April showers bring May flowers. Maybe not so much in Minnesota. In Duluth, the city in which I have spent more of my life than any other place, April showers are often snow showers, and snow showers not infrequently extend into May. One just hopes most of May’s showers are rain, and that by the end of the month some flowers can be planted.
Whatever the weather, this May we are heading into Annual Conference. It will be our first in-person Annual Conference since 2019, and our theme will be “Jesus: Healer.” It will be a joy, and it will be different than Annual Conferences past. We have reasonable policies in place that promote the health and well-being of all who attend, and the Sessions Team will review our health protocols every week until Annual Conference. I am looking forward to being with you all in St. Cloud.
While Annual Conference is joyful, we also know that we meet in the midst of significant denominational tensions. Thinking about that, and thinking about the weather, as good Minnesotans often do, I invite us to think about “rain” as we prepare for Annual Conference. We can all show up with our best selves. We can pray and we can be gracious and patient with one another. And “rain” may help.
In this case, I am not talking about precipitation, but about a therapeutic practice. Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Judson Brewer, in his book “Unwinding Anxiety,” uses rain as an acronym for a practice “that helps you to stay present so that you don’t freak out when an anxiety loop hits”: Recognize what is going on inside of you and Relax into your feelings. Allow those feelings to be there and Accept them for what they are at the moment. Investigate your sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Note what is happening from moment to moment. RAIN. This practice is intended to slow our thinking/feeling/acting response process so that we respond more than react, so that we can lean into productivity and away from reactivity.
Let’s practice, first by acknowledging some current realities in our denomination and our conference.
General Conference has now been postponed until 2024. This is creating a great deal of anxiety and frustration. The Global Methodist Church launched on May 1, 2022, and several churches and pastors within our conference intend to become part of this new expression of Methodism. Yet the way forward is more complicated without General Conference. The Minnesota Conference currently has one clear path for churches to depart, and that is the process rooted in paragraph 2553 of “The Book of Discipline.” That paragraph was approved at the 2019 General Conference, and its intent was to provide a way for individual congregations to disaffiliate. It presents challenges when working with a group of churches. I am committed to working to see what additional pathways there may be, exploring additional parts of “The Book of Discipline.” I know there is legislation being proposed for our Annual Conference specifying what some of those additional pathways will be.
I expect the debate about that petition will be lively and vigorous. Whatever the result of the legislative process, I will hold together kindness and fairness with my fiscal and fiduciary responsibilities to the Minnesota Conference and The United Methodist Church. I will continue to be in conversation with conference leaders and with those who may seek to leave. Conference leaders will continue to develop resources for congregational discernment. I invite you, if interested, to seek out information directly from the Global Methodist Church, which is the best source for learning about its plans, hopes, and dreams.
I am also committed to sharing the ongoing story of The United Methodist Church and the Minnesota Conference. Moving into the future, The United Methodist Church will continue to focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We will be a church that works to include all persons and to make changes so that the church better reflects the beautiful diversity of God’s people and builds beloved community. We will continue to have global connections and global impact. We will continue to help people connect more deeply with God through Jesus Christ and be open to new ways of doing that through worship, spiritual disciplines, and building community. Through and following whatever separation will happen, The United Methodist Church will continue to change to meet the needs of new people, new generations, and a changing world. We don’t know exactly what that will look like.
We do, however, know that the Minnesota Conference is committed to the creation of more beloved community and committed to making changes, spiritual and structural, so we can better embody the mission of the church in this day and time. We have a vision for every congregation to be a vital expression of the ministry of Jesus Christ in creating new places for people, helping people grow in love of God and neighbor, and working to heal a broken world. We do this work seeking to embody four values: rooted in Jesus Christ, grounded in Wesleyan theology, inclusive of all, and engaged in the work of justice and reconciliation. The Minnesota Conference is clear about who it wants to be within The United Methodist Church and the direction in which we are moving. There will be debates about just what this direction requires, and some of our legislation this year offers specific initiatives for living out our vision. I also expect the conversations about these petitions to be lively.
Lively and vigorous conversation is part of the democratic process of Annual Conference. The expectation of such conversation in the Wesleyan tradition is high. “Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?” We may not always succeed, but we might be helped by some May “rain.” As we prepare for Annual Conference, let’s recognize where we are, and perhaps remembering that Russia remains at war with Ukraine will help us keep perspective. Let’s accept our current reality of pending separation, even as we also work toward a new future. Before we rise to speak, let us take time to investigate what’s going on inside of us so that our speech may be seasoned with salt. Let’s lean away from reactivity and toward productivity, producing fruits of the Spirit.
And if this rain practice seems unfamiliar, remember that this kind of mindfulness and thoughtfulness has deep roots in our scriptures. “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (I Corinthians 16:13-14). “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).
As we gather for Annual Conference, pray for May showers, for “rain,” for the living water of God’s love to pour forth as we celebrate “Jesus: Healer.”
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church