As you might be aware, the Judicial Council—The United Methodist Church’s top court—recently shared several rulings that once again highlight the divisions and uncertainty that exist within our denomination.
As we continue to journey in this liminal time between what was and what will be, I realize those in our conference who feel called to a fully inclusive church remain hurt, disappointed, and frustrated by the impasse over human sexuality and the structures within our church that have contributed to it. I realize that those whose understanding of scripture leads them to a different understanding and position on human sexuality are also feeling deep pain as we navigate our life together. I know that I am called to serve as the bishop of the entire Minnesota Annual Conference.
As I have said before, I believe the best way forward for the Minnesota Annual Conference is to stay together and stay strong in this in-between time. This is not about institutional preservation, but rather, embracing our Methodist rule of life—do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God—so that we have a firm foundation no matter what the future holds or decision we might need to make. We have a common heritage, shared mission, love of the church, and valued relationships that bind us together and give us strength.
In June, at the Minnesota Annual Conference Session we adopted an aspirational vision that articulated a Methodism “rooted in Jesus, grounded in Wesleyan theology, inclusive of all persons, and engaged in the work of justice and reconciliation.”
I believe that Jesus’ three key missional imperatives we have been lifting up as our vision for every local congregation—grow in love of God and neighbor, reach new people, and heal a broken world—are most fully expressed as an inclusive church. I urge you to live into the vision we adopted as we continue to embrace our mission of making disciples of Jesus who are equipped and sent to make the kingdom visible and available to all God’s people. Above all else, Jesus’ ministry was to extend abundant life to all of God’s beloved children. Jesus’ ministry was for all and to all. God, in Christ, is constantly drawing the circle wider, constantly expanding the table of grace.
There is still much uncertainty about what will happen next May when General Conference meets. We don’t yet know whether The United Methodist Church might provide space for the different ways we do ministry in our various contexts, or whether we will be part of a new expression of Methodism to be birthed. But we as the Minnesota Annual Conference have clarified our values, and I, as your bishop, am committed to those values and vow to lead us down whatever path blesses and enables us to be the church God is calling us to be.
At the same time, I am committed to welcoming on that path faithful followers of Jesus who have differing understandings of biblical interpretation and how we live out our ethic of love. My earnest hope and prayer is that, together, we will continue the good work we are doing to be a church that boldly and compassionately reaches all people with the love of Jesus Christ. Indeed, I believe Christ’s prayer for unity calls us to live into our inclusive vision with grace and openness to different viewpoints. This is not a compromise of the values of inclusivity and diversity; it is an expression of those values. And this is the only way we can maintain an environment for effective evangelism and mission.
In the months leading to General Conference 2020, I and other leaders within our annual conference will continue to be in dialogue with those involved in movements underway in our conference and denomination. We will continue to engage in scenario planning so that whatever happens next May, we are prepared to communicate next steps to move forward and live into our vision for the Minnesota Conference.
In the meantime, the most important thing we can do as annual conference leaders is to facilitate conversations about the vision adopted at Annual Conference. Although there is much we still don’t know about what the future holds, it seems apparent that the denomination will change significantly in the months and years following General Conference 2020. It is critical for your congregation to have clarified its values and engaged in open dialogue in order to be prepared for those changes. I know from district superintendents’ reports on their fall check-ins with congregations that these conversations are occurring in many places already; I am grateful to the superintendents and all of you across the conference for your leadership in initiating these critical conversations.
If your congregation has not yet read or held a conversation about the aspirational vision passed at Annual Conference, a study guide created by Rev. Carol Zaagsma and Minnesota Methodists is a helpful tool to become familiar with the vision and explore how it resonates in your particular context. (Access 8.5x11 version or 11x17 version of study guide.)
If your congregation is already familiar with and committed to the aspirational vision, then I would encourage you to take a next step by using this congregational exercise to explore how you can more fully embody that vision in your ministry context. I urge everyone to prayerfully listen and look for how the Holy Spirit is leading your congregation.
In closing, I want to urge you—in the words of author Donna Haraway—to “stay with the trouble.” The premise of her book “Staying with the Trouble” is that, as leaders, we need to engage in the hard work before us, rather than ignoring, hiding, covering up, or pretending the trouble will go away. Leading in difficult times—or leading through difficult times—requires staying with the trouble. And the only way we can do this is to return to our center as Methodist people. For me, that center can be summarized in three words: Jesus, mission, connection:
ˑ Jesus is our salvation, our hope. Our first call is to a deeper affection or love of Jesus.
ˑ Mission is all we do to demonstrate Jesus’ love to others and invite them into a relationship—a journey with Jesus.
ˑ Connection is the gift of the Holy Spirit that binds us to Jesus, to one another, and in ministry to all the world.
The only way to discern what God is doing within us and through us at this time is to stay engaged. Jesus was tempted, just as we are, to disengage from his mission, to avoid the trouble, yet prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42 NIV). Then and only then did the angel appear to Jesus and give him strength.
Friends, let us as members of the Minnesota Conference not succumb to fear. Let us stay with the trouble and the mystery, and both trust and pray that God’s will be done in and through us.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area of The United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church