but will not attract anyone into its doors if spiritual needs and longings are the priority.
 
One of the things that naturally happens as a result is that everyone wants a piece of the pie of available resources just to keep the doors open.  This practice cannot be sustained either and the desired outcome of increased fruitfulness will never be realized.  If everyone gets a piece of the pie, no one receives what is needed to truly plant the seeds of transformation. 
 
In the last few months I have introduced an image that might guide us in our discernment process.  In any Annual Conference there are churches that know how to dance and dance well.  There are churches that know how to dance but need an Arthur Murray class.  There are churches that have known how to dance but they are tired.  There are churches that don’t know how to dance but want to learn.  And there are churches that don’t know how to dance, don’t know what it looks like, don’t like it when they see it, and don’t want to learn how to dance.  We must be an Annual Conference that focuses on churches that want to dance better and churches that want to learn the most relevant dances of the 21st century.  We must be looking for fresh expressions of how we do church and creative models for how we grow the body of Christ.  If we do not do this, it does not matter what issue we believe in or what passion we are called to – if we do not build the Body of Christ called United Methodism in this place we will not have a foundation upon which to stand for anything that advocates for what is good, and right, and holy.
 
As a result, I am asking my District Superintendents to do three things in the next several months:
 
  • One, identify the 2-3 settings in their district where we need to place the most emphasis, places that want to dance and need some instruction, places that know how to dance that need the encouragement of this Annual Conference to dance better.If we can identify those 12-18 places that fit this category, sift it down to a more manageable list, and invest resources of time, money, and personnel into those settings, I believe we can begin to sow seeds, grow disciples, and bear fruit.I believe we can change the traffic pattern that is now heading in the direction of decreased sustainability, financial desperation, and eventual closure.
  • Two, I am asking the District Superintendents to also identify those places where an intentional study of viability and potential needs to take place.This provision, based on paragraph 213 of the Book of Discipline provides for the opportunity for a wider circle of persons beyond just the local church leadership to analyze the potential of whether or not a church can sustain and create ministry, pave new pathways of possibility, and dance the dance of joy that God intends for each of us in our public witness.
  • Three, the Book of Discipline allows for the strategic designation of “Mission Congregation” to certain local churches that, because of the nature/context of their work, will never be able to sustain themselves without being identified as Conference Sponsored Mission Projects.That designation is the beginning of our clearly stated intention to provide regular and sustained support for those places without expecting anything in return except vital, alive, and relevant ministry.
  • Finally, with the transition of our Mission and Outreach Coordinator, it is time for our Annual Conference to intentionally examine our Global Outreach program and discern what and where God may be calling us to in terms of an intentional and focused global partnership agreement.
 
  • Last winter my cabinet arrived for a meeting and proceeded to give me yet another lesson about driving on the roads here in New York and Connecticut.Our Dean, Ken Kieffer, described for me the events surrounding his car encountering a pot hole somewhere on Long Island that literally altered his axle, disfigured two tire rims, and destroyed the two tires attached to those rims!
 
Honestly, my first thought was,
  • “Did they make you take a breathalyzer test?” 
 
My second thought was,
  • “I hope this guy doesn’t try to teach his daughter how to drive.” 
 
I put on my best pastoral hat of compassion, nodded my head in sympathy when he told me he had to spend an extra day on Long Island getting it fixed, and assured him that it surely would be okay – all the while thinking,
  • “I’ll never get in the car with this maniac!”
 
I maintained these well concealed opinions of my Dean for several weeks until the eventful day when I actually hit one of these monstrosities head on!  I felt that I had run over a leftover landmine from some distant civil war.  It jarred every filling in my mouth and left me wondering what had just happened to me.  I was going along so well before being hit with the reality that the road wasn’t nearly as smooth as I thought it was.  And although it didn’t do any damage to my car it sure did awaken me to the reality that there are indeed significant potholes to navigate within the bounds of my Annual Conference.
 
One of the clear realities on the pathway to creating possibilities of disciple-making is that there are indeed significant potholes on the path that can alter the course and hinder the progress.
 
I have a very good friend who likes to say, “We cannot let the problems of the church prevent us from being the church.” 
 
There are, no doubt, problems within our church, issues that we are facing that can and do easily dominate our thinking, planning, and acting.  If we are not careful they will drive and consume. 
 
But, in the midst of the potholes on our road, there are cavernous holes that emerging all around us, sink holes of despair that are either fed by the rhetoric of the world or creatively and compassionately addressed by the church, a body that has an alternative rhetoric that is based on grace, faith, hope, possibility and joy.
 
  • Last fall the issue of immigration, anything but a new issue, came to forefront in our country.All of a sudden, our potholes seemed minor to the fears and anxieties being created by threats of deportation, separation from family, and loss of any means to find hope and sustainability in a land of prosperity and promise.The excellent work of our JFON lawyers, the rapid response of our mobilized churches to provide food and staple items of stability, the training and sensitivity provided by our Immigration Task Force for persons and churches exploring what it meant to provide a refuge from the storm and a safe place for one of God’s children to find love and acceptance quickly took center stage.I have been and remain impressed by the commitment and dedication of so many to go on the front line and make faithful attempts to do what the church can do better than anyone else on the planet, care for the loners, losers and lost ones of the world with the ministry of Jesus Christ our Lord.
 
We cannot let the problems in the church prevent us from being the church.
 
  • Just last week another world event diverted the attention away from ourselves and onto the world scene.Decisions to de-emphasize the realities of climate change and turn inward on ourselves rather than outward in a global partnership of collaboration has given rise to yet another opportunity for our church to live into its Social Principles with words that speak to the need for us to be good stewards of the planet that has been entrusted to our care.We speak those words not because we are some fanatical reactionaries.We speak those words because we believe that God created something, called it good, and gave us the responsibility to care for it.We speak those words because we believe it is our right and responsibility to preserve this planet for future generations and because we believe, theologically, that our care for God’s world is one way for us to care for God’s children.Once again, the pothole on our path should not consume our attention and stop us from fulfilling the calling Jesus placed upon us to “go into the world.”
 
We cannot let the problems in the church prevent us from being the church.
 
One of our greatest temptations is to bow down to the increased secularization that we see emerging all around us.  It tempts us to stay within the cocoons of our sheltered life and not confront the issues and needs of the world with words, proclamations, and actions that unapologetically proclaim that we believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and God’s claim on this earth is real and undeniable.  We so easily bow to what is popular and acceptable and so desperately need the support and encouragement of one another as we boldly step into the world and meet the needs of those who have been swallowed up in the latest chasm that has consumed their minds and burdened their hearts.  The temptation is to faintly hope that someone will come through the open doors of our churches and breathe a sigh of relief when they don’t.  It takes courage and a strong will to face secularization with the gospel, to get out of our buildings and into the lives of the people around us with fresh expressions and faithful actions that prove what so easily proclaim.  The fact is, we won’t be able to do it if we don’t lean on one another.
 
We cannot let the problems in the church prevent us from being the church.
 
Still, to deny that there are potholes on the road is to deny the reality that they can blow out our tires and disable our mission if we are not careful to navigate them properly.
 
As many of you know, the 2016 General Conference authorized the formation of a Commission to put together a proposal regarding issues related to human sexuality within the church and the resulting questions about the future of our denomination.  The mission statement of that group says,
 
The Commission will bring together persons deeply committed to the future(s) of The United Methodist Church, with an openness to developing new relationships with each other and exploring the potential future(s) of our denomination in light of General Conference and subsequent annual, jurisdictional and central conference actions. We have a profound hope and confidence in the Triune God, and yet we acknowledge that we do this work in a climate of skepticism and distrust, from a human point of view. We are a connection, and we admit that our communion is strained; yet much transformative mission across our world is the fruit of our collaboration. The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition. The work is meant to inform deliberation across the whole church and to help the Council of Bishops in their service to the next General Conference in finding a way forward.
 
Further, the Commission has stated,
 
We should be open to new ways of embodying unity that move us beyond where we are in the present impasse and cycle of action and reaction around ministry and human sexuality. Therefore, we should consider new ways of being in relationship across cultures and jurisdictions, in understandings of episcopacy, in contextual definitions of autonomy for annual conferences, and in the design and purpose of the apportionment. In reflection on the two matters of unity and human sexuality, we will fulfill our directive by considering “new forms and structures” of relationship and through the “complete examination and possible revision” of relevant paragraphs in the Book of Discipline. We will give consideration to greater freedom and flexibility to a future United Methodist Church that will redefine our present connectionality, which is showing signs of brokenness. If we ignore this work, fracturing will occur in more haphazard and even self-interested ways across the church. If we do this work only to address our preferences and self-interest, we will fail to place our complete trust in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. If we do this work with complete surrender to God’s unlimited imagination and kingdom purposes, we will be blessed beyond our limited human imagination. God remains God; God is with us; God will never let us go. To God be the glory!
 
I can share with you that this commission has been meeting every six weeks.  I can also share with you that the Council of Bishops is anticipating the set of proposals from the Commission regarding human sexuality and the future of the church at its meeting next May.  Further, a Special Session of the General Conference has been called for February of 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri for the sole purpose of dealing with this matter.
 
What that means is that the roadmap for the specific discussion regarding this ongoing and significant challenge in the life of our church has been established.  We know that two years from now we will be gathering as an Annual Conference completely aware of what the decisions are regarding the denomination’s position on matters of human sexuality and the future of the church.  That session of our Annual Conference will be of critical and deep importance.  What stands in the balance is not just what we believe and how we believe it should be acted out.  What stands in the balance is every ecumenical initiative, every global mission partnership, every discipleship resource, every benefit program, and every relationship we have ever built as a part of this wonderful church we have been gifted with.
 
The question before us now is: What do we do in the meantime?  You know, the positions have been stated.  The arguments have been made and the responses of those arguments have been given on every side.  Scripture verses have been quoted to justify both sides.  Theological understandings have been crafted that back up what each side believes.  Both sides can cite injustices that they believe have occurred.  Both sides have claimed deep hurt and a sense of loss over the struggle that we face.  The issues have been established.  The lines have been drawn in the sand.  What do we do now?
 
I believe that that this short period of time between now and the decision on how the future of our denomination will look like is a period of time when we can, should, and must create the space necessary for this wide and diverse body called United Methodism to act.  Without that space we will continue to point fingers, make hurtful statements, and, in effect further widen the pothole in the road.  The chancellors of our denomination have issued the following statement:
 
We, the chancellors of the annual conferences of The United Methodist Church, recognizing that there exist sincere beliefs and deep divisions within our connection, urge all persons, congregations, districts, conferences, and organizations of The United Methodist Church to refrain from any action that would prejudice the ability of the Commission on a Way Forward and the special session of the General Conference in February 2019 to preserve our denomination as one.
 
I believe that this is a period of time when we should find a way to discipline ourselves to create space for heartfelt prayer for and with one another.  This is a period of time for deep and thoughtful listening to one another and to our God.  This is a time to care for one another and for our church, realizing that we are in a very weak and vulnerable position as a church and as people of deep conviction.
 
I want to show you a commercial.  It’s a beer commercial.  But it makes a really important point. 
 
(Heinekin Commercial: YOU TUBE)
 
II Corinthians 5:11 says, “The Love of Christ gives us no choice when we realize that Christ died for all.”  I find that to be so true in my work.  As I have traveled these roads of New York and Connecticut I have found some amazing people.  I have witnessed good people who are kind and generous, thoughtful and loving.  On my journeys I have listened, loved, and prayed with LGBTQI persons who love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, love their neighbor as themselves, and are as called, blessed, and gifted for ministry as any people I have ever met in my ministry.  They are good people.  And, on my journeys I have listened, loved, and prayed with persons who have a deep longing to keep the church as it is who do not wish to see any change in our current stance.  They too are good people.  And, on my journeys I have seen a group that stands in middle of both, striving to understand the hurts, beliefs, and feelings of both sides, hoping that some how we can find a way.  They too are good people.
 
I have this rare and wonderful opportunity to work and engage with people in all those categories, and probably more.  We are a room of good people, called of God, blessed by God, equipped by God.  Dear Friends, let not the grace of God be wasted.  Let us remember that it is by grace that we are claimed, called, and loved with a love that will not let us go.  And as a result, let us with grace find ways to pray for and love one another.
 
I said to many of you at my Installation Service at Salem Church in Harlem, that I loved you and there wasn’t a thing you could do about it.  I believe that is why I have been sent here to New York: to love you.  All of you.  Unconditionally.  In spite of it all.  In the midst of it all.  No matter the opinion.  No matter the feeling.  No matter the position.  No matter the pothole in the road.  I know that keeping a family together is a whole lot more difficult than some Hollywood production.  Sally and I can bear witness to that in our own family stories.  But in the midst of the challenges, we are still called to be the Body of Christ and still have this mysterious and wonderful grace of God that will not let any of us go.
 
I will do everything I can to keep us together.  I will work every day to honor our work together, be faithful to who we are as God’s people, and serve you – all of you – with as much love of Christ in my heart as I can find.  I will love you, listen to you, pray with you, and honor the gift and calling of God that has placed in each of your hearts.
 
The apostle Paul, spoke one day to his understudy Timothy.  They are words that I use in my daily prayers for you and in my ongoing work with you.
 
 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher,[a] 12 and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.[b] 13 Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.
Each of us in this arena have strong opinions.  Those opinions lead to strong reactions and strong convictions.  They are forged within us.  They drive us and, inevitably, they run the risk of dividing us.  These are, challenging and difficult times as we navigate the roads that make up our life together.
 
A few years ago there was a heated church meeting.  The sides had been drawn and the opinions were flying across the room.  The opinions led to strong reactions and those strong reactions led to strong convictions and those strong convictions led to words and accusations that were animated and angry and defiant.
 
At one point during the argument, a young girl who, for some reason, was brought to the meeting by her parents, raised her hand.  At first, no one called on her.  The debate raged on.  Still, she kept her hand up, patiently, quietly asking for the floor.  Suddenly the chairperson of the board saw this young girl making her silent request.
 
When he called on her, she simply said these words, “Is it time to pass the peace yet?”
 
In the midst of the traffic, the tie-ups, the time delays, the dangerous intersections, and the potholes that threaten the ability of our car to function, . . .
 
Please don’t forget to pass the peace.
 
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.