General Conference Notebook, April 21
As I think about our ministry together as United Methodists over the past four years since our last General Conference, there are several ministries and initiatives that mark real progress. These are areas where I feel we’ve done particularly well, even though there is much yet to learn.
For instance, United Methodists responded with overwhelming generosity and with strategic assistance when so many hundreds of thousands of people suffered from the devastating tsunami three years ago. The money raised surprised and nearly overwhelmed our ability to receive and administer the funds in such a short time. I was glad to be part of a connection and church family with a global reach.
The same is true about the United Methodist response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. United Methodists from around the world opened their hearts and many opened their homes. United Methodists were among the very first to arrive with skilled help, and we are still there through hundreds and thousands of work teams along the Gulf coast providing clean up, rebuilding homes and churches, and helping with essential needs for families, children, and the elderly. I hope we can learn from these experiences so that we can respond even more effectively in the future, coordinating the work of connectional responses systems, communications systems, financial systems, and conference and congregational teams.
And I’ve been delighted with the work of some special projects such as “Nothing But Nets.” This extraordinary program unites the financial and charitable strength of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nations Foundation, the National Basketball Association, and the United Methodist Church to distribute mosquito nets to fight malaria through networks of United Methodist congregations, schools and hospitals throughout Africa. This program shows what can be accomplished when our connectional system becomes more nimble and quick to respond to changing opportunities, and when we are able to collaborate with general boards and councils and conferences and churches, and even with other organizations beyond our denomination.
And since last General Conference, the Council of Bishops has taken a more assertive leadership posture by defining the Seven Vision Pathways, and thereby stimulating the conversation across the general church about priorities of reaching young people, developing leadership, starting congregations, fighting deadly but avoidable diseases, etc. In collaboration with the General Boards, these seven pathways became the four themes that drive the General Conference sessions this year. This may not seem like much, but to have this much convergence and support and cooperation toward a unified focus has huge implications for the future of our work together. Rather than dozens of competing and separate claims, overlapping responsibilities, and conflicting directions, the General Conference has its best chance in years to agree upon how to live out its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Over many years, we became unfocused, lost our clarity of purpose, withdrew from congregational ministry, developed organizational systems that are not conducive to coordinated and effective mission and service, and we did this by shifting direction a few degrees at a time. The seven pathways and four themes are at attempt to shift us a few degrees or more back toward purposeful, mission-driven, collaborative and accountable ministry, and I celebrate this.
Since last General Conference, the first gathering of all the Bishops, Superintendents and extended Cabinets in more than forty years was held at Lake Junaluska in 2007. This event allowed the leadership of the church to focus on a common purpose and a common language, and to reconnect to our unique identity as United Methodists. I cannot overstate the importance of this event in reshaping and redefining our work and ministry as United Methodists as our leadership developed more confidence, hope and practical help in understanding how we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Another element of our life and ministry as United Methodists that I celebrate is the wide and ready reception the church has offered two books that help provide a common identity, purpose and language to our mission: Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations and Reuben Job’s Three Simple Rules. Laity, clergy, local church pastors, superintendents, bishops, conference staff, Sunday school teachers, study leaders – people from across our connection have embraced these as helpful tools to understand who we are as United Methodists and how we fulfill our purpose through congregations that God uses to transform lives, and thereby transform the world in the spirit of Christ. These have had a unifying effect, and have helped us shape a common ministry even across our various contexts, languages, and circumstances, and I give God thanks for the way these are forming us and provoking us to greater ministry.
There have been many other signs of positive change and faithful response during the past four years as United Methodists, but these are some I think are most pivotal, and from which we can learn much about how we move forward.
As for things to come: I pray that in the next four years we as United Methodists put more effort and focus than ever on starting new congregations and helping our existing congregations to become more fruitful. I pray for more and more United Methodist congregations that are clear about their purpose and confident about their future. I pray for that our congregations, faith communities, conferences and general boards learn and teach about how to reach younger generations with greater effectiveness. We must reach younger people better, and we must adopt systems of outreach, mission, worship, and leadership development that are relevant and helpful and sustaining to younger people. And I pray we develop a system of calling, recruiting, teaching, evaluating, and supporting people on track for certified and ordained ministry that is more simple, accessible, purposeful, and efficient. And I pray we create systems anew that make our responses to world needs – natural disasters, diseases, war, social inequities – quicker and more effective and that we become better able to mobilize the manifold gifts and talents and ministries of our people for the purposes of Christ during times of urgent need. I hope the decisions and deliberations of General Conference help us build on what we have learned positively during the last four years, and open doors for us for greater and more effective ministry during the years to come.
Pray with me for the lay and clergy delegates that are meeting on our behalf and in service to Christ in Fort Worth during these days of conferencing.
Grace and peace,