By: Christa Meland
“Our world has changed. And our methods of doing ministry have changed…Being a leader in the church today requires a new imagination for what the church looks like and acts like. But what has not changed is our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ who are equipped and motivated to change the world.”
That’s what Bishop Bruce R. Ough told more than 500 people gathered virtually during his final Episcopal Address to the Minnesota Conference on Aug. 29 (watch it here). In a very different kind of Annual Conference that took place amid the COVID-19 pandemic, United Methodists from churches across Minnesota came together to worship, celebrate what we have accomplished together, enact legislation, and be reminded what it means to be the light and live hope in a world filled with darkness.
Ough reminded those gathered remotely that in the midst of our being overwhelmed by disruption, death, disappointment, and despair amid COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd, and the unresolved division within our denomination, God speaks to us through the prophet Isaiah, who told his people exiled in Babylon, “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing praise to God from the end of the earth!” (Isaiah 42:10a).
The reason for striking up a “new song” in this liminal and divergent season is because God has already promised to deliver us, to never let us go, to hold us in the palm of God’s hand, and to lift us up as on eagle’s wings.
“The new thing God is doing in our lives, in our churches, in our denomination, in our communities demands a new song,” Ough told viewers. “A resurrection demands a new voice. The new creation demands we live the hope to which we have been called.”
Isaiah reminded his exiled people that the hope to which God had called them—the song they were to sing anew—was that they were to be the light to the world. Jesus echoed this same calling for his followers in his Sermon on the Mount. He teaches us that we are to live hope by “letting your light shine before people so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14).
The way Isaiah described being the light and living hope is a lot like what we have been saying and hearing on the streets of Minneapolis and hundreds of other cities since Floyd was killed, Ough said: Break the chains of injustice. Get rid of exploitation in the work place. Free the oppressed. Cancel debts. Share your food with the hungry. Invite the homeless poor into your homes. Put clothes on the shivering ill-clad. Be available to your own families. Stand with those who are oppressed.
If you do these things, Isaiah says, “then your light shall break forth like dawn…and your light shall rise in the darkness” (Isaiah 58:8a and 10b).
Ough noted that one of the most powerful and compelling phrases in all of scripture is “so that.” The prophets often urged the people to repent or remember “so that…” The gospel writers frequently concluded their reports of Jesus’ teachings with the phrase “so that.”
“We do something so that we get the impact or results we seek,” he said. “We continue something or change something we are doing so that we reflect the values we hold. We take certain actions so that our mission and vision become our current reality.”
For the past eight years, the Minnesota Conference has been on a shared Journey Toward Vitality:
• We have re-aligned and focused our resources so that every congregation could become a vital expression of the scriptural imperatives to grow in love of God and neighbor, reach new people, and heal a broken world.
• We conducted the Reach • Renew • Rejoice campaign so that we could start new congregations, renew existing churches, and develop a multiplication culture.
• We developed a robust clergy leadership recruitment and formation strategy, including our ELI Internship program, so that we could better support our clergy and call forth and equip the next generation of bold spirit-leaders.
• We launched a breakthrough prayer movement so that all our renewal efforts would be bathed in prayer and Holy Spirit-led.
• We launched generous givers and stewardship workshops and expanded our financial revenue streams so that we could call forth God’s abundant resources for mission and remain a vital, sustainable conference in the future.
• We engaged in ministry with the poor and a variety of global health initiatives so that our congregations could transform their communities by welcoming all to the banquet table.
• We have invested in our camping ministries so that more young persons are introduced to Christ’s transformative love.
• We approved an aspirational vision in June 2019 so that we can become a fully-inclusive conference, committed to justice and reconciliation, anchored in Jesus, our Wesleyan way of life, and the evangelistic task.
• We are addressing issues of systemic racism and privilege with renewed energy so that we can become a more diverse, inclusive expression of the kingdom of God.
• We are committed to staying together and staying strong so that we can make good decisions from a position of strength for all congregations on the other side of the postponed General Conference.
• We are working to leverage technology and develop online resources and learning platforms so that we can better support congregations and leaders in a new virtual world church.
Ministry has new, profound challenges, Ough acknowledged. But the call to leave Jerusalem and go into the world to make and equip disciples has not changed. He concluded by urging Minnesota United Methodists to always say “yes” to being the light to the world, a beacon of hope in the darkness. And he reminded them: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people so that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Jesus, who called you out of darkness, into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9).
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church