I write this right after our Annual Conference and as I prepare for the Michigan Annual Conference. I want to begin by thanking each person who was part of our just-concluded Annual Conference session. There was some significant anxiety as we planned for our first in-person Annual Conference, at which we also knew we would be discussing challenging issues. I am grateful for all who worked so hard in planning and carrying out the conference. I am especially grateful for the way we met and conducted ourselves together. Our conversations were vigorous, but the spirit remained kind and respectful. The difficult votes on disaffiliation were taken with graciousness. We held together well all the varying emotions of that moment. I think we served Jesus well.
With this month’s blog, I simply want to update you on a few matters about which I have written much in the past days, weeks, and months: denominational news, conference news, our ongoing anti-bias/anti-racism work, and responding to the horrific violence we have experienced in this country in recent days.
As I noted last month, the Global Methodist Church (GMC) launched on May 1, 2022. I am unaware of any congregations in Minnesota who have yet joined the GMC, but I know there are congregations considering this. Some of the congregations that disaffiliated at Annual Conference this year may eventually join the GMC, but have not yet made that decision.
The Minnesota Conference currently has one clear path for churches to depart, and that is the process rooted in paragraph 2553 in The Book of Discipline, which was approved at the 2019 General Conference; its intent was to provide a way for individual congregations to disaffiliate. There has been much recent discussion of developing another pathway for departure based on paragraph 2548.2 in The Book of Discipline. I have expressed openness to see what additional pathways there may be, exploring additional parts of The Book of Discipline including paragraph 2548.2.
That said, I offer two updates. One of the significant concerns raised about disaffiliation under paragraph 2553 is the full payment of a church’s share of the Minnesota Conference aggregate unfunded pension obligation (aupo). I want to remind us that paragraph 1504.23, added to The Book of Discipline in 2019, applies the payment of the aupo to churches that leave under paragraph 2548.2 as well as paragraphs 2549 and 2553. The more critical update is to inform you that the Council of Bishops has made a request of the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision on the meaning of 2548.2. The Council is asking a number of questions that need to be answered before any further work on a pathway for separation could be developed using this paragraph. In short, working with this paragraph is currently on hold.
The Minnesota Conference disaffiliation task force will continue to review its current process using paragraph 2553. Allow me to reiterate, 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.
At Annual Conference, we introduced you to the members of the Transitional Table, a group formed that will help our conference look at staffing and structure possibilities as we move into the future. As was mentioned at conference, more than 50 persons were nominated and considered, every one of whom would have been a great member of this team. Unfortunately, a team of 50 is too large. Please pray for this team. In its work, we will seek deeper conversation with those who were nominated and input from a wide variety of individuals in the conference.
In this past year, I have invited every Minnesota United Methodist and every Minnesota United Methodist congregation to actively engage in some kind of work on race. You might read a book with a group. You might watch and discuss a film. You might engage in an inventory that could help you think in new ways about race and bias. You might visit a museum to learn more about the history of race relations in your community or in our nation. I hope you have done something. The need for this work was made painfully evident by the recent racially-motivated shooting in Buffalo, New York. This is an extreme example of how racialized thinking continues to negatively influence our life together as a country. And we are all part of a country where racialized thinking has played an important role in our history. If we are to be people who in the name of Jesus Christ seek to break down dividing walls, who seek to live in light of our affirmation that all persons are created in the image of God, and who seek to build beloved community, we must engage our history more honestly. As the late Congressman John Lewis wrote: “Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.” If you’ve not yet engaged this work, please do, and if you’ve begun, please continue. At our Annual Conference Session, we approved making the position of racial justice coordinator full-time and making it a director-level position. This is important, and the work of racial justice belongs to us all. Building beloved community cannot just be the work of one person, or of conference staff. It belongs to us all.
The recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas have again highlighted the significant violence in this country. Beyond mass shootings, which rightfully capture our attention, there are the daily acts of violence in our communities that leave people dead or injured. There are heart and soul problems here. How do 18-year-old young men become so alienated from their community and their own life that they commit such heinous acts of violence? There is work here for mental health professionals and for communities of faith. And we need to press the conversation, which seems never to get very far about how it is that semi-automatic weapons are so readily available to troubled souls. No law will prevent all gun violence, but might some laws help? Expanded background checks and safe storage laws have significant support among Americans, including many gun owners, a large number of whom already work to keep their guns stored safely. Can we begin our conversation by talking about these policies as public health policies?
Amid all this, find time to slow down, to rest, to enjoy other people and favorite activities. One way we keep our own souls refreshed for the difficult work that is ours is to find moments to appreciate beauty, savor joy, celebrate life, and connect with others. Wade in a great lake. Watch a sunrise or sunset. Go to a baseball game. Listen to music. Read just for fun. Hold the hand of a loved one. Hold a child or grandchild. Pray prayers of gratitude. “It is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 5:18). I’m with you on this joyful journey.
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