Bishop Bickerton Offers Steps Toward Dismantling Racism in the New York Annual Conference

Bishop Bickerton Offers Steps Toward Dismantling Racism in the New York Annual Conference


June 26, 2020

TO:                 All Pastors, Lay Leaders and Church Council Chairpersons
FROM:           Thomas J. Bickerton 

RE:                Steps Toward Dismantling Racism

The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 has brought to bear the urgency to intentionally and effectively address systemic racism in all sectors of our society.  The church is not immune to that examination as well.  We have been complicit in allowing racist systems, structures, and behaviors to be maintained for as long as we have been in existence.  The time has come, and the opportunity is clearly before us.
In recent weeks there have been several groups that have begun to initiate serious conversations about the type of changes necessary within the church.  I welcome those potential resolutions as part of the list of considerations that must be made in order for us to adequately deal with systemic and institutional racism in our Annual Conference.  I pray that we can find a way to unite those various groups in a coordinated conversation and strategy for change.  No one idea should be seen as comprehensive in nature.  There are many significant and complex steps that can and should be seriously considered and implemented.
I want each of our clergy and key lay leaders to know what has already been set in motion to address this long neglected and under emphasized injustice and inequity.  I have initiated a series of intentional conversations with various groups within the Annual Conference to address issues not unlike the ones which have been raised among other groups.  Conversations have already begun with the leaders and members of the Conference Board of Trustees, the Council on Finance and Administration, the Nominations Committee, and the leadership of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry.  These committees have been asked to explore ways in which finances can be re-appropriated, policies can be examined and re-visited, memberships can be balanced, and protocols evaluated. 
In particular, I have asked the leadership of the Council on Finance and Administration to do a review of the current 2020 budget as well as the 2021 budget proposal so that funds can be significantly redirected to provide for more substantial anti-racism training, leadership development among persons of color, and relief for churches in urban areas that have been disproportionately affected in negative ways over the years and most recently by the Covid-19 virus.  I have also asked the leadership of the Board of Ordained Ministry to examine both internal and external issues of racism to ensure that candidates are not victimized by racial profiling and that potential candidates are exposed to specific training and evaluation in areas of intercultural competency and anti-racist behavior.  These groups have been instructed to report directly to me their findings and initiatives before the end of the summer.
In addition, I have initiated with my Cabinet an intensive analysis of institutional racism in appointments, salary structure, and leadership development.  This analysis is looking at the whole of the Annual Conference and is factually based on the metrics and realities that make up our Annual Conference.  The Cabinet is also developing an intentional model to have conversations on racism in each Charge Conference setting and in the annual clergy one-on-one conversations as a means of holding our churches and our leadership focused and accountable.  In addition, the Cabinet will participate in a two-day intensive on racism and anti-racism behavior by summer’s end.  This is a part of the cabinet’s ongoing commitment to learn, grow, and benefit from outside influence and direction.
With the coordination of our Director of Leadership Development and Intercultural Competency, Rev. Doris Dalton, a new and very intentionally driven process for Cross-Racial/Cross-Cultural Appointments has been initiated.  This year long process will engage newly appointed pastors, SPR Committees, and other church leaders in intentional conversation, strategy, and education.  This process is designed to provide support on all levels in a manner that has not been well addressed in year’s past.
Conversations are being initiated through the Cooperative Parish system to move each specific region of the Annual Conference into an analysis of current issues and needs as well as the stimulation of necessary conversations about how to address racist behaviors among our leaders and within our churches. 
In addition, I have also organized a Racism Task Group that is taking a “deep dive” into specific action steps that the Annual Conference and its leadership should take in order to seek substantive and meaningful change on all levels.  This group has committed itself to looking at issues of racism and privilege in a comprehensive fashion.
I willingly welcome being held accountable for the results of these efforts and continue to remain open to other substantive ideas that can bring about the change we long for and desire.  There is, however, an undeniable reality that impacts the timeliness of this work.  Our ongoing efforts to lessen the flow of the Covid-19 virus and gradually reopen our congregations to in-person worship and ministry provides a clear challenge for the deep conversations and ministry initiatives necessary to impact real change.  As of the writing of this letter, only 7% of our 427 churches have chosen to open with the limited capacity restrictions placed upon them.  There is an undeniable stress placed upon all levels of leadership as we adjust to the restrictions and understandable hesitations to re-engage with one another due to Covid-19.  Yet, the obstacles created by one pandemic should not, dare not, deter us from intentionally addressing the other pandemic that has spread a devastating disease across our culture and within our church for over 400 years.  We will address both pandemics simultaneously and with as much creativity as possible.
The New York Annual Conference is a complex organization in one of the most diverse settings in all of Methodism. This reality makes a comprehensive approach to dismantling racism challenging.  Although the baseline goal is dismantling racism and setting in motion as quickly as possible a framework for how to address it, the specific approach will vary based on constituency, context, and need.  There is not one right answer and there is no “one size fits all solution.”  However, this should not deter us from our work.  It is my intention to address this complexity head on with the goal of creating both internal and external transformation.  This will take time, to be sure.  But we must keep the issue on the front page of our priorities even when we are tempted by other potential headlines that will come our way.
I welcome your input and ideas.  I urge the various groups that are talking to come together so that we are not creating opposing ideas but are collaborating and working together to come to substantive and meaningful steps for lasting change.  The change we long for and desire will not be brought about by one piece of legislation alone.  It will be found when we come together, putting aside any theological or political differences, and work together to change hearts, heal wounds, and transform broken systems.
I know that there are those who do not agree with this approach and others who do not sense the need.  I hear from those persons frequently.  Still, we must not allow that dissent to deter us from the urgency of this need.  We must press on to freedom.  And indeed, that is what we will attempt to do with intentionality and purpose.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today.  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.  In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late.  This is no time for apathy or complacency.  This is time for vigorous and positive action.

With faith, may this be our view and our hope.

The Journey Continues, . . . 

Thomas Bickerton
Resident Bishop