By: Christa Meland
A newly formed strategy team aims to help the Minnesota Conference move forward and stay together in this season of change within The United Methodist Church.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough and Rev. Cindy Gregorson, the conference’s director of ministries, convened the theologically diverse, 16-person team, which met for the first time Feb. 6. In recent years, a subset of the Extended Cabinet has comprised a strategy team whose work focused on advancing our Journey Toward Vitality; but in this time of change, they sought to bring to the table a wider diversity of voices and representatives of key guiding coalitions.
“We wanted to harness the wisdom and the connections from those coalitions so we can share knowledge and insight to help us navigate this season of change and move forward together,” said Gregorson. “My hope is that by pooling our wisdom and knowledge and developing a mutual understanding, we can offer to the Minnesota Annual Conference a way forward that helps us stay together as a United Methodist Church that’s fully committed to our vision of a beautiful, diverse, inclusive church that is offering abundant life to all.”
At the initial meeting, strategy team members spent time talking about the landscape of the denomination as it wrestles with differing perspectives on LGBTQIA+ inclusion, the various caucus groups that exist, questions that they’ve been hearing, and their hopes for the Minnesota Conference.
After significant discussion, the group articulated some agreed-upon goals:
· Desired outcome: Remain a Minnesota Conference in the continuing United Methodist Church and bring as many people and congregations as possible. For those who feel they can’t stay, support them in making an alternative decision with graciousness.
· Shorter-term goal: Stay strong and stay together so that we can make good decisions and graciously help every church and pastor find a place where they can live out their call with integrity.
· Longer-term goal: Fulfill the aspirational vision passed at the 2019 Annual Conference as part of a continuing United Methodist Church that makes room those across the theological spectrum.
“I was encouraged by the fact that people with different theological/biblical perspectives on human sexuality sat down at the table and began to have real conversations and navigate the path forward together,” said Rev. Woojae Im, who serves Church of Peace in Richfield and leads Minnesota Mosaics, a group working to promote the full inclusion of ethnic minorities and ministries in the life of the church. “In my wild dream, this team may help the conference find a way forward…Based upon the vision we passed, everyone may find his or her place and feel welcome and accepted.”
Members of the team present included Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Rev. Ron Bell, Rev. Kevin Fox, Rev. Cindy Gregorson, Rev. Woojae Im, Rev. Dan Johnson, Christa Meland (conference director of communications), Rev. Nate Melcher, Dave Nuckols (conference lay leader), Rev. Jeff Ozanne, Rev. Fred Vanderwerf, and Rev. Carol Zaagsma. Those on the team but not present at the initial meeting are Rev. Terri Horn, Rev. Tyler Sit, Jody Thone (conference director of leadership development), and Rev. Mariah Furness Tollgaard.
Rev. Fred Vanderwerf, Southern Prairie District superintendent, noted that while those present described the landscape within the Minnesota Conference—the various caucuses, positions, and groups—it was clear that each one of these circles feels vulnerable in this current climate. “No matter who we are, we aren’t feeling safe,” he said. “Ironically, it was encouraging to me that we all feel small and at-risk, because that commonality is something we can build on to make sure we all land safely into God’s preferred future.”
The group spent significant time talking about the conference’s aspirational vision and how it resonates differently across the conference depending on one’s theological viewpoint. There was consensus around the idea that while the vision is an important framework for the Minnesota Conference, work must be done to clarify what the vision means for Minnesota United Methodists and to help all people and churches find their place within it.
In reflecting on the first meeting, Rev. Carol Zaagsma said she believes it’s critical for every pastor, individual, and congregation to read and have conversation around the vision.
“It is not the only thing that will carry us forward together, but it is a common framework for which we can aspire to live into,” said Zaagsma, who serves Portland Avenue UMC in Bloomington and is on the Minnesota Methodists steering team. “So many across our annual conference are looking for concrete steps to take in moving forward together. My hope is that this strategy team will provide some of the clarity that individuals and congregations are looking for.”
Rev. Kevin Fox, who serves Freshwaters UMC in Princeton, said he appreciates that the strategy team is a cross-section of the various constituencies that make up our annual conference and that members were willing to be vulnerable and honest with one another.
“If we can, from this collaborative strategic effort, clearly communicate the goals and expectations of the aspirational vision of the Minnesota Annual Conference for the sake of all of our pastors and churches, I believe it will help pastors and congregations make responsible, thoughtful, and healthy decisions for themselves in their missional relationship to and with the conference,” he said. “My prayer is that in this divergent time we can exemplify grace and love, reduce harm to one another, and walk with integrity, honor, and respect in our respective callings to follow Jesus Christ.”
Based on the conversation during the first meeting, Bishop Ough named and articulated several key themes that seemed to emerge—and team members affirmed them:
· Trust (How do we build as much trust as possible or not further erode trust?)
· Place (Will I have a place in a continuing Minnesota Conference?)
· Identity (What vision or values will we embrace, and how will we live into the aspirational vision our annual conference decided on last year? What are the values of our annual conference?)
· Relationships (How do we not harm, disrespect, or discount one another? How do we separate without using divisive processes or create further division?)
· Structure (What will be our new structural realities? Can we maintain viable missional outposts/local churches? Can we maintain a sustainable annual conference, and which structural adjustments might we have to make in order to be sustainable?)
· Actions/pathways (What are the actions or outcomes that need to be shortly developed in order to help give people some sense of encouragement to stay at the table?)
The strategy team will meet again March 2. The scope of work that members laid out before them is:
1. Articulating and communicating why we are better together and what our shared identity is (who we are and who we want to be).
2. Identifying the work that must be done to repair trust and assure place, and for people who can’t say “yes” to staying together, determining how to bless them as they embark on a different path.
3. Engaging in real and honest conversation and demonstrating mutual respect and understanding, knowing how we live together is as important as what we do together.
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church