Home from Annual Conference, Bishop David Bard actions taken at the 2019 session and reflects on what is yet unfinished as United Methodists move forward toward the 2020 General Conference …
Coming from the 2019 Annual Conference session for the first ever Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church, I recall words I read a number of years ago in a small magazine called The Sun. The editor was interviewing a psychologist named Francis Weller, someone I had never heard of before. In the interview, Weller offered these words: “The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them.”
Annual Conference stretched me as I carry both grief and gratitude away from it. I am deeply grateful to each person who attended. Overwhelmingly we conducted ourselves with graciousness and generosity of spirit in our sessions. Worship was wonderful as always. Our preachers and speakers were of the highest caliber. I was particularly grateful for and moved by Becca Farnum and Kristen Grauer, children of our Annual Conference whose lives demonstrate the power of God’s Spirit through the church to make a difference. Rooted and grounded in the love of God they learned in The United Methodist Church, these women are doing remarkable work in the world.
Each Annual Conference, I am grateful for the simple connections made. So many of you took the time to offer a handshake or a hug, ask me how I am doing, let me know you are praying for me, asked for a picture with me. Please know how touched I am by each of these offers of grace. Even though it is not always easy, even though I have to make some tough decisions that displease some, even though we cannot possibly agree on everything, I remain honored to be the bishop of the Michigan Conference. Whatever the future holds, I treasure these experiences with every one of you.
“Each Annual Conference, I am grateful for the simple connections made.”
The service of recognition, commissioning, and ordination is always moving to me. This year, one moment of particular delight was your celebration of the ordination of Lucinda Eastman of Liberia. Bishop Samuel Quire had emailed me just at the beginning of our Annual Conference to ask if I would ordain Pastor Linda Eastman. The request arrived out of the blue, and I needed some further clarification. Additionally, I had no idea who Linda Eastman was. In just a few days, questions were clarified, arrangements were made with our Board of Ordained Ministry and those planning the RCO service, and Linda Eastman arrived. During the service, I explained what was happening, I ordained Rev. Eastman, and you all received her with joyous celebration. At this time, when some of our global United Methodist relationships are strained, I was completely taken with that welcome.
I am grateful for much, but also deeply and painfully aware that many struggled with this annual conference session. The pain of our differences as United Methodists was often palpable. I remain convinced that The United Methodist Church needs to create more space between people in our church, whether that comes through forming separate Methodist denominations or organizing unique streams of Methodism whose relationship will need to be defined. There were moments when a pop song from the 1970s played in my head, The Carpenters, “we go on hurting each other.”
“I remain convinced that The United Methodist Church needs to create more space between people in our church, whether that comes through forming separate Methodist denominations or organizing unique streams of Methodism whose relationship will need to be defined.”
I leave Annual Conference stretched by gratitude and grief. I also leave with a sense of unfinished business. No, there were not resolutions that we failed to consider. We have some longer-term unfinished business.
We need to continue to listen to the stories of LGBTQ persons, or persons whose ancestry is not European, and of indigenous persons. This can be difficult work. All people do matter. All are loved by God and created in God’s image. All voices need to be heard. At the same time, we cannot ignore the history that has quieted and even silenced some voices. I am not requesting you to change your mind about something. It is a request for us all to acknowledge that sometimes our traditions and our biblical language have been used in ways that demean and damage. Can we hear those stories? For the kind of healthy conversations, we still need to have, we need to recognize our difficult history. I often thought this week of Jesus’ parables about coins and sheep, that though small and numerically slight, nevertheless were sought out. I am committed to continuing to listen.
We need to continue to listen to those whose voices were in the minority on a number of our votes. We took the temperature of our Conference. In our non-binding straw poll, 69% of those voting said that, given a choice, they would prefer a Michigan United Methodist Church that offered more openness to and inclusion of LGBTQ persons. Let’s acknowledge that this is a single snapshot, and it is the opinion of those gathered at this place and this time. 31% prefer a more traditional United Methodism for Michigan, at least when it comes to the place of LGBTQ persons. These are our siblings in Christ. Even if at some point we will be in separate Methodisms, we are together now, and we would do well to figure out how we might best bless each other in this in-between time. I am committed to reaching out and asking what mutual blessing might look like.
“Even if at some point we will be in separate Methodisms, we are together now, and we would do well to figure out how we might best bless each other in this in-between time.”
I heard from some of you that you have questions about our Board of Ordained Ministry. I am committed to continuing the conversation with them about the relationship between important values they have articulated and the disciplinary requirements for examining candidates for commissioning and ordination. Our Book of Discipline separates the power of the board and the work of the bishop, but I have appreciated the strong relationship we have developed with one another. Having served for many years on the Minnesota Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, I know how valuable a good working relationship is between bishop and board.
One of the most essential bits of unfinished business, and frankly business that will never be “finished,” is deepening the capacity in our congregations and relationships to discuss deep and difficult topics gracefully and thoughtfully. In our polarized world, we are not very good at giving each other a little space. We are quick to jump on a word that comes out wrong. We are quick to impugn negative motives to those with whom we disagree while neglecting to examine our own ability to be too narrow in our thinking or mixed in our motives. In our polarized world where counting votes can become more important than depth of discussion, we can neglect to plumb the deep resources of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to help us understand church, world, each other. Through the years, I have often asked, “What kind of gift might the church be to the world if we deepened our capacity for thoughtful conversation about really difficult concerns?” Sometimes we are remarkably good at this. Sometimes we are barely distinguishable from the network news talk shows. I am committed to working with whomever to see how we might deepen our capacity for rich, thoughtful, grace-filled, passionate conversation whose aim is a more profound connection and understanding than quickly convincing someone that our position is superior.
The final bit of unfinished business that I feel is this need to find a way into the future that indeed creates more space within The United Methodist Church. I would like to think we might have arrived there through the kind of rich and deep conversations I have just described. However, I don’t believe such conversations about LGBTQ inclusion are possible right now in our current institutional configuration, with our four-year cycle of General Conferences and our annual cycle of Annual Conference voting, with a denominational system that has brought us to a place of tightening rules and escalating reaction. We need new space, new birth, new creation. We need space for healing. We need space for fresh winds of God’s Spirit to blow.
“We need new space, new birth, new creation. We need space for healing. We need space for fresh winds of God’s Spirit to blow.”
I am committed to working with others in the wider denomination and here in Michigan to figure out how we can create such space. I am grateful that there are new possibilities on the horizon even as I grieve that this United Methodist Church as we know it will need to change dramatically to create sufficient space.
There is much unfinished business, and I also need some rest. I will be engaging all of the above while caring for the usual tasks of being a bishop. I am also going to find some time to disengage from work this summer. We have a daughter getting married later this month, and I am going to be fully present with her as dad (and officiant – ok, so a little work, but what joyous “work”). Julie will not be planning lessons in the evening, so there are walks to take and time simply to enjoy.
You all need rest and healing and time to breathe and laugh and play. Please take it. We will soon be at this work again, and all the work of being disciples of Jesus Christ so that our lives and the world can be different.
I celebrate being together with you all on the Joyful Journey.