Leading the church in a liminal time, living into our inclusive vision

October 17, 2019
Rev. Michelle Hargrave and Walker Brault present their ideas from a small group brainstorming session. Photos by Christa Meland.

By: Christa Meland

How do we lead the church in a divergent culture at a liminal time? Bishop Bruce R. Ough posed that question to about 50 Minnesota Conference clergy and laity serving in various leadership roles who gathered at Cross Winds UMC in Maple Grove (and remotely) Oct. 11. (View photos from event.)
The day included worship, small group reflections on leading at this critical time in The United Methodist Church, and exploring how to live into the inclusive vision that our annual conference adopted in June. It envisions a Methodism “rooted in Jesus, grounded in Wesleyan theology, inclusive of all persons, and engaged in the work of justice and reconciliation.”
Rev. Cindy Gregorson, director of ministries, set the stage for the discussion by shedding light on how our culture has changed over time and necessitated a new and different kind of leadership.
Drawing on wisdom from several books on leadership, she talked about the importance of beginning with a new narrative centered around hope for a better future, being driven by our “why,” having a spirit of exploration as we lead without knowing exactly what’s ahead, approaching conversations by listening and connecting rather than persuading, and working from the edge rather than the center.
Much of the day was spent talking about the Minnesota Conference’s inclusive vision—and Bishop Ough encouraged attendees to stay with and live out the vision statement, which he said affirms that “Jesus’ three key missional imperatives we have been lifting up as our vision for every local congregation—grow in love of God and neighbor, reach new people, and heal a broken world—are most fully expressed as an inclusive church,” later adding: “We cannot escape the biblical reality, the kingdom of God reality, that all means all.”
Bishop Ough also urged those gathered to stay engaged as we determine what God is doing in and through us, to rebuild our relationships and uphold one another in our spiritual journeys, to  return to the well every day to drink from the living water that only Jesus can provide, and to trust that God is doing something new in our midst.
In the afternoon, attendees broke into small groups around the four main values articulated in the inclusive vision (rooted in Jesus, grounded in Wesleyan theology, inclusive of all persons, and engaged in the work of justice and reconciliation). Each group explored our missional mandate related to the value, our motive behind holding that value as central, marks that would identify mastery of the value, and the steps or processes we need to put in place to live out the value.
In terms of specific actions we can take to live out these values, some of what the small groups named included understanding the landscape we’re in, practicing breakthrough prayer, listening to others, modeling best practices, sharing successes, creating systems to cultivate new leadership, equipping and empowering both laity and church staff, cultural competency and anti-racism training, starting over with The Book of Discipline, telling our stories, inviting people who have been marginalized to teach and lead us, and creating intentional mechanisms to talk with people who are different than we are.
“As we deconstruct the institution we have known…it leaves us less to declare to other people and more of a desire to listen,” Rev. Dianna Dunham Foltz noted in a large group conversation. The church she serves, Coon Rapids UMC, has been engaging in this process of deep listening and she said it has made people more vulnerable, increased intimacy in conversations, and changed the congregation in some incredible ways.
Several people talked about the importance of creating urgency and necessity around the task of creating an inclusive church, noting that individuals can and must shape the environment around them instead of waiting to be moved by the environment.
“When you are tired with purpose, sometimes you can do really extraordinary things,” said Rev. Carol Zaagsma, who serves Portland Avenue UMC in Bloomington. She penned the inclusive vision on behalf of grassroots group Minnesota Methodists and drafted a corresponding congregational study guide that she shared with attendees.
The day ended with an Q&A with Bishop Ough. One question that emerged was how to discuss the inclusive vision and the future of The United Methodist Church within congregations that have vastly differing perspectives on LGBTQIA+ inclusion. Ough implored clergy and lay leaders to engage their congregations in this conversation, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable the process, and suggested using Zaagsma’s study guide (which will be available soon) or the outline for the day’s gathering as potential frameworks. Conference Lay Leader Dave Nuckols recommends learning about the various perspectives that exist within a particular local church, and then engaging the congregation in a conversation around the Biblical foundations for each of those perspectives; he said this helps people to not reject differing perspectives as non-biblical and to appreciate that solid discernment processes can lead to differing views.
Ough urged Minnesotans to “stay together and stay strong,” noting that doing so isn’t about institutional preservation but rather being as prepared as possible for whatever comes next. But he and Gregorson also gave an update on a disaffiliation process for churches that a task force within the conference is developing and noted that the conference website will soon have a page with curated resources to help churches prepare for General Conference 2020. Conversations are also underway to create action plans for the Minnesota Conference based on various scenarios that could result from the global gathering when it comes to Minneapolis next May.
Ough pointed out that much talk these days is about divorce. “I do not want to deny or minimize this reality, nor do I want to neglect being prepared,” he said. “But I do want us to act out of a faithful narrative. And I believe that faithful, biblical narrative is that God is birthing something new, yet to be fully revealed.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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