By: Victoria Rebeck
“Do you want to be made well?”
Jesus asked this of the invalid at the pool of Bethsaida (John 5). Bishop Sally Dyck asked it of the 760 Minnesota Annual Conference members during the opening celebration Wednesday night.
Church folk must acknowledge the ways in which they are not well and admit whether they actually want to be well, she said.
“Do we sometimes resist being made wellbecause we feel as if there’s nothing we can do to be healthy, vital Christians in healthy, vital churches?” she asked.“Would we rather be victims rather than victors over whatever challenges us personally, as congregations, or as a denomination? Every day we must make that choice.”
She identified some of the ways in which the church is ailing.
The Minnesota Conference has “lost 38 percentof our members since 1988 and our attendance is down 31 percent from that time,” she said. “When we lose that many members over time and our congregations lag in vitality, we have to admit that we’re in pain.”
A decline in membership is followed by a decline in funding, forcing the conference as a whole to reduce its budget. “The result is that our capacity as an annual conference is increasingly diminished in what only an annual conference can do: provide pastoral support through pension and health benefits, staff to help strengthen churches, and provide for mission in Minnesota.”
Balancing budgets is important, she said. “But no one gives in order to balance a budget. They give to a compelling cause: lives changed by being in a community of faith.”
The church is also in pain as it wrestles with its stance on homosexuality.
“The GBLT community and its supporters are not an isolated segment of our population or church,” she said. “In every pew there are family members and friends who are GLBT or closely related to someone who is.”
Another source of pain is the grief and hurt in individuals’ lives that lead to conflict in churches, which can lead to declining membership and attendance. “Nobody wants to be a part of something where you can feel the conflict when you just enter the door, much less experience it in words and actions,” she said.
The good news is, she said, that “Jesus is still in the healing business. He is also asking us, ‘Do you want to be made well?’”
Jesus’ imperatives to the ailing man are the same as they are to us, she said: Stand up and walk.
“It’s the first command to beat the odds on accomplishing big goals, to do what seems impossible,” she said.
“If we want to be healthy leaders in our churches, then we must follow the ways and teachings of Jesus,” she said. “I continue to believe, even more now than before, that the Gospel imperatives—reach new people and cultivate spiritual vitality—are the keystones to our vitality, health, and strength as individual Christians and as vital congregations. What we faithfully practice will produce fruit.”
Bishop Dyck challenged members to consider what they were being faithful to—balanced budgets or compelling ministry and mission? Our own certainty about our opinions or a commitment to work through our differences? Survival or extravagant hospitality and generosity?
Vital Christians make vital churches, she said. She pointed out a strong indicator of vitality in Minnesota United Methodist churches: the vision and generosity to raise over $2.4 million in pledges and gifts for Imagine No Malaria.
“Nothing has made me prouder over the past eight years serving as your bishop than your willingness and determination to commit to eliminate deaths by malaria,” she said.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church