Rev. Carol Zaagsma: Finding hope at NCJ Conference

July 19, 2016
Members of the Minnesota delegation join in a celebration for retiring bishops.

By Rev. Carol Zaagsma

With all that is going on in our world, perhaps there’s little surprise that I arrived at North Central Jurisdictional Conference in need of a word of hope.
While the first stated purpose of a jurisdictional conference is to “promote the evangelistic, educational, missionary, and benevolent interests of the Church,” most delegates seem to give priority to our second duty, which is to “elect bishops” (¶27, 2012 Book of Discipline).

Seventeen episcopal candidates carried various endorsements from annual conferences, ministry teams, fellowships, and associations. We had four openings, so even with so many qualified candidates, not all would be elected.

At first, I was taken aback by the political climate as we gathered together. Nearly everyone here came intent on having their particular endorsed episcopal candidate elected. Given the Minnesota Annual Conference’s endorsement and our delegation’s endorsement of Rev. Dr. David Bard, I confess I came with that intent, too. I soon began to wonder if I would find that much-needed hope here, or if it would wait until some future time.

But then I found hope—or hope found me.

I heard it as the mayor of Peoria, Illinois greeted and welcomed us, and then, knowing that prayer makes a difference, asked us to keep his city in our prayers.

I listened to it in the preaching each day by a different one of our retiring bishops—words about building beloved community, assurances of a natural rhythm in life from equilibrium to tension and on to resolution, and never-ending images of unity amid our diversity.

I witnessed it in the humble and grace-filled words of a few candidates who publicly withdrew from the episcopal election process—candidates who, while understandably disappointed, still rose to speak a word of gratitude to God and to give thanks to members of the Jurisdictional Conference for the opportunity to be considered in the process.

I experienced it during a 90-minute block of time requested by the North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops for us to engage in a process of prayer, discernment, discussion and listening related to recent violence and racial tensions. During that time, I met with a lay delegate from Indiana and another from West Ohio. I called to mind and then shared my own encounters with racism. Then I heard stories from one delegate about her not-always-favorable experiences as a Korean immigrant, and from the other a determination for the church to be a leader and resource in helping her to teach her 2-year-old son to grow up with fewer racist inclinations. And finally our group of three made a commitment to take a more serious and critical look at the framed artwork and children’s book illustrations in our own local churches to assess how they represent Jesus in relation to race.

Each day I continued to find hope—or hope kept finding me.

I celebrated in it with each newly elected bishop, including Rev. Dr. David Bard.

An image of it was painted when a young adult delegate requested designated space for all young adult delegates to be able to gather to build community, and a delegation responded immediately to offer up their assigned meeting room for that very purpose.

And I was blessed by it in the fellowship with wonderful friends and colleagues, including both the Minnesota and Dakotas delegations, communications staff, and Minnesota friends serving on various jurisdictional conference committees, and in reconnecting with friends from around the connection whom I met at General Conference a couple months ago.

It’s easy to lose hope in these days of turmoil and terror, but we are reminded in Proverbs 23:18 that: “Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off.” Come to find out, in a delightful surprise, the 2016 North Central Jurisdictional Conference served as a timely and much needed reminder of this for me, too.

Rev. Carol Zaagsma was a clergy delegate to Jurisdictional Conference. She serves Portland Avenue United Methodist Church in Bloomington.

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