Two branches of the river

September 02, 2021

We are paddling through some rapids, and the goal is to stay upright in the canoe so we can get through them. At the end, there will be two branches of the river and we need to be prepared to choose one of them when the time comes.

That is a paraphrase of some words that Rev. Roger Spahr, retired Dakotas clergy, offered to the New Day Conference held in Sioux Falls, South Dakota Aug. 20 and 21. The gathering invited people to come and learn more about forming a regional conference in the Upper Midwest for the emerging Global Methodist Church. I went to listen and learn. In this time of social media soundbites, I find firsthand information to be so much more helpful. I won’t try to recount the content of all the speakers. You can listen to them yourself here. Instead, I will simply offer my impressions and takeaways.

As I do that, I note where I sit: I am a centrist who has always believed the strength of The United Methodist Church is that we are born out of a revival movement that was about sharing the good news of Jesus in word AND deed. In my role, I also have a key responsibility for the stewarding the Minnesota Annual Conference, so I come at this conversation as one in the institutional center of the current form of The United Methodist Church. And my own personal conviction is the church is the one place where we should be modeling what it means to live together in love, and so it saddens me anytime we are talking about separation. It is so antithetical to my understanding of the body of the Christ. That said, I walked away from the New Day Conference recognizing that Roger Spahr’s metaphor may be an apt one, and the work of this season is helping folks navigate a very challenging stretch of the river so that each clergy and church can find themselves on the other side strong, in a vessel that still will carry them, in a stream of the river where they can thrive and do ministry that is faithful and fruitful.

So let me tell you how I got there.

Embrace Church led worship at the New Day Conference in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

As I listened to the speakers talk about why separation is needed, and where the fault lines are (sexual ethics, authority and interpretation of scripture, centrality and nature of Jesus), I could hear the difference between individuals who hold differing convictions living and working together, and being in an organization that espouses values and policies that are fundamentally not in alignment with your theological assumptions and biblical worldview. There was not anything angry or mean-spirited said; it was simply offered as “we can’t live here.” And I get it. Because as I listened to them, I knew I could not live there. Many of things I heard I would agree with, but there were a couple deal breakers for me that made me say, “I do not belong here.” It’s the same reason I could not be a part of any faith tradition that does not recognize the leadership and ordination of women.

At the same time, as I looked around the room, there were friends, colleagues, United Methodists with deep roots in this church. We have shared history, and how we treat one another in this time of discernment, while we are paddling these same rapids, matters to me—even if we are heading into different branches. I have had parishioners come to me and say, “we need to leave; this church is no longer a fit for us.” I have walked with clergy who have left our conference and denomination because they knew they belonged somewhere else. These instances always made me sad. When two tithing families left the same summer when I was a local church pastor, I gulped a bit harder because I knew the financial consequences, but ultimately, I knew I could not hold them where they did not want to be. They were adults, and I had to trust that the kingdom of God was more than this one local church, offer my blessings, and pray for them as they continued their spiritual journey elsewhere. I also had to believe that if we were faithful listening to and following God, we would be fine with their leaving—even while it created a hole. Others would come, and time would heal that loss.

What I most appreciated about the New Day Conference was the call and challenge to go deeper. Rev. Joy Moore put it very succinctly when she said that we cannot be a church that looks like the people in the room (which was predominantly middle-aged and older white folks). I would say that statement also applies for the continuing United Methodist Church. How will we be a church that lives its value to be relevant and inclusive of all, reaching younger, newer, and more diverse people? This continues to be our challenge, and separation will not miraculously solve it. We are an aging church and we have been affected deeply by a pandemic that has taken away relational proximity and social ties that were our main ways of connection.

My other takeaway was that people are tired with fighting with one another and are simply hungry for a vision for the future. They want to be part of something that has energy and momentum. People came together to worship, to be inspired, and to see how they could be part of something that would have a kingdom impact. I don’t know if the Global Methodist Church will be able to sustain that or not. I looked at the transitional Book of Discipline they are using to start up, and I was surprised by how much structure they were carrying over from the current Book of Discipline. It did not feel as fresh and new as it could have been and seemed like a missed opportunity from my perspective. But I would say the same is true for the continuing United Methodist Church. If we think finally having a General Conference and ending this protracted debate will be enough to free us for forward momentum, we are in for a rude awakening. We need a compelling vision of who we will be, and a willingness to radically reimagine how we will go about our way of being church for the sake of fulfilling our mission.

The good news is in Minnesota, we have started that work. We have a vision: to be an abundant life in Jesus movement, where all churches are vital expressions of the gospel imperatives to grow in love of God and neighbor, reach new people, and heal a broken world by being rooted in Jesus, grounded in Wesleyan theology, inclusive of all, and engaged in the work of justice and reconciliation. We have declared who we want to be. Now we continue the journey to live fully into that vision, inviting all who will to join in, maintaining grace and respect for everyone wherever they are on the journey, and blessing one another if there is another branch of the river that they are called to explore. But in the meantime, while navigating these rapids together, we commit to helping everyone keep on paddling and not fall out of the canoe. This is how we be the church.

Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries and clergy assistant to the bishop for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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