State of the Church Address: You Have Never Traveled This Way Before

May 20, 2020

Watch video address

Grace and peace to you from God, our creator, and the Lord Jesus Christ, risen and present with us every moment of every day, through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
I thank you for the privilege of sharing some reflections on the state of the church in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and postponements of the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences.
I invite you to pray with me as we begin:
            Holy, gracious, and ever-faithful God,
                 help us to always turn ourselves to You.
            In clarity and in confusion,
                 in delight and in distress,
                 in peace and in pandemic,
                 in proceeding and in postponement,
                 in comfort and in chaos,
            may our minds and hearts
                 find their way home and rest in you, O God;
            for your thoughts and your grace
                 are ever stayed on us, your beloved people.
            In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.
Directions for crossing the Jordan

The word “unprecedented" became overworked and tiresome weeks ago! I have used this term countless times to describe our current reality. As overworked and tiresome as it has become, it is our go-to descriptor because none of us have previously experienced such a rapid onslaught of a disease and consequent economic collapse. None of us in The United Methodist Church has previously experienced a postponement of General Conference or Jurisdictional Conference. We have never been called upon to lead through a pandemic of this magnitude or postponement of this consequence. In an overused and tiresome word—we are in an “unprecedented” season in our journey. This is the state of the Minnesota Conference.
But, as we know, this is not the first time the people of God have confronted unprecedented circumstances. As Joshua prepared to lead the Hebrew tribes in an unprecedented crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land, God gives orders for how to cross over. The Lord says to Joshua:

“I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9 (CEB)

And, as Joshua’s officers move among the people giving final directions for crossing the Jordan, they conclude with these words, which are instructive for people of faith in any unprecedented age or circumstance:

“You will know the way you should go, even though you have never traveled this way before.” Joshua 3:4b (CEB)

The church never closed
If I say nothing else of consequence in these reflections about the state of the church in the Minnesota Conference, please hear this: I could not be more pleased or proud of the manner in which the clergy, lay leaders, and our congregations have responded, and continue to respond, to the pandemic. Even though you have never traveled this way before, you have been faithful, courageous, strong spiritual leaders. You have trusted the Lord would show you the way you should go. Because of you, the church never closed—it just moved to new platforms. Because of you, Holy Week and our great canticle of hope, Easter, could not be stopped, or delayed, or diminished, or defeated. Because of you, the COVID-19 infection curve has been flattened and lives have been saved.
The stories and examples of your creativity and adaptability are heart-warming and transformative. You are perfecting online worship. You are conducting drive-in worship services. You are promoting and practicing social distancing as an expression of our commitment to heal a broken world. You are feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. You are advocating for our immigrants. You are cheering our health care professionals and supporting our essential workers. You are doing online Bible study and discipleship groups. You are using your phones and iPads and window visits to stay in touch with vulnerable and sheltering-in-place parishioners. You are being the body of Christ. You are lifting up the name of Jesus in remarkably fresh ways. You are being good shepherds of an overwhelmed people.
And in the process of keeping the church open and holding true to our mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” we are learning much. Amen? We are learning that the old adage that “the church is not the building; the church is the people” is absolutely true. As online worship attendance soars in many of our communities, we are learning that there are people hungry for the gospel of abundant life in Christ, both within and outside our churches. I realize we are struggling to measure online worship or to determine how valid the numbers really are. But, I remind you, we are a people that embrace the doctrine of prevenient grace. Never, never discount that the curiosity of an individual or family tuning into your online worship, for even a short time, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Many of you know my personal faith story. I came to saving faith through watching a few minutes of a televised Billy Graham crusade.
We are learning anew that our people are generous and desire to support the ministries of the church during this season of uncertainty and chaos. We are learning that change—even rapid, unplanned change—will not destroy the church. Now more than ever, we understand that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
It has become an inescapable fact that everything will now be different, but friends, that does not necessarily equal bad. Rather, it means opportunity to be unshackled from “we have never done it that way before,” or from entrenched church politics and conflicts, or our obsession with legalistic, regulatory, structural-oriented decision-making filters. We are learning that the church is most alive, most relevant, most vital when it stands in solidarity with the suffering and impoverished and those yet to come to our sanctuaries.
Friends, thank you again for your courage, creativity, resilience, and adaptability during these weeks of crisis. But…danger lies ahead; or at least the possibility we will miss a new beginning for our congregations and the Minnesota Conference.
Re-launch every congregation
We are currently in a liminal space between an ending and a new beginning, between crisis and choice. The season of crisis is beginning to end, albeit slowly, carefully, and in a series of staggered or gradual steps. As you know, I recently requested our Minnesota congregations extend the suspension of in-person worship until May 30 and to use these next weeks to develop detailed plans for safely returning to in-person worship.
The season of choice will soon begin to return. And we have an unprecedented—ah, there is that word again—opportunity to re-launch every one of our congregations in the Minnesota Conference. Never before has every church been thrown out of its building by a pandemic. Never before has there been so much disorientation. Never before have we had to learn so much in such a short period of time. Once the initial crisis calms, every congregation will have the choice to return to “normal” or to re-invent themselves based on what they are learning about themselves and their neighbors. So my question is this: Will your new normal be a new church, or a return to a pre-disruption, pre-pandemic normal?
For several years, we have been utilizing a number of congregational transformation processes in the Minnesota Conference—namely, HCI, MCCI, and multiplication training—to assist churches in launching new life cycles. We have learned some things from these procedures that are key to the post-pandemic re-launch of our churches.
Re-launch requires what Gil Rendle refers to as “Level Two leadership.” Level One leadership is about the energy and learning that accompanied being thrown into the COVID-19 context for ministry. Level Two leadership won’t be about how to fine tune online worship or giving. It will be about asking and responding to the questions about the choices we must now make, questions like these:
  1. What are we learning about ourselves and about our ministry and about our neighbors?
  2. What is God doing in our midst?
  3. To what is God calling us after shelter-in-place? 
I also like the Level Two leadership questions recently articulated by Rev. Fred Vanderwerf, the Southern Prairie District superintendent:
  1. What is surprising us right now? How are we experiencing God’s presence in a way that was unexpected?
  2. What are we recognizing we need to put aside, put away, or let go of forever?
  3. What expressions of the church are being born that we can help midwife?
Friends, the window for these courageous, re-launch conversations may be surprisingly brief. When it is finally safe to fully return to our church buildings, many congregations and leaders will be sorely tempted to turn back, rush back in fact, to the familiar. This is absolutely understandable given the emotional and vocational stress of having to make decisions so quickly and trying to care for an established congregation while creating or maintaining platforms for those yet to be reached.
Another key learning of our transformation processes that will inform re-launching our post-pandemic churches is that the churches best positioned to emerge from the changes imposed by shelter-in-place will be the ones that had the clearest sense of purpose and had embraced our Wesleyan commitment to the evangelistic task before the pandemic. Some congregations may have to painfully admit they cannot name the purpose of their church’s ministry. But, the good news is this liminal season between crisis and choice can be used to dream and determine your church’s purpose and create the narrative of the church you discern God is calling you to be.
I have been overwhelmed by articles with predictions and recommendations for the post-pandemic church. I am sure you have experienced the same. I don’t have time to curate a list or summarize the articles in this brief address, but I do encourage you to review the several articles and resources Christa Meland, our Minnesota Conference director of communications, has shared. Or contact Rev. Ben Ingebretson, our new church development director, for ideas and strategies for re-launching your congregation. You are entering the season of choice. I urge you not to miss the opportunity to choose a new normal that is life-giving and positions you to reach new people.
Doing our best work
In this season of pandemic and postponement, we are called upon to do some of our best work.
If you are a delegate to the postponed General or Jurisdictional Conferences, you will be called upon to help shape the next church and select the next episcopal leadership. If you are a member of the Minnesota Annual Conference Session, you will be called upon to guide the conference through the financial and structural impact of the pandemic and decisions of the General Conference. If you are a pastor, you will be called upon to launch a new church. If you are a lay leader in your congregation, you will be called upon to champion a narrative of innovation, adaptation, and missional focus. As a bishop, I will be called upon to walk with the Minnesota Conference in the aftermath of a natural disaster and in preparation for a new expression or expressions of our United Methodist Church.
We are all being called to a season of profound adaptive leadership and the changes that are and will be required of us. In almost every way, we are adapting to a changed environment—being a global church, the movement toward inclusion, the implications of COVID-19, and the opportunity to choose a new future, a new “normal.”
To give adaptive leadership in this season will require many skills and re-orientations. We will need to guard against being buried so deeply in our online worlds that we fail to notice the hungers for food, justice, racial reconciliation and access to equal health care that are going on all around us. We will need to offer a realistic diagnosis of what is going on in our church. This requires the discipline and practice of listening to God and one another. We will need to commit to doing no harm to one another so we can do the work of God. We will need to renew ourselves; we must first be disciples if we are to lead. We will need to remember that all positive movement toward the kingdom of God begins within our own hearts.
And, above all, we will need to stay connected to our values, vision, and mission. Our Wesleyan tradition affirms the grace of God, a journey toward holiness, which is the love of God and neighbor, and life in connection.
At our conference session in June 2019, the Minnesota Conference overwhelmingly approved an aspirational vision that articulates four core values that will shape our identify and purpose as we move forward: “We envision a Methodism that is rooted in Jesus, grounded in Wesleyan theology, inclusive of all persons, and engaged in the work of justice and reconciliation.”
The best work we are called to do in this liminal season is to mobilize the Minnesota Conference to fully embrace and incarnate these values. This will include engaging our congregations in meaningful conversations about these values. It will mean respectful dialogue between more progressive and more conservative members of our conference. It will require understanding that inclusion requires us to fully embrace the diversity of race, cultural heritages, and sexual orientation within the body of Christ in Minnesota.
The Minnesota Conference has the potential to model for the rest of The United Methodist Church what it looks like for all of God’s children to stay together and stay strong, not in spite of our differences but because we respect and embrace our differences. We can model for the rest of The United Methodist Church that we are better together.
The postponed 2020 General Conference will take up the painful matter of schism because we have singled out one group of persons in our Book of Discipline and characterized them as being an exception to much of the narrative about the wideness of God’s mercy. Regrettably, this is not the first time in our history as a Methodist movement we have done this. The best work we must rise to in this season of postponement is the conciliar work to reconcile our faith in the wideness of God’s grace with the gifts and courage of the LGBTQ community who have always been a part of the body of Christ.
I do not want the 2020 General Conference to determine the identity or fate of the Minnesota Conference. This work belongs to us. Let us do our best work in these days of postponement, even as we attend to the suffering and disorientation of the coronavirus pandemic.
The liminal time between the postponed 2020 General Conference and the re-scheduled gathering in August 2021 is not something we would ever choose. And we certainly would never choose the disruption of a global pandemic. But these next 12 to 18 months can actually be an advantage for us. It is a time to move beyond urgent tactical, and often political, decisions to truly re-imagine and re-design our future as a Minnesota Conference.
We are all in this together
I cannot begin to count the number of times during this pandemic I have heard the phrase, “We are all in this together,” or the related phrase, “We can get through this together.” I think it may be nearly as many times as I have heard the word “unprecedented.”
For Methodists, this is not a new concept or a new emphasis or even a new strategy for managing disorientation. John Wesley invented “we are all in this together.” We call this connection.
Although Wesley was an organizational genius and is rightly credited with insisting there be a “method” or organizational purpose and direction to all of the movement’s spiritual formation as well as evangelistic and missional activities, he primarily understood connection as covenantal relationships. He promoted the transformational power of spiritual relationships, missional relationships, and conferencing relationships.
Ironically, but for me not surprisingly, we are rediscovering the importance and strength of our Methodist connection in this season of social distancing. Our connection is being re-invigorated. We have discovered that persons inside and outside our churches are yearning for connection, even while they remain six feet apart. We have discovered that the legacy of our face-to-face relationships in annual conferences, local churches, and fellowship meals enable our virtual meetings and online worship to actually work. We have discovered the connection has allowed us to quickly move to address the human suffering created by the COVID-19 pandemic and other tragedies that continue to unfold, even as they are overshadowed by the pandemic. We have discovered that our connection provides pension holidays and assists with Paycheck Protection Program applications and helps make clergy financially whole. We have discovered that superintendents are more connected to their clergy than ever before, and pastors more connected to their parishioners. We have discovered our connection has enabled us to band together to do community worship services and feed those in our communities already experiencing food insecurity.
Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson in the North Georgia Conference first surfaced the hashtag #leanintotheconnection. Friends, the state of our church in Minnesota will continue to be strong and vital if we lean into the Connection. We will navigate the liminal time between crisis and choice if we lean into the Connection. We will make productive use of a protracted season of postponement if we lean into the Connection. We can continue to be leaders in healing a broken world if we lean into the Connection.
In this season of trauma, uncertainty, physical separation, and the frustration and anxiety of unresolved schismatic forces in our denomination, let us continue to claim our strengths—connection, mission, the good news of Jesus’ love and grace. Let us continue to trust that Jesus will show up and show us the way we should go, even though we have never traveled this “unprecedented” way before. Let us be alert for the risen Christ who always falls in with us and accompanies us on the way, or walks through the locked doors in our lives and breathes on us the Holy Spirt and grants us peace.
Prayer during the pandemic and postponement
I conclude with a prayer for us during this season of pandemic and postponement. Portions of this prayer are adapted from a prayer written by Rabbi Spilker of Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul. Let us pray.

Holy One of Blessing,
       We need your loving embrace in this time of refraining from embrace.
       We need your guiding presence in this time of postponement of holy conferencing.
Help us breathe deeply;
       for a moment to close our eyes, to shut out the video screens and sounds
that have inundated us with news and become our surrogate community.
Help us to breathe deeply;
for a moment to calm our busy minds and anxious hearts that prevent us from listening to you and to our neighbors and to those with whom we disagree.
Help us to close down all inner and outer noise so we can nourish our souls.
We need your blessing of perspective and patience.
       This is not the first time of distress for humanity or our United Methodist Church.
May we be tough enough to face these challenges with perseverance.
May we be compassionate enough to care for all people, creatures, and our planet.
May we be trusting enough to endure painful loss of life and physical separation without
       dismantling our values of justice and democracy.
May we be faithful enough to follow You to places where we have never traveled before.
May You, Holy One of blessing, lovingly embrace us with creative resolve to do what is
       needed for ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, our church, and
       our inter-connected world.
In the powerful name of the risen Christ we pray. Amen.

Bishop Bruce R. Ough is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area of The United Methodist Church.

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