The Vision
The Newspaper of The New York Conference of The United Methodist Church September 2018

In this issue

Called To Be Beacons of Hope

“So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear.

John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.”

—President Barrack Obama
at the funeral for Senator John McCain

These words from former President Obama were timely and appropriate, not just for the funeral of a senator but for the needs of the country itself at this point in our history. They were words that accurately defined the landscape of politics in the United States these days. These words were couched in the clear reality that we seem to have moved away from having two political parties in one country to having two countries with separate politics. Votes in our halls of leadership are less about what is right and more about following a particular party line. Republicans vote with republicans. Democrats vote with democrats. The word “bi-partisan” seems to be a word that has fading significance in the world of politics. And, as President Obama noted, Senator McCain “called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.”

It’s very interesting to me that the very words that President Obama used to describe the political climate of our country are words that also describe the climate of our church. Read them again. “So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear.”

Change a word here or there and you have an accurate and timely description of our church. So much of our church life is politically driven with little to no regard for the call from God to make and nurture disciples. A recent New York Times article, entitled, “We Pick a Party, then a Church,” by Michele Margolis, discussed this growing reality. “Most Americans choose a political party before choosing whether to join a religious community or how often to attend religious services.” (NY Times, 7/14/18)

So much of our public discourse, both verbally and in places like social media and blogs, are small and mean and petty, having little regard for words like kindness, holiness, and grace. The posture seems to place a high emphasis on words like bombast, insult, and placing one’s opinion higher than the harm those words have on the heart and soul of others. There are, sad to say, phony controversies and manufactured outrage, all designed to highlight one person, group or opinion at the expense of another person, group or opinion.

In the church, we seem to be taking our lead more from the political climate and dominant rhetoric within our culture than we do from the example of Christ and the basic tenets of our Methodist faith that calls us to “do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.” While we seem to currently live in a place where there are two countries driven by two dominant politic parties, our connectional church appears to be disconnected into three churches based on distinct theologies and politics that are driven by whether you describe yourself as conservative, moderate, or liberal.

There is something fundamentally wrong and ultimately highly destructive when love and respect is based on agreement rather than respect, conformity rather than love, and compliance rather than grace. No one group is immune to the temptation to digress into a partisan, “my way or the highway” attitude. We like our opinions. We believe in what

makes us feel comfortable. We define ourselves not by our willingness to collaborate or listen deeply, but by the manner in which we stand up for ourselves and make sure that our voice is heard.

It is time for the church to stand up and claim our position as promoters of a different, more excellent way. It is time for us to check ourselves, second guess our motives, find ways to promote a different rhetoric, and never be ashamed of the gospel imperative initiated by Christ, promoted by Paul, and preserved by the church for centuries.

The Apostle Paul had every reason to digress into the politics and rhetoric of the day. He was scorned, abused, rejected, imprisoned, and shipwrecked. He faced repeated challenges in his attempts to be heard. And yet, this servant of Christ never forgot his drastic conversion and the claim that God placed upon his life. He wrote:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord fhas forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.(Colossians 3: 12–15, NRSV)

Friends, the time is at hand for the church to be the church, the beacon of hope, promise, and possibility. The demeaning and fear-based rhetoric that is dominating the landscape is unacceptable. To paraphrase President Obama, we are called to be bigger than that. We are called to be better than that. The challenges are great but the tools are at our disposal. Armed with the grace-filled words of Jesus, let us embark on a campaign that will do nothing less than invite the Spirit of God to work within us to do nothing less than transform the world.

At the end of his remarks at John McCain’s funeral, our former president said these words, “Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that will ever come can depend on what you do today.”

I can’t think of a more appropriate word for our world, our country, our church, and our people.

May it be so.

The Journey Continues, . . .

Thomas J. Bickerton
Resident Bishop

Following the Spirit, One Nail at a Time
John Ward and Peter Seirup look over the new accessible preschool playground at Jesse Lee Memorial UMC.
The playground built at Farmingville Elementary School in Ridgefield offers easy access for wheelchairs.

Editor, The Vision

It began with building a chapel in a stable and converting a carriage house to meeting rooms and youth group space. And then there were parsonage renovations, new kitchens, baths and wood floors, a backyard deck, and a two-floor apartment. An elevator and handicap-accessible bathrooms. And playgrounds for special needs children and young preschoolers. And wheelchair ramps and lifts. And air conditioning in the sanctuary. And hundreds and hundreds of volunteers.

“We were just having too much fun to stop,” said John Ward of the ministry that would become the Spirit Builders at Jesse Lee Memorial United Methodist Church in Ridgefield, Conn. And for the last 12 years the group has not stopped. Over the summer they completed a toddler-friendly accessible playground for the church preschool that is also open to the community.

Over the next several months, they will build atop an existing portico above a driveway between the sanctuary and Wesley Hall. The plan is to build a second floor hallway and large classroom to link the two buildings. The construction will allow complete access to the meeting spaces and classrooms in the Tudor style hall via the elevator in the sanctuary.

This fall project will get a big push ahead at the group’s annual Columbus Day work weekend October 6-8. The weekend is billed as a “sleep-at-home Appalachia Service Project-style retreat” with morning devotions, three meals a day, evening gatherings and lots of hard work. More than 80 volunteers have turned out for these work weekends in the past.

The Spirit Builders follow the motto, “Resurrecting buildings. Transforming lives,” but the unofficial mantra of the group may well be the words uttered at the close of each project, “I just love working on a church.” And while they have completed an extensive list of capitol projects at the church, their ministry stretches far beyond. The aptly named Spirit Builders strive to keep Christ at the center of their work in order to enhance the life of the church and improve the lives of many in the community and outlying region.

The group had its beginnings in the complete renovation of two buildings that the church bought in 2006. The structures were on property adjoining the church and the intention was to expand church ministries into the new space. But the buildings were in much worse shape than anticipated with water pouring in through the roof and walls collapsing. The church had raised enough funds to buy the property, but not to fully renovate them professionally. So the Carriage House Council was formed to brainstorm about how the much-needed rehabilitation could be done. A band of some 85 skilled and amateur volunteers was recruited for the first Columbus Day rebuilding weekend.

Their renovation of the structures created space for a chapel, one-on-one counseling, Stephen Ministries, Boy Scouts, a youth lounge with kitchen, and contemporary worship. In 2009, the team took on the daunting task of creating a two-story parsonage for a youth pastor on the second and third floors of the Carriage House. Midway through the project, the Carriage House Council began to consider next steps. Their projects – though not without considerable hurdles – had proceeded with relative ease.

“Things would just work out better than we could ever have expected,” said Peter Seirup, one of the group’s leaders who noted that stray boards would often measure to just the right size without the need for cutting. “The Spirit provides the inspiration . . . if it’s really hard, that’s not good. But when things start strangely working out, you know you’re on the straight path.”

They soon recognized that the “rag tag group had become a formidable volunteer construction ministry” that inspired people of all ages. The group saw that working together regularly had become a kind of worship and that led to a very definite sense of calling. To fulfill that call, they decided to adopt a three-pronged approach going forward:

1. We could do capital projects at the church (but not be the maintenance arm of the church).

2. We could inspire other churches to start volunteer construction ministries of their own.

3. We could help families in crisis where construction was part of the solution.

So the Spirit Builders Council was created and the group’s ministry moved out into the community. A small team works most every Thursday on one project or another and the first Saturdays of the month are designated as Spirit Builder workdays with an invitation for anyone to join in, be they members of the church or community. In addition to carpentry work, there is a painting and design group, and those who make sure that the volunteers are well fed.

A Saturday morning team of volunteers construct a wheelchair ramp for an ALS patient in Westport, Conn.


They drew on the church’s experiences with the Appalachia Service Project (ASP) to provide required training for the youth and adults who will spend a summer week repairing and replacing homes in Central Appalachia. The church has a long history of sending teams to ASP; some 240 people from Jesse Lee and surrounding churches and communities were part of the team this summer. Volunteers learn the skills of measuring, cutting, and power tools while assembling handicap ramp frames in the church parking lot.

The eight-foot frames are then transported to homes stretching from Torrington to Westport and the teams go to work setting the posts and adding the deck boards. The preparation at the church expedites the process with most ramps completed in a day by teams that can number into the twenties. Spirit Builders work with the ALS Association and hospice agencies to identify those whose lives and mobility would be enhanced by the ramps. The families often provide workers and lunch, in addition to covering some of the cost of materials. When the ramps are no longer needed, Spirit Builders tears them down for use in another location.

They have also assisted financially strapped homeowners in making repairs before houses are placed on the real estate market. One woman whose home sold for thousands more than expected after the repairs praised the work of the team and said, “Thank you for bringing the church to my home.”

As the work goes on, “it’s not necessarily a church-building enterprise, but it is a kingdom-building enterprise,” said Rev. Bill Pfohl, senior pastor at Jesse Lee. “We’ve come to identify ourselves . . . as faith in action . . . in a truly Methodist way.”

According to Pfohl, the training sessions have allowed the church a greater opportunity to send skilled volunteers on mission trips. Plans are underway to take a team to Puerto Rico in January to help in the rebuilding effort there.

The planning of the projects and problem solving are usually a collaborative process for the Spirit Builders, who have attracted hundreds of volunteers from outside the church. Although several of the core leaders have engineering backgrounds, anyone can offer up their ideas – even the clients. Throughout the process, the members are praying to be blessed with a piece of the solution.

For instance, the playground at the Farmingville Elementary School draws on the childhood dreams of its creators. The multiple-level structure combines a fire station complete with fire pole, a rocket ship, a marketplace, and a Viking ship with a green dragon figurehead on the bow. The fully accessible playscape was dedicated in the fall of 2016.

The new play area at Jesse Lee conjures up the same kind of imagination in its wooden train complete with a slide jutting out from the cowcatcher and a sandbox caboose. There’s also a rubber tile track for wheelchairs and scooters, and music and puzzle stations. 

“We stop for awhile and ponder the problem until someone comes up with an answer,” Pfohl said. “It’s wonderful to see who God will use to solve today’s puzzle.”

 “We pay attention to all the signals,” said Seirup, who estimates that the work of the Spirit Builders has saved the Ridgefield church three-quarters of a million dollars. Their work is also bringing the church closer to its goal of being totally handicap accessible.

“We haven’t had to turn down any work . . . our projects are always on time and on budget,” he added. “We believe we will succeed because we use the God-given gifts that we’ve got.”

For more information on starting your own Spirit Builders ministry, leveraging your capital funds, and growing your church, go to the Spirit Builders website. If you want to volunteer for the Columbus Day weekend retreat, contact Peter Seirup by email at

Clockwise from top left, a matching game at the new Jesse Lee playground; premade wooden frames await use in a handicap ramp; the carriage house—the start of a vital ministry.
Above, John Ward and Peter Seirup brainstorm with a couple of other volunteers under the portico that will soon provide a second-story access between the buildings, pictured below left and every team needs an appropriate work shirt.

For a full lineup of events, go to:

9/29 Writing Safe Sanctuaries Policy
This Safe Sanctuaries workshop is designed for congregations who do not have a written Safe Sanctuaries Policy or who need a refresher on editing their policy. The workshop prepares a core team of four to five people to work with the congregation to write a policy, as well as providing information on how to train trustees, teachers, parents and pastors on the implementation of that policy. The training will be from 10 a.m.–1 p.m. at Christ UMC, Staten Island. Register online by September 25. For more information, contact Cassandra Negri.

10/4 Development Info Session
The United Methodist City Society is hosting an informational seminar for clergy/trustees of UM churches considering a development project or affordable housing project on their church property—whether rural or urban. Speaker Jason Labate of Goldstein Hall, a law firm that specializes in working with non-profits and religious institutions on development projects. Registration limited to 40 People. October 4th, 2018, 10 a.m. to Noon, 475 Riverside Drive, Manhattan, 15th Floor UMW conference room.

10/11–12 NEJ BMCR Annual Meeting
“Building Bridges: Together With Love and Unity” is the theme for the NEJ gathering of Black Methodists for Church Renewal, hosted by Baltimore-Washington BMCR Caucus. Registration for the event at St. Marks UMC, Hanover, Md., is ongoing on the NEJBMCR website.

10/13 A Day With Brian McLaren
Practical Resources for Churches is partnering with the NYAC to host this daylong program exploring, “The Future of Christianity: Does Christian Faith have a future, and does the future have Christian faith?” with Brian D. McLaren. McLaren will discuss the theological, liturgical and missional futures of Christianity. An author, speaker, activist, former pastor, and public theologian, McLaren is a leader in the Convergence Network, where he is developing a training/mentoring program for pastors and church planters. Discount pricing for NYAC members is $10 for preregistration, or $20 at the door; breakfast and lunch are included at the event which runs from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Arumdaun Presbyterian Church,1 Arumdaun St., Bethpage, N.Y. Register and pay online at

10/14–25 “Journeys of Paul” Cruise
Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton will host the nine-day journey aboard Royal Caribbean’s “Jewel of the Seas,” in conjunction with Educational Opportunities Tours. Beginning and ending in Rome, the trip includes stops in Taormina and Pompeii, Italy; Mykonos, Santorini, Athens, and Corinth, Greece; and Ephesus, Turkey. There is also an optional two-day tour of Vatican City on October 25-26. Find the reservation information online. If you have any questions, contact Rev. Chuck Ferrara, the regional representative for Educational Opportunities in our area.

10/13 Mission Leader Training
Find out what it takes to lead a mission or disaster response team. 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the New York Conference Center. Contact Tom Vencuss at for more information.

10/20 Prayer Bead Workshop
Come experience a new way of praying with Protestant prayer beads from 10 a.m. to 12 noon. Learn how to create prayer bead chaplets and how to create a prayer bead ministry at your own church. Led by Rebecca Ferguson to fulfill requirements for her Girl Scout Gold Award Project. Contact her to register at, or 845-645-1352.

10/20 UM Men’s Retreat
This annual retreat for all men in the conference will explore the  theme, “Hearts on Fire for God,” from 9 a.m. to 4 Memorial UMC in White Plains. Guest speaker is Rev. John Simmons Jr., pastor at Brooks Memorial UMC. Suggested donation is $25. More information can be found here.

11/1 Bishop’s Clergy Retreat
Bishop Grant Hagiya of the California-Pacific Conference will be  the keynote speaker, exploring the book, “The Anatomy of Peace.” All clergy are encouraged to read this book from the Arbinger Institut before the retreat. Additional details can be found here as they become available.

11/17 Laity Convocation
Rev. Sue Nilson Kibbey, author of  “Flood Gates: Holy Momentum for A Fearless Church,” will be the presenter. The event will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Tarrytown House Estate in Tarrytown, N.Y. Continental breakfast begins at 6:45 a.m. Details and registration info can be found here. Contact Conference Lay Leader, Roena Littlejohn, with any

7/10–14 Youth 2019 Registration
“Love Well,” the national gathering for United Methodist youth and their leaders in Kansas City next July 10–14, promises four days of discipleship, worship, Bible study, big-name musical artists, service opportunities and life-changing fun. Early bird registration is available through Jan. 31, 2019, and includes a discounted rate, plus a free spot for every 10 paid registrants. YOUTH 2019 is for youth grades 6–12 and their leaders. For more information, go to or @youth2019 on all social media platforms.

Vision Deadlines for 2018
The Vision is a monthly online publication of the New York Conference. Deadlines are always the first Friday of the month, with posting to the web site about 10 days later. The deadlines for 2018 are October 5, November 2, and December 7. Please send any stories, photos, ideas, or questions directly to

Finding Our Rhythm to Aid in Recovery
Tim Riss, Alpher Sylvester, Bob Walker and Bishop Bickerton lift a wooden truss into the hands of rooftop workers.
Left: Celebrating a finished roof. Right:Team members after worship: first row from left: Roena Littlejohn, Lydia Lebron-Rivera, Jackson Rogers, Denise Smartt Sears. Second row: Brooke Bradley, Matt Curry, Bishop Bickerton, Wendy Vencuss, Jose Ramos, Julia YH Yim. Back row: Alpher Sylvester, Ross Williams, David Gilmore, Tim Riss and Sungchan Kim.


When Bishop Bickerton announced a cabinet and extended cabinet mission trip to Puerto Rico, the trip was scheduled for late August. August—the hottest part of the summer and the start of the dangerous hurricane season. But as Bishop Tom said, if Puerto Ricans endure that, then so could we. I went from thinking why, to deciding why not, and found myself on a plane headed for San Juan.

Veteran mission tripper Rev. Tom Vencuss led our trip. Our group also included Bishop Bickerton, Api Castano, Matt Curry, David Gilmore, Sungchan Kim, Lydia Lebron, Roena Littlejohn, Tim Riss, Jackson Rogers, Denise Smartt Sears, Alpher Sylvester, Jose Ramos, Wendy Vencuss, Bob Walker, Ross Williams and Julia Yeon-Hee Yim.

We were based for the week at Camp Camino Cumbres del Calvario in Arecibo, where we stayed in dorms and ate in a dining hall. We were grateful for beds and hot showers, and when the power went out, we used portable emergency lights left over from the hurricane and took sputtering cold showers—reminders of what residents had suffered for months.

We were split into two teams, and each team was responsible for replacing the roof of a home. My group was assigned a small, modest house near Arecibo owned by a 95-year-old grandmother. The goal was to peel off the rusted, leaking metal roof, replace the rafters and put down new corrugated steel. It sounded simple, but when I looked around for pre-made trusses, uh, there were none. We were going to build them one by one and hoist them into place by hand.

You learn about people when you work with them. Bishop Bickerton led by example, wading in with sledgehammer and crowbar and getting so filthy in the process that he had to be hosed down. Jose Ramos, the Quinipet maintenance assistant who is a Puerto Rican native, quickly became the darling of the group with his constant smile and actual construction skills. Our team eventually found its rhythm, cranking out a total of 16 trusses. We cheered when we finished the project on the dot of 5:30 p.m. the last day, and the other team finished their project, too.

Memories float up: Bishop Ortiz from Puerto Rico joining us. Rev. Sungchan Kim suffering a fall and broken bones, and his humble thankfulness that he was the one who got injured and not someone else. Discovering maiz ice cream sprinkled with cinnamon. And mofongo. Drenching downpours that blessedly broke the heat. DS Julia Yim in her Home Depot work apron. Ross Williams ferociously demolishing a tumbledown shed. Nightly reports from the other team about their own struggles and triumphs. Being swept up in a colorful and rousing service in the local Methodist church. Iguanas!

When I got back to Camp Quinipet, we were hosting the NYAC Hispanic Council for their annual Labor Day retreat. Many in the group are native Puerto Ricans, and when Bishop Tom spoke on Sunday morning, they delighted in hearing about our trip. I felt connected with the group in a way that never would have happened before my trip, and I was grateful for the gift of shared experiences.

Our mission was one small part of a huge operation that involves engineers, architects, supply depots, interpreters and skilled onsite job superintendents. I came away proud of being a Methodist and impressed with the job that UMCOR is doing. I’m thankful for the opportunity to see this beautiful place and to help in a small way. Most of all I’m thankful for the spirit and the love of the Puerto Rican people. We’re here for you and we’ll be back!

Brooke Bradley is executive director of Camping & Retreat Ministries.

Above, Jose Ramos and Brooke Bradley are ready for work; below, Tom and Wendy Vencuss watch the progress overhead.

Lydia Lebron-Rivera works with a partner to cut lengths of metal at the for a second roof.

At left, Sungchan Kim gets a pair of crutches at the hospital after injuring his ankles after a ladder collapsed. Right, Julia YH Yim steadies the boards as Api Castano does the cutting.

New Director Of Communications

Jim StinsonThe New York Conference (NYAC) has welcomed Jennifer Darling as communications director, effective September 4. Darling joins the conference after previously serving in key communication roles at Expedia, Nordstrom, CNN, Coca-Cola and AT&T.

With more than 20 years’ experience in technology, communications and engagement, Darling provides a unique blend of skills to help strengthen a variety communication channels. She has a track record of elevating existing communication platforms while also providing vision, direction, and strategy based on new and emerging technology.

“It’s such a positive experience when I see people feel connected, engaged and valued,” Darling said. With 443 churches and some 100,000 members, the NYAC is a regional body that provides invaluable leadership both within the conference and globally.

“New York Annual Conference and The United Methodist Church have been so open, and I’m delighted to help champion our mission,” said Darling.

Darling will work with Rev. Joanne S. Utley, who will continue her appointment as communications coordinator and editor of The Vision. Darling can be reached via email at

Trapp Named Worship Director for GC2019

NASHVILLE | The Commission on the General Conference has announced that Raymond Trapp of Vanderveer Park UMC has been selected as the worship and music director for the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference.

Trapp had previously been selected to serve in the same capacity for General Conference 2020, with responsibility for developing the overall worship and music programming and for providing musical leadership at both events. Trapp is director of music at Vanderveer Park in Brooklyn, and has served as music director for New York Annual Conference sessions for the past six years.

“Raymond’s ability to lead brings those around him to a spiritual place,” said Sara Hotchkiss, business manager of the United Methodist General Conference. “His gift in this area reminds me of John Wesley’s instructions in ‘Select Hymns,’ in which the founder of Methodism exhorts that ‘Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing…’”

At Vanderveer Park, Trapp conducts four choirs, selects and arranges music for all musical productions and annual choral concerts, and developed and implemented a concert series of eight musical performances. His work for the NYAC has included selecting choral repertoire for the conference choir, as well as working with the worship committee in planning all worship services.

“When I consider this honor, a favorite verse comes to mind: ‘We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves,” said Trapp, referencing 2 Corinthians 4:7 (New Living Translation).

Raymond Trapp will serve as worship and music director at both the 2019 and 2020 General Conferences.

Trapp has been a music educator, creating and teaching curriculum for grades Kindergarten through 8th. He also has developed and supervised all aspects of music ministry at St. Mark’s UMC when he served as music director and organist at the Brooklyn church. Trapp received a master’s degree in sacred music, choral conducting from Westminster Choir College and has also studied at Juilliard School in New York City.

New Districts Assistant, UMCOR Coordinator

Jim StinsonArslly Vasquez has joined the staff as the administrative assistant for the Long Island West and Long Island East districts, supporting Rev. Sungchan Kim and Rev. Julia YH Yim, respectively. 

Vasquez has more than nine years’ experience working as an administrative assistant at several marketing companies. She holds a master’s of business administration-marketing from Hagan School of Business at Iona College.

She joins district administrative assistants Karen Yostpile and Mariyam Muhammad on the terrace level of the White Plains Conference Center. You can reach her by calling 914-615-2242. 

Barbara Moody and Nancy Fogg will assist temporarily in the transition and leave their roles by the end of this month. The conference is deeply indebted to Moody and Fogg for

Jim Stinson their dedication to the district offices.

Tymera Jackson is also now working out of the White Plains office as the coordinator of UMCOR’s Puerto Rico mainland volunteer recovery operation. UMCOR funds have been provided to hire Jackson as the full-time volunteer coordinator, and the NYAC is providing the office space.

All mainland teams seeking to serve through the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico’s “Reborn, Revive, Rebuild” (3R) recovery program will be registered and vetted through Jackson, and then deployed in coordination with the MCPR volunteer coordinator.

Jackson has more than 15 years professional experience
in human resources and education in both the non-profit
and private sectors. She may be reached at, or

New Group Pushes ‘Simple Plan’ as Way Forward


UMNS | A new group of United Methodists has formed to champion a “Simple Plan” at the special General Conference in 2019.

If approved, the legislation would open the door to full participation of LGBTQ individuals in the life of the church, said Methodists for the Simple Plan. The proposal eliminates all restrictions in the denomination’s Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality.

As of September 11, 633 United Methodists representing 51 of the 54 U.S. Conferences and the Central Conference have signed on to support the plan.

In a statement released Aug. 28, the unofficial advocacy group insists the three plans proposed in the Commission on a Way Forward report “have significant theological, moral and ecclesiological flaws.”

The United Methodist bishops appointed the commission and subsequently called the special General Conference with the aim of ending the denomination’s long impasse over how to regard homosexuality.

“The Traditionalist Plan expands enforcement of oppression; the Connectional Church Plan resurrects the racist logic of the Central Jurisdiction; and the One Church Plan sanctions segregation regionally,” the statement says of the commission’s proposals.

In contrast, the statement contends, the Simple Plan is grounded in “our experience of God’s blessings in the lives and loves of LGBTQIA+ persons, along with our first General Rule to ‘do no harm.’”

“I pray that delegates receive the statement as a principled and provocative articulation of a ‘still more excellent way,’” said the Rev. Jay Williams, the statement’s lead writer and lead pastor of Union United Methodist Church in Boston, who is a member of the New York Conference. The statement bears the title “Ain’t I a Christian?”—a reference to the famed speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” by the Methodist abolitionist and itinerant preacher Sojourner Truth.

“Hopefully, it invites reflection and sparks conversation that takes seriously the experiences of LGBTQIA+ persons as collaborators in the future of the church, instead of as ‘objects’ of debate,” Williams said.

The Simple Plan is not the only alternative to the commission’s report submitted to the special General Conference on February 23–26 in St. Louis.

In addition to the 48 petitions contained in the commission’s three plans, 61 other petitions are being reviewed to determine the validity of formatting, said the Rev. Gary W. Graves, the secretary of General Conference.

Another 18 petitions have been found to be invalid due to errors in formatting or other requirements, Graves said, but these decisions will be reviewed by the General Conference Committee on Reference.

The same committee will review petitions submitted by any person or group other than the Commission on a Way Forward to determine if they are in harmony with the call to the special session.

United Methodist News Service has reported on all three plans in the Way Forward report and will be covering additional proposals in the run-up to the 2019 special session. The news service also is providing stories as different groups endorse various proposals.

The majority of United Methodist bishops recommended the One Church Plan. Both the unofficial advocacy group Uniting Methodists and the denomination’s official Hispanic/Latino caucus MARCHA (Methodists Associated Representing the Cause of Hispanic/Latino Americans) also have endorsed the One Church Plan, which allows more freedom at the

conference and local church levels with regard to homosexuality.

An unofficial advocacy group, the Africa Initiative, has endorsed the Traditional Plan, which aims to maintain church restrictions against homosexuality and enhance enforcement.

The UM Queer Clergy Caucus, an unofficial advocacy group that started in 2016, submitted the eight petitions of the Simple Plan.

However, the group Methodists for the Simple Plan is separate from the caucus and seeks to be a grassroots effort that also attracts laity and people who do not identify as LGBTQ.

The plan shares some similarities with the One Church Plan, which leaves decisions of whether to allow same-gender weddings up to local churches and gay ordination up to annual conferences.

However, the Simple Plan does not include provisions the One Church Plan adds with the aim of protecting freedom of conscience of those who believe the practice of homosexuality is sinful.

The Simple Plan also removes bans on general agencies and annual conferences from using church funds to “promote the acceptance of homosexuality …” The One Church Plan leaves those parts of the Discipline untouched.

At this point, General Conference rules have not been finalized for how the plans will be presented to delegates. But unlike U.S. elections for candidates or state initiatives, General Conference voters will not simply face a ballot and mark whichever plan they support. Instead, they will be able to refine petitions and possibly mix together provisions of multiple plans.

“We suspect that it was going to be about discerning and trying to perfect whichever plan that is first presented to the body, or voting it down if there is not room for improvement,” said the Rev. Alexandre da Silva Souto, one of the plan’s submitters and a General Conference delegate from the New York Conference.

He hopes delegates will work on perfecting the Simple Plan.

“If the Simple Plan is voted down, then it might at least have informed the legislative body of how we could have minimized the systemic harms perpetrated against LGBTQIA+ members of the body of Christ,” he said. “These values of the Simple Plan would still hold true and be additive even if the legislative body works first on the other plans.”

The Rev. Anna K. Blaedel, another supporter of the plan who identifies as queer, said they want “no more crumbs” from the denomination they serve. The campus minister at the University of Iowa Wesley Center has faced three formal complaints under church law since identifying as “a self-avowed practicing homosexual” at the 2016 Iowa Annual Conference.

“We must follow Jesus in siding with people over doctrinal policy, and practicing a love ethic that risks it all for what is right,” Blaedel said.

Blaedel and other Simple Plan supporters criticize the idea of pursuing church unity at all costs. Williams said he doesn’t want a false unity but one based on integrity.

However, other plan supporters stress that that they aren’t ready to pack it in on the denomination where they seek to live out their Christian faith.

“While we LGBTQ persons are often asked why not just leave the denomination, it is important that your readership understand that we have absolutely no plan to leave The United Methodist Church,” said the Rev. Pamela R. Lightsey, a United Methodist elder and vice president at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago.

“Our intention is to help it be what it professes to be in its Social Principles. We are committed to that vision and intend to show up at GC2019 undeterred by years of bigotry.”


Executive Director

Justice for Our Neighbors-New York (JFON-NY), a faith-based non-profit organization dedicated to providing free legal services to immigrants, is beginning a search for an executive director. The executive director serves as the primary leader, external champion, and internal manager of JFON-NY.

Started in 1999 by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), JFON is now a national network of clinics. Four church-based clinics currently serve clients in the New York metropolitan area.

Responsibilities of the position include serving as spokesperson; fundraising; grant writing; working with government agencies and law firms, the JFON board of directors, staff and volunteers. A master’s degree and familiarity with immigration law and immigration-related issues are highly preferred qualifications in a candidate.

Interested candidates should contact Rev. Marjorie Nunes via email at

Packed Meals to Uganda, Dominican Republic

The Rise Against Hunger meals that were packed during the 2018 Annual Conference have been shipped to Uganda and the Dominican Republic. The 30,000 meals were packed by some 120 youth and adults on June 9 and were sent to Salesian Missions, an organization that nourishes lives through food assistance and other services across the globe.

Since 2005, volunteers have packed more than 310 million meals for distribution worldwide through the Rise Against Hunger program. For more information, visit the program’s website.

What Are Family Trees For?
‘Fightings Without, Fears Within’


Historians write that teaching new police or military recruits about the history of their service increases their camaraderie and ability to bond with the colleagues in their units. The same goes for church as well. If we want a healthier church and vibrant denomination, we need to create, refine, and retell the story of our denomination’s rich and positive moments and its ability to bounce back from challenging times. That act increases the odds that the church will thrive for generations to come.

The loss of shared identity and collective belief would make it much harder to have an agreed set of missional values. Instead, we would be tempted to make moral and ethical decisions based largely on self-interest or at best, our domestic interest.

Once denominational history and local church’s identity dissolve, congregations are left naked and unprotected. They seek solace in the local culture. They toggle between adjoining impersonal systems: culture and community. As the church loses its focus, people would be tempted to grasp for the security of surrounding culture. Hence every four years we develop a metrics called the “Do You Know the theology and history of UMC?”

  Methodism embodies a worldwide presence, and a family tree with 80 branches, ranging from the African Methodist Episcopal Church to Zimbabwe United Methodist Church, from the Church of the Nazarene to the Uniting Church of Australia. The United Methodist Church is a thriving branch of this family tree called the World Methodist Council.

Oxford Institute, an Offshoot of the Family Tree

A dream of the World Methodist Council to create a “living fellowship of theologians,” as a fitting remembrance of John and Charles Wesley at Oxford University in England came true in 1958 with the creation of the Oxford Institute. This was even before the union of the United Evangelical Brethren and the Methodist Church into the United Methodist Church in 1968, and the abolition of the Central Jurisdiction.

The institute aims to foster and support disciplined theological study among professional scholars, scholarly clergy and lay within this vast family tree. I have had the privilege of presenting research papers at the Oxford Institute a couple of times, most recently just a few weeks ago.

The 14th Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies took place at Pembroke College, Oxford, on August 12–19 under the theme, “Thy Grace Restore, Thy Work Revive: Revival, Reform, and Revolution in Global Methodism.” Some 164 people attended, representing 26 countries and more than 70 seminaries/universities from the worldwide Methodist/Wesleyan family, forming a cross section of the far-spread family tree. My research paper was entitled, “Social Change as Mission and Intersectional Sisterhood as Reflexive Influence: A Twin Story of United Methodist Women.”

I was the sole woman in a group of 12 among the presenters of history. The institute itself has come a long way, but has a long way to go yet.

Global-regional flux of Methodism

Over the week, plenary speakers grappled with a number of themes from various disciplines, multiple perspectives, inter-contexts, and history as a dynamic and multi-directional memory. There was open acknowledgment among the representatives from Europe that Christians in their society are in a “minority position.” On the other hand, listening to the voices from the growing global south was invigorating.

As for North America, the delegates acknowledged that while it is strong in institutions, growth is happening elsewhere. There was a call for truth-telling as missional imperative today in their connectional context. The elephant in the room was identified: debates about human sexuality.

Concerns were raised by some of the professors present that younger students in the seminaries worry whether they should continue in the ordination process, while other students are looking at other denominations to try to avoid the “chaos.” A bishop said that in order to address the crisis, episcopal leaders have been visiting seminaries to help answer questions. At the congregational level, the question still remains though: what is the vocational identity of theologians to help the local churches understand and delve into the issue of sexuality, since a few churches have a wholesome and healthy view of sexuality in general?

Bend or Break?

With a tipping vote is in the hands of the special General Conference in 2019, will our family tree break or bend? Neither. As retired Bishop William Lewis, one of the participants, said to me, “It is like a family. Some will go away. But they will come back after a while.” Our family tree has known it several times in its history.

But we will continue to sing our family-gathering song, as we did in the Christ Church Cathedral chapel, so dear to the Wesley brothers. “What troubles have we seen, what conflicts have we passed, fightings without, and fears within, since we assembled last!”

We strive to be a living family tree, in the midst of it all. After all, it is not the desktop theologians who decide the outcome of a General Conference; it is the elected delegates.

Dharmaraj is the retired director of mission theology for United Methodist Women.

GBHEM Pursues New Strategy as “Resource Center”

The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) Board of Directors has unanimously affirmed a new strategy to establish the agency as the resource center for leadership and education to support future and current church leaders of the United Methodist Connection.

The strategy, approved at the board’s recent summer meeting in Nashville, followed a detailed evaluation of GBHEM’s impact across the global church, which included identifying the resources and competencies needed in leaders of today and tomorrow.

The affirmation of the board, chaired by Bishop William McAlilly of the Nashville Episcopal Area, is its commitment to make the new strategy become a reality. The plan calls for the agency to:

  • Expand its role in leadership development and formation, with the expectation that these efforts will strengthen ministry in all places leaders are called to serve, especially in United Methodist-related institutions
  • Generate innovative programs and evaluation instruments aimed at boosting leadership skills, while ensuring that GBHEM fulfills its mandated charges
  • Collaborate with other agencies and groups to expand the availability of varied, relevant and promising models and processes
  • Support those functioning in varied leadership roles, ranging from clergy and laity to educational leaders and chaplains, recognizing that these groups confront unique challenges within the scope of their positions.


Rev. Matthew Valentino Labriola

The Reverend Matthew Valentino Labriola, 89, died at his home in Brewster, Mass., on August 9, 2018, after a battle with cancer.

Born on February 14, 1929, in Passaic, N.J., to Michael and Mary Dardano Labriola, Rev. Labriola graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck and Drew University Theological School in Madison, N.J.

During his ministry in the New York Conference, he served the following churches: Memorial UMC in Modena, N.Y., Liberty UMC, and Trinity UMC in New Britain, Conn. Labriola began his ministry in the Northern New Jersey Conference, serving Asbury and West Portal UMCs, High Bridge UMC, and Bergen Highlands UMC. After retiring from the NYAC in 1994,

he served several churches including Sloatsburg UMC in New York, and Boonton UMC and Franklin Lakes UMC in New Jersey.

Labriola was known for his art ministry programs throughout New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

He is survived by his wife of 26 years, Sandra; as well as by his former wife, Patricia Binder, of Tucson, and their five children: Leslie of Franklin, Mass.; Kathy and Peter, both of Berkley, Calif.; Jean Drake of Benson, Ariz.; and Paul of Ridgewood, N.J. He is also survived by four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

A memorial celebration will be held at 11 a.m., September 22, 2018, at the Northside UMC in Brewster, Mass. A luncheon at the church will follow. Memorial donations may be sent to Northside UMC, 701 Airline Rd, Brewster, MA 02631.

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