NCJ delegates talk anti-racism and future, vote to reduce bishops by 1
November 11, 2021
By: Christa Meland
When Rev. Ron Bell was in high school, his father became superintendent of the Eastern District of the Delaware Annual Conference. As their family was moving into the superintendents’ big, beautiful parsonage in Eastern Maryland, the entire local police department surrounded the house with guns drawn and told Bell and his father to get on the ground with their hands behind their heads. Why?
“Because a little white girl across the street saw black folk in her neighborhood,” said Bell, who serves Camphor Memorial UMC in St. Paul. “That's when I knew race matters.”
Bell was among six “truth-tellers” who shared their personal experiences with race at a virtual North Central Jurisdictional (NCJ) gathering that took place Wednesday and Thursday. Approximately 250 delegates and alternates participated in the official Zoom meeting, and others from across the 10-conference jurisdiction watched it live online.
Delegates spent the majority of their time together on three big topics of conversation—dismantling racism, the future of episcopal leadership, and the future of The United Methodist Church. On Thursday, they voted 142-13 in favor of a proposal to reduce the number of active bishops in the NCJ from nine to eight to align with the membership threshold for bishops that’s set by General Conference.
In the dismantling racism portion of the session, retired Bishop Hope Morgan Ward reminded attendees that the ministry of anti-racism centers in discipleship.
“The arc of history bends toward justice, and we will be forceful in pulling that arc down together, all to the glory of God,” she said. She noted that the Council of Bishops has appreciated the work of Brian Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and chief creator of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. He urges four pillars for anti-racism efforts:
Hear and share true stories; in particular, give space to and honor stories of people of color.
Get “proximate” to the suffering and pain of racism and inequality.
Protect your hopefulness.
Dave Nuckols, lay leader of the Minnesota Conference and a member of Minnetonka UMC, said what he appreciated most about the conversation on anti-racism was “the framing of diversity, inclusion and equity all being to core to what it means to be disciples of Christ, and how our often hard conversations are truly the work of discipleship and evangelism.”
After delegates heard from Ward, the six truth-tellers each issued a challenge to the NCJ and the Church.
“Justice takes more than just words; it requires sacrifice,” said Andres De Arco, National Assistant Director to the United Methodist Hispanic Youth Leadership Academy and a member of the West Ohio Conference. “What are you willing to sacrifice for justice?”
The dismantling racism session ended with small group discussions among delegates, who reflected on how God is calling them to make a difference and put their weight on the arc of history, bending toward justice.
“We recognized that racism has many faces of dominance, privilege, the superiority of one race over others,” said Rev. Woojae Im, a clergy delegate who serves Church of Peace in Richfield. “It camouflages well. We don’t need any more rhetoric or statements without commitments and actionable plans. We no longer need an aspirational vision to escape accountability and measurable progress. Building the beloved Church, a theme of NCJ this year, is a precursor of the kingdom of God where all races and people are invited and equally present to a table.”
Rev. Carol Zaagsma, a clergy delegate who serves Good Samaritan UMC in Edina, said the small group she was in generated ideas and individual commitments that she found hopeful and helpful: engaging with a minority business incubator, doing a prayer request swap between two congregations across cultural lines, youth group pilgrimages to civil rights sites in the South, and having conversations that help people recognize the truth of racism and our role in it.
The future of episcopal leadership
Delegates on Thursday voted 142-13 in favor of a proposal to have eight active bishops in the NCJ as of the next regular session of the jurisdictional conference—representing a decrease from the nine bishops who have led the jurisdiction in recent years.
In a presentation before the vote, Rev. Sara Isbell, chair of the NCJ Committee on the Episcopacy and a member of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, explained that if a jurisdiction falls below a certain threshold in membership, the General Conference makes a decision about the number of bishops needed for that smaller number of members. Although the General Conference has not yet met to vote on a reduction, for several years, the NCJ has been below the number needed to secure nine bishops—so such a vote is expected at the postponed 2020 General Conference, now slated for Aug.-Sept. 2022. The NCJ could elect to stay with nine bishops, but then it must figure out how to pay them, apart from the Episcopal Fund that typically covers this cost.
Isbell also pointed out that we’ve had an opportunity over the past year to practice operating with eight bishops. Since Jan. 1, Bishop David Bard has been serving Minnesota on an interim basis in addition to being resident bishop for the Michigan Conference, Bishop Laurie Haller has been serving the Dakotas on an interim basis in addition to being resident bishop for Iowa, and Bishop John Hopkins left retirement to lead the Northern Illinois Conference.
“On the one hand, we tremendously value our episcopal leadership, and yet on the other hand, we have to be thoughtful stewards of the resources we have,” said Zaagsma. “If the mathematics of the Episcopal Fund suggests we’re at a juncture where we can’t sustain and support nine bishops anymore, we need to adapt to that. For me, it’s the prudent thing to do.”
The future of The United Methodist Church
Drawing on John 6: 1-14, Bishop Laurie Haller told the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 to close the day on Wednesday. She pointed out that after the meal, Jesus told his disciples to gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.
“My dear friends, I know that you are tired,” said Haller. “We often think somebody else will gather the fragments of our beloved UMC and transform the world. But now it’s time for us to do something in the North Central Jurisdiction. The future of The United Methodist Church is in our hands, as we gather here to hope, to dream, to share the gospel, and to claim our connectionalism.”
Jesus sends you and me out to gather up the fragments, Haller noted, which are our mixed loyalties, our stubbornness to forgive, our reluctance to accept those who are different, and our fondness for judging. But the fragments are also the loving words we say, the songs we sing, the money we give, the food we share, and the care we offer to the discarded and battered of this world.
“No matter how many fragments we gather up or give away, the basket will always be filled with God’s love, for the circle is wide, and no one should ever have to stand alone,” she said. “That my friends, is beloved community. That, my friends, is our vision. That, my friends, is the future of our church. It’s time for us to do something right now.”
Becky Boland, a lay delegate and certified lay minister who attends Hamline Church in St. Paul, said the gathering both reminded her of the value of doing hard and important work together and gave her permission to hope for what is to come.
“I am grateful to the pandemic for producing a necessary call to shape ministry differently—and I look forward to our jurisdiction being a part of aspiring to who we can be,” she said. “Church as we have known it is dying—but the great news is we can work together into what we can be as church in the future. This conference was an important step in setting our goals of what church can aspire to be. And being a part of that work is an honor and gift. ”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.