Watch and Read COB Presidential Address
In a ceremonial presentation to mark the transition of officers at the close of the Spring meeting of The Council of Bishops (COB) on April 29, Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton received a gavel from the outgoing president, Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, and began his tenure as the new COB president.
Bishop's opening remarks were an "inspiring call to action," as he referenced the May 1 launch of the Global Methodist Church called for the re-launch of our own United Methodist Church. “In the midst of the heartache of separation, let us launch and proclaim once again a unity of purpose and ministry together. In the midst of legal documents and term sheets, let us launch and affirm the reality that United Methodists are bible-based, faith-driven, mission focused, and global in scope,” Bishop Bickerton said.
Watch, Read and Download Bishop Bickerton's Opening Remarks Below
COB President’s Remarks
April 29, 2022
I want to once again acknowledge and give thanks for Bishop Harvey’s leadership in our midst. She has led us with determination, conviction, and sacrifice in the midst of an unparalleled time in our history both as a church and as a world.
For the past two years, she has woven me into just about every aspect of her work as our President. It has been an extension of a partnership that she and I have shared since her day with UMCOR and mine with Imagine NO Malaria. The gift of that working relationship is something I will always cherish and your willingness to allow me to join you on this journey is something for which I am very grateful.
I have deeply appreciated the affirming words of support and encouragement that have come from so many of you. Most recently, the intentional prayers from the members of my Covenant Group deeply moved and blessed me earlier this week as have the personal messages, the support of my cabinet and team in New York, and most of all the undying encouragement from Sally. As I said to my covenant group earlier this week, at this point in our history this is a daunting responsibility. It really is two full-time jobs and the balance necessary to do a good job with both will remain a work in progress. I continue to covet your patience and your prayers.
You know, I come into this role very humbly, fully acknowledging and giving credit to the awesome and very gifted people who have served in this capacity during my time on this council: names like Weaver, Huie, Palmer, Ough, Wenner, Brown, Carter, & Harvey. This is a long line of deeply called and highly committed people who have each served this council with integrity and grace. I have and continue to stand in awe of them.
When I was a local pastor, every year we would use the liturgy in the Book of Worship to celebrate the appointment of the pastor. And every year, during that service, I would say something like this: “I celebrate the opportunity to serve Christ in your midst. At some points during the next year, I know several things for certain. I know that there will be times when I disappoint you, times when I will let you down, times when I will fail you. When those times arise, I ask for your forgiveness. But I also know that over the next year there will be times when you disappoint me, times when you will let me down, times when you will fail me. I pray that I can exhibit the same spirit of forgiveness with you. Our journey of ministry is not about whether or not we get it all right. Rather, it is about being faithful to call God has placed upon us. We won’t get it all right. But the evaluation of our life together will be based on the degree to which we love one another, forgive one another, take the risk to trust one another, and commit ourselves to working together for the glory of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Those words continue to resonate with my spirit today as we embark on this journey together, a time filled with days and months that have little to no comparison in our lifetimes. We, no doubt will be afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down and, as a result, tempted to let our fears and angers and frustrations take hold of us. But we must commit ourselves to one another and find the endurance necessary to believe, as Paul so eloquently said to the people in Corinth, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” So, we dare not lose heart, and we walk through these days with the blessing of the Holy Spirit as our guide and, I pray, a spirit of partnership in the midst of the struggle.
We are in this together. I believe that. None of us should ever feel as if we are an island unto ourselves or stuck on an island without the support and encouragement of one another. As bishops, we are embarking on a season where we are learning on the fly and none of us should dare try to navigate these waters alone. Let us commit ourselves to leading together, not apart. We are elected as bishops of the whole church in claiming its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the whole world (Para. 403.c). What that means to me is that whatever happens to you in the region where you are serving happens to me too. We celebrate one another’s victories and bear one another’s grief. We work for the good of the whole and that means that a decision you make affects everyone else. We work for the good of the whole and that means that we are called, more than ever, to support, encourage, pray for, and come alongside one another in the midst of perilous and uncertain times. I pledge to you and promise that I will do all I can to do just that – come alongside you and provide the support and encouragement and care you need. We know that we will have to intentionally work on matters like trust, deepened relationship, and recovering our life together as we rebound from the Covid-19 pandemic. It will require much from all of us. But may we take our lead from the words of the song by Hezekiah Walker:
I need you, you need me,
We’re all a part of God’s body
Stand with me.
Agree with me.
We’re all a part of God’s body
It is God’s will that every need be supplied
You are important to me.
I need you to survive.
I pray for you, you pray for me,
I love you. I need you to survive,
I won’t harm you with words from my mouth,
I love you,
I need you to survive.
But it’s not just about us. It’s about this church that we love. I, like many of you, have been born, baptized, raised, claimed, called, and loved by this church. Personally, I would not be sitting with you today had it not been a for a series of angels unawares that came into my life and encouraged me to be more than I was at that moment. People, disciples of Jesus Christ, who saw something in me that I could not see in myself. None of us are self-made people and none of us are an end unto ourselves. We have responsibility for one another on this all too short journey of life. We are all a work in progress, but we are blessed to be a part of a church that has claimed us, called us from the time of our baptism, and will not let us go. This is my church. This is our church. I am a United Methodist Christian who lives out his calling as a bishop of the church. Many of you who are joining us today live out your calling as clergy and laity in all walks of life. It is time for us to not only BE UMC but claim the UMC, its theology and its practice as the way we have chosen to live out our Christian discipleship, a discipleship based on grace, hope, and love, not on criticism, negativity, and hatred. This is our church – let us claim it, guard it, preserve it, and use it to bless generations for years to come just as we were blessed by those who came before us. Friends, this is our story, this IS our song.
On Sunday, the Global Methodist Church will officially launch itself. This is a sad and sobering reality. I have said openly to everyone in New York that I don’t want anyone to leave. It is against what I believe. There is no perfect church out there. I believe the love of God calls us to continue to embrace, celebrate, and struggle with diversity of thought and opinion. I have personally grown in my love for God and love for neighbor out of that diversity that has pressed and pushed me to be more than I could be on my own. I value our mix of conservative, centrist, and liberal thought that, when mixed together, produces an undeniable love for God and respect for one another. We CAN love one another. There is a place for everyone at the table. Relationship is never dependent upon agreement. If that were the case, we wouldn’t have a relationship with anyone. Relationship is dependent upon love and disagreeing with one another in love is the hallmark of Christian unity, ecumenism, and a vital witness to the world that is desperately needed in the midst of animosity, partisan politics, and global conflicts.
And yet, sadly, a group of people believe in their hearts that they must leave. I pray that we can bless one another and mutually recognize the sacred worth of one another as this splintering takes place. The constant fighting and vitriolic rhetoric and punitive behaviors on both sides has no place in how we preserve and promote our witness as Christian believers. I pray that we will stop this fight and find a way to move on in the re-discovering of our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.
So, on Sunday, May 1, the Global Methodist Church will “launch.” Why don’t we do the same thing? Let’s launch too! I totally subscribe to the mystery and the faith required to embrace Romans 8:28 – “all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose.” I believe that God has opened a door for us, an open door that will reveal what God has in mind for the next expression of the United Methodist Church. It will look different, and feel different and will require new disciplines, open spirits, willing hearts, and curious minds. I believe that God is opening a door for us. The question is: will we have the courage to walk through that open door?
It will require much from us. It will require it right now. There will never be a time when the conditions are perfect, or the time is right. Now is the time.
So, United Methodists – let us proclaim May 1 as our launch day as well.
In the midst of the heartache of separation, let us launch and proclaim once again a unity of purpose and ministry together. In the midst of legal documents and term sheets, let us launch and affirm the reality that United Methodists are bible-based, faith-driven, mission focused, and global in scope.
In the midst of decline and a struggle for relevancy, let us launch into a revival of what it means to actually make and nurture a disciple. In the midst of metrics and analysis of vitality, let us launch into a clear understanding that there is NO vitality in any setting of our church without addressing the sin of systemic, institutional, and personal racism.
In the midst of those who want to highlight what separates us, let us launch into a full integration of our sacramental theology into our practice as we work to fully include and welcome everyone into the fabric of our church’s life and work.
In the midst of so many temptations to be less than Christ-like in our actions, let us launch into an all-out, full blown re-discovery of joy.
We dare not wait to launch ourselves into these new realities and re-discoveries. The time to launch is right here, right now.
I live with a dream in my head. It is a dream that we will gather at a General Conference in 2024 fully prepared to invest the vast majority of our time in mapping the course for the next expression of who we are called to be and not allow ourselves to gather once again to engage in an endless debate that has only divided us and harmed us beyond compare.
But if that dream has any hope of becoming reality, we have to begin now to re-prioritize our time and re-focus our energy on an all-out search for how best to renew and revive this church. We have to begin now to commit ourselves to the thought that we are not the continuing United Methodist Church. We ARE the United Methodist Church, not interested in continuing sexism, racism, homophobia, irrelevancy, and decline. What we are interested in is a discovery of what God has in mind for us on the horizon as the next expression of who we are as United Methodists.
As Jim Harnish once said, “In an automobile, thank goodness that the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror.” I don’t know about you but I’m ready to stop staring at the rearview mirror and start focusing on the road ahead. As the writer to the Philippians wrote, Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14)
I know that we have extremely challenging days ahead. There is no roadmap. We are in unchartered waters. We are building the airplane as we fly it. The human made GPS system has had a technical malfunction. The boat we are in is being battered by a great storm. But don’t just sit in the boat waiting for the storm to subside. Let us stop leaning on our own devises, lift our eyes to the horizon, and see Jesus calming the storm and walking on the water. Let’s get out of the boat of our malaise, the boat of our current dilemma, and let us walk, no run on the water keeping our eyes focused on the only one who can calm our anxious spirits, focus our blurry eyes, and point us in the direction that will lead to us once again to strength, relevancy, and joy.
I know that everyone of us has very challenging and difficult work ahead as we navigate this season of splintering and change. We will be consumed with words like disaffiliation, separation, paragraph 2553, and GMC. But let us commit ourselves to an equal investment of time in words like unity, evangelism, grace, John 3:16 and UMC. Let’s commit ourselves to spending most of our time positioning our church for the next chapter of our life together: talking about the movement of the spirit in our midst, the exciting days that lie ahead, and the joy we will have being able to live out our calling to preach the Good News of God’s love rather than the bad news of what’s happening to us in the current moment.
Friends, this is not a naïve dream. It is a distinct and clear reality. God is with us. God will not forsake us. God will guide us if only we take that courageous first step to say once again with conviction: “Here I am send me.”As the hymnwriter Brian Wren wrote:
This is a day of new beginnings,
time to remember, and move on,
time to believe what love is bringing,
laying to rest the pain that's gone.
For by the life and death of Jesus,
love's mighty Spirit, now as then,
can make for us a world of difference
as faith and hope are born again.
Then let us, with the Spirit's daring,
step from the past, and leave behind
our disappointment, guilt, and grieving,
seeking new paths, and sure to find.
Christ is alive, and goes before us
to show and share what love can do.
This is a day of new beginnings;
our God is making all things new.
May it be so. May it be so. By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.