Bishop Palmer: The First Two Years
In our initial interview, we asked you about your first impressions of the IGRC. What is your impression of the IGRC after two years of living among us?
Bishop Palmer: With either same words or in other words, I recall that among the things that were remarkable to me upon my arrival was the extraordinary giftedness -- particularly of leadership, in the life of the annual conference (lay and clergy). And secondly, strong resources in many areas beyond human leadership — material resources, spiritual resources, etc. The thing that I would add in 2010 is, it feels like, and I think there are some tangible, visible signs, that we are increasingly positioning ourselves and moving in the same direction as an annual conference. And I think that’s an outgrowth of all of the good there has been as well as a kind of beating the drum of saying, “we can get more momentum and traction if we’re moving in the same direction” which is always about making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
What do you see as the challenges facing the IGRC in being more faithful to its vision and mission? Where should we be focusing our attention?
Bishop Palmer: I think the first thing we will want to pay attention to -- in terms of the way in which it creates a drag on the system and therefore is a continuing challenge – is what I’ve noted is in some cases, a fear of the future and what I would call a neurotic longing for a past that is not going to return to any of our congregations or to the life of this annual conference and for that matter, the denomination. And that kind of looking inward and backward can be like trying to run a race with weights on so we have to continually keep rising above our fears and celebrating our victories in the life of this annual conference and in particular local churches. I also see as a continuing challenge but an enormous opportunity the rich diversity of the annual conference and the communities and cultures that are within the bounds of the annual conference.
The challenge is we can see diversity as a problem or we can see it as an opportunity and I think we ought to seize it as an opportunity and there are signs of that to see our theological richness as a gift to be celebrated -- not as a problem to be solved or other people to be fixed. Our diversity in the culture as an opportunity for the church itself in Great Rivers Annual Conference to become more diverse not only theologically but I want to say in terms of specific — a greater participation racially, ethnically and in terms of language groups.
I think the other challenge that we face is — this is not many but sometimes they are attention getting — the number of churches that do not seem to be focused on the primary mission and I think that’s connected to the fear thing and it’s understandable at one level. They are worried about their survival as “Will my church still be here?” But there is that point in which we must release that and seize on to another question because the ministry and the words of Jesus as best we know remind us that unless we give our lives away we will not have any life and if we will give our lives away for the sake of the gospel and for the kingdom of God, we will have more life than we know what to do with.
You said two years ago that you have never been more hopeful about the church than today. Where do you see signs of hope within the IGRC?
Bishop Palmer: What I mentioned earlier about an increasing sense of pulling together and particularly in this annual conference. In this conference and in the domination, we’ve been pushed back or pushed forward as the case may be to the basics and I’m delighted about that because we’re having to use — to coin a phrase from United Methodist Communications -- to Rethink Church. But the rethinking of it is not really new; it’s sort of an ancient future thing. What’s new to us — what’s new to some generations -- is what I call apostolic church. A New Testament church that is about worship, evangelization, outreach and the transformation of communities. It’s about both the content and the living of our belief.
So I’m just as excited as I can be that we’re having to ask questions in every local church, in districts, in regions: Why are we here? And why should God let us keep on being here? And why should we stay in business and call it a church? And if we’re not going to do the things that make us a church -- which begins with the proclamation of the Gospel, the celebration of life through the worshipping community and the sacraments — the teaching and translation of the faith, the transformation of individual and communal lives, etc., then we might as well take down the sign that says church and put up another sign that says we’re really a (and you fill in the blank) or take down the sign and close the doors completely.
So I’m hopeful because we’re wrestling with what I call root, core questions about being as a church. And I’m also very hopeful because, particularly in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, we do not lack any of the resources, spiritual or human, intellectual or emotional and the list could go on and on to get done the things that God has put on our heart.
This year was the first year in several years where the number of pastors ordained outnumbered the number of those pastors retiring and the average age also was significantly younger. What are the reasons for this changing trend?
Bishop Palmer: I don’t know if it’s a trend yet. It feels like we could be turning the corner. Some of it is the cycle of people running through the system for ordained, consecrated, licensed ministry and all of that and the way in which the Discipline currently reads after the major changes in 1996 have sort of caught up with each other in the best sense of the word so we are advantaged to that extent.
It appears — we do know statistically that the average age of those who are enrolled in seminary is dropping rather remarkably and significantly – particularly in looking at entering classes of key, major seminaries over the last several years. The question, the challenge that we will continue to face is: are the people – particularly the younger people who are entering seminary who feel a call to some form of particular ministry – will they see ordination in the life of the church and do they see themselves with that ordination the vast majority of them serving local congregations? To that end, the annual conference has to continue to recruit — to support people in that process financially and spiritually -- but more than that we have got to have a positive climate for ministry in our local congregations and in the annual conference so that younger generations entering ordained and licensed ministry see a place for themselves that doesn’t drain them of their enthusiasm and their passion for ministry but that they find that enthusiasm and passion continuing to be ignited.
Are we seeing our churches taking a bigger responsibility of sending their best and their brightest by asking those questions, “Have you considering the ministry?” Are we seeing a difference there or are there new settings that are enabling these young people to respond to the call?
Bishop Palmer: I think it’s in three categories. I think it’s in long-established churches, some of which have a strong history of encouraging people to consider “hopeful time Christian vocations.” I think it’s newer congregations, less than 30 years old, tend in that direction significantly and thirdly it’s reinvigorated congregations or congregations that have moved from one category in terms of size and scope of ministry and they see as a larger church and part of their responsibility is to feed the system with lots of people that are feeling a sense of being called to do more than serve in this local church as a lay person.
In your Episcopal Address you talked about several initiatives — one of them being the launch of a Conference dashboard. Can you elaborate on its importance in monitoring how we are doing as a church?
Bishop Palmer: I think it’s very important and can be very strategic. I think it will be a form of ongoing accountability to the mission so it’s not about accountability to the bureaucracy; it’s about accountability to the mission.
In any and every aspect of our lives, what we tend to pay focused, creative, energetic attention to tend to be the areas where we have the greatest accomplishments. So whether we’re trying to grow or whether we’re trying to downsize, in paying attention to it we get encouragement and momentum. And I think it is our way and one way — not the only way — but one way of saying the mission of making and maturing disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is important. And we ought to be checking in more regularly to see how we’re doing because if our stats are saying something – they say something to us no matter whether they’re flat, whether they’re moving upward or moving on a downward trajectory. But let’s say they’re moving on a downward trajectory, then we get to ask the question: This is significant, you know? We have 10 to 20 less in worship in a worshipping congregation of over 200 over the period of over a year. What happened? Where there 10 families or 10 households where people retired and moved out of the community? You know? What were our efforts in reaching newer people in the community who are un-churched or de-churched people in the community? So it’s kind of an ongoing wake up call. My prayer is that it won’t make anyone neurotic. It’s not about guilt. It’s about ongoing accountability to the mission and keeping enough of a check on it at the local level that we can have reasons to have the right conversations in every ministry setting.
Another of the initiatives was a major push toward eradication of malaria. Can you speak of its importance both to the overall commitment of the general church to eradicate the disease but also its ability in shaping and forming us in mission?
Bishop Palmer: It will be one thing among many that we can do where we all are invited to pull in the same direction. Get traction, have momentum, have a target and hit the target dead on the bull’s eye. And that has a tremendous and powerful effect on a people —in this case the annual conference. If local churches have a target, they try to hit it and do hit it, it gives them traction and momentum.
The second thing is, that in almost every case when we give generously and even sacrificially to that which would fall under the category of mission or outreach, we do not suffer in our giving. The data shows otherwise -- giving to other things also go up. So that we can do more mission as well as care for the other sort of operational things that we have to care for to keep our congregations going.
So those are some of the hopes and dreams that I have. On the missional side, reducing the number of deaths from malaria is a worthy goal because it literally saves lives. I don’t know anyone who does not care about the more vulnerable people in this world, particularly children, who die needlessly from a preventable disease. The more people that we prevent from being infected by it, we will reduce the number of deaths. A tremendous amount of education goes with a net distribution and people begin to access other forms of medical care that they need in those places. So this is a doorway to holistic health concerns that we can as human beings, as Christians , and as United Methodists have as to the killer diseases that are particularly related to poverty.
Thirdly, and finally, if we can reduce the amount of attention that needs to be paid to malaria, for example, it frees resources both here and in the nations that are affected, to attend to other health concerns and other nation building concerns with regard to infrastructure, education, etc. We have a big passion in Illinois Great Rivers for Liberia let’s say. So if we can add to our commitment in Liberia -- helping to reduce the number of deaths and sickness from malaria -- imagine the attention that can be paid to starting more schools and opening more churches.
The Council of bishops’ president, Bishop Goodpaster, the COB Executive, Bishop Irons, issued a pastoral letter on the 9th anniversary of 9-11. You as COB President issued a call to civility just prior to the 2008 election. What role can the church play in the civil discourse of issues that are potentially divisive, and what have we learned at the national level that we need to bring into our discussions within the church? Can the church play a role in bringing civility and peace to events which capture our attention today?
Bishop Palmer: Absolutely. And thank you for simply naming that we are in a period that is not highly exemplary of civil discourse. And it’s all over the place, particularly in the U.S. But the lack of civil discourse exists in places outside of the U.S. as well. I don’t want to lose sight that it’s likely a global problem. I happen to live here; you happen to live here, so it’s sort of in our faces.
I think the church has the capacity to name it and to invite people to live in a different way that has nothing to do with partisanship, party affiliation and ideology. And we do it out of our rooted in Jesus Christ whose ways in every respect were peace but they were not less than truth-telling. To tell the truth does not mean that any human being or group of human beings ever has to be caricatured or denigrated. So we know what it’s like when people get caricatured and denigrated. They end up on a cross. as the Lord of the church ended up on a cross. So we can make sure that doesn’t happen by being what we’ve been called to be.
I’m amazed as I read the post Resurrection writings, namely the epistles of Paul and the pastoral epistles, how frequently those writers, when addressing the Christian community, were addressing the manner of our speech. Obviously, they are speaking in those contexts of our speech with one another. But if we season our speech and guard our tongues to say helpful rather than hurtful things in the Christian community, it is a natural behavior, I would trust, if it’s been disciplined in the church, to guard our tongues to be helpful rather than hurtful when we are outside of the confines of the church community.
So we have the privilege of modeling before people and I would say interceding for people to say: “No, it’s not that way. No that’s not acceptable behavior.” But here are ways that more resemble ways it means to be human, to be loving, to be just for those who are Christian, what it means to be Christian. But if we don’t model it, we can’t say to other people, let us lead the way, or let us show you how. And we’ve got to be very vigilant. We haven’t been perfect at this. Even in the church, sometimes our annual conferences and general conference sessions can get pretty rancorous. And name-calling. But if we can practice it at home when we go away from home, we can embody it in such a way that our light is shining and others will see our good works.