NCJ delegates talk anti-racism and future, vote to reduce bishops by 1
By Christa Meland
Director of Communications
Minnesota Annual Conference
LANSING, Mich. -- When Rev. Ron Bell was in high school, his father became superintendent of the Eastern District of the Delaware Annual Conference. As their family was moving into the superintendents’ big, beautiful parsonage in Eastern Maryland, the entire local police department surrounded the house with guns drawn and told Bell and his father to get on the ground with their hands behind their heads. Why?
“Because a little white girl across the street saw black folk in her neighborhood,” said Bell, who serves Camphor Memorial UMC in St. Paul, Minnesota. “That's when I knew race matters.”
Bell was among six “truthtellers” who shared their personal experiences with race at a virtual North Central Jurisdictional (NCJ) gathering that took place Nov. 10-11. IGRC clergy member, the Rev. Carol Lakota Eastin, also shared her experience as a Native American.
Approximately 250 delegates participated in the official Zoom meeting, and others from across the 10-conference jurisdiction watched it live online. Delegates spent the majority of their time together on three big topics of conversation—dismantling racism, the future of episcopal leadership, and the future of The United Methodist Church. On Thursday, they voted 142-13 in favor of a proposal to reduce the number of active bishops in the NCJ from nine to eight to align with the membership threshold for bishops that’s set by General Conference.
In the dismantling racism portion of the session, retired Bishop Hope Morgan Ward reminded attendees that the ministry of anti-racism centers in discipleship.
“The arc of history bends toward justice, and we will be forceful in pulling that arc down together, all to the glory of God,” she said. She noted that the Council of Bishops has centered the ministries of equity, inclusion, justice, diversity, and antiracism—and in doing so, has appreciated the work of Brian Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and chief creator of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. He urges four pillars for anti-racism efforts:
- Hear and share true stories; in particular, give space to and honor stories of people of color.
- Get “proximate” to the suffering and pain of racism and inequality.
- Expect resistance.
- Protect your hopefulness.
After hearing from Ward, the six truthtellers each issued a challenge to the North Central Jurisdiction and the Church.
“Justice takes more than just words; it requires sacrifice,” said Andres De Arco, National Assistant Director to the United Methodist Hispanic Youth Leadership Academy and a member of the West Ohio Conference. “What are you willing to sacrifice for justice?”
The dismantling racism session ended with small group discussions among delegates. They reflected aloud on a question posed by Bishop Tracy Smith Malone, resident bishop of the East Ohio Conference: As you think about your context and your discipleship journey and life in Christ, how might God be calling you to make a difference, to step out more boldly and prophetically…to put your weight on the arc of history, bending toward justice?
The future of episcopal leadership
Delegates voted 142-13 in favor of a proposal to have eight active bishops in the NCJ as of the next regular session of the jurisdictional conference—representing a decrease from the nine bishops who have led the jurisdiction in recent years.
In a presentation before the vote, Rev. Sara Isbell, chair of the NCJ Committee on the Episcopacy and a member of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, explained that if a jurisdiction falls below a certain threshold in membership, the General Conference makes a decision about the number of bishops needed for that smaller number of members. Although the General Conference has not yet met to vote on a reduction, for several years, the NCJ has been below the number needed to secure nine bishops—so such a vote is expected at the postponed 2020 General Conference, now slated for Aug.-Sept. 2022. The NCJ could vote to stay with nine bishops, but then it must figure out how to pay them, apart from the Episcopal Fund that typically covers this cost.
Isbell also pointed out that we’ve had an opportunity over the past year to practice operating with eight bishops. Since Jan. 1, Bishop David Bard has been serving Minnesota on an interim basis in addition to being resident bishop for the Michigan Conference, Bishop Laurie Haller has been serving the Dakotas on an interim basis in addition to being resident bishop for Iowa, and Bishop John Hopkins left retirement to lead the Northern Illinois Conference.
Before the vote, delegates met in small groups to explore a variety of questions around episcopal leadership.
“I urged my small group that our position should be "no changes" to the number of bishops until after the denomination could evaluate what remained after the passage of the Protocol” IGRC lay delegate Steve Schonert said. “That being said, I would support any reductions with an additional consideration of redrawing the conference boundaries.”
Due to the retirements of Bishops Bruce Ough and Sally Dyck, which previously served three of the annual conferences in the NCJ, two of the remaining six active bishops have assumed additional responsibilities for oversight of a second annual conference and retired Bishop John Hopkins is serving the third annual conference.
Likewise, the number of bishops has been temporarily reduced to six active bishops due to the medical leave of Bishop Frank J. Beard. Beard is due to return Jan. 1. Bishop Gregory V. Palmer is currently serving as interim bishop for the Illinois Area.
IGRC clergy delegate Eric Swanson said, “I support the choice to reduce the total number of Bishops to 8 as it is in line with the realities of our membership and finances. Our group talked at length about the overall health of the episcopal pool and ways we could re-imagine the talents versus needs of the NCJ that gives life beyond geographic areas.”
The future of The United Methodist Church
Drawing on John 6: 1-14, Bishop Laurie Haller told the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 to close the day on Wednesday. She pointed out that after the meal, Jesus told his disciples to gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.
“My dear friends, I know that you are tired,” said Haller. “We often think somebody else will gather the fragments of our beloved UMC and transform the world. But now it’s time for us to do something in the North Central Jurisdiction. The future of The United Methodist Church is in our hands, as we gather here to hope, to dream, to share the gospel, and to claim our connectionalism.”
Jesus sends you and me out to gather up the fragments, Haller noted, which are are our mixed loyalties, our stubbornness to forgive, our reluctance to accept those who are different, and our fondness for judging. But the fragments are also the loving words we say, the songs we sing, the money we give, the food we share, and the care we offer to the discarded and battered of this world.
“No matter how many fragments we gather up or give away, the basket will always be filled with God’s love, for the circle is wide, and no one should ever have to stand alone,” she said. “That my friends, is beloved community. That, my friends, is our vision. That, my friends, is the future of our church. It’s time for us to do something right now.”
Delegates spent time in breakout groups to discuss what they see as priorities for the NCJ going forward and what the NCJ should accomplish in the next two to five years to fulfill these priorities.
Swanson said prays for effective evangelism for the 21st century. “I pray for a commonality in Jesus and a generosity in form and function. I pray for the full body of Christ to be seen and celebrated.”
Schonert. a member of Olney First UMC also cited evangelism as his hope and dream, noting that the first duty of the jurisdictional conference, according to the Book of Discipline, is evangelism.
“My hope, dream and prayers are that both the Post-UMC and the Global Methodist Church are in a better position to reach those who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ and create a multitude of new disciples,” he said.
(IGRC Director of Communications Paul Black contributed to this report)