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ABAR education moves forward

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The Michigan Conference announces updates to the Anti-Bias/Anti-Racism Education & Training online curriculum and our commitment to becoming an anti-racist conference.

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“Anti-bias, anti-racism work is not simply something to be checked off a list, but is deep soul work and an essential part of our journey with Jesus,” says Bishop David Bard when asked about the Michigan Conference’s learning tool that clergy and staff have been engaging since its release last spring.

Christ calls us individually and as faith communities to build God’s beloved community by dismantling racism and cultivating intentional inclusion. This call continues to ring in our ears. It’s a lifelong practice, the yoke we take up daily, faithfully, together. And Christ is there with us.

The Anti-Bias/Anti-Racism Education & Training is a custom curriculum designed by Michigan United Methodists for Michigan United Methodists to aid in this ongoing soul work. All persons serving under appointment or assignment in the Michigan Conference must complete at least one module per calendar year. Currently, there are seven modules. It is also required training for conference staff.

The deadline for completing at least one ABAR module has been extended to June 1, 2024. Clergy and staff were notified of this in a communication last month. In the email, Rev. Dr. Jennifer Browne, Clergy Assistant to the Bishop and Director of Connectional Ministry, noted that extending the deadline was necessary “due to a combination of technical challenges with the online platform and recently discovered discrepancies between the 2021 legislation that initiated our ABAR plan and its development into its current format.”

In late 2020, Bishop Bard formed the ABAR working group to provide resourcing, support, and advocacy for local congregations and pastors engaged in anti-bias/anti-racism work. At the 2021 Michigan Annual Conference, lay and clergy members affirmed the group’s creation. This group built the curriculum and now helps shape the Michigan Conference’s vision for future ABAR education and training. The ABAR working group continues to be convened by Rev. Dr. April Gutierrez and Rev. Dr. B. Kevin Smalls. Lisa Batten is the new Michigan Conference staff liaison.

Building the Anti-Bias/Anti-Racism Education & Training from scratch was quite ambitious. The research, writing, and editing involved in a project of this scope became a labor of love utilizing the varied gifts of the group. And Gutierrez is very proud of the result. She explains, “The curriculum is written by your colleagues and members of our churches who are passionate and brilliant. The modules are a culmination of ideas. Because we were trained together, they are rich because of the dialogue, and no one of us would have thought of the end product alone.”

Seeing the ABAR working group collaborate on this project has been a joy for Bishop Bard. “The working group represents the wonderful diversity of the Michigan Conference,” says Bard, “and has bonded together through this shared work and through their shared commitment to make progress in God’s work of building bridges and taking down dividing walls.”

The Anti-Bias/Anti-Racism Education & Training strengthens the Michigan Conference’s vision as guided by the Conference Leadership Council in two primary ways. It is helping the conference build beloved community by dismantling racism and cultivating intentional inclusion, and it is developing leaders by equipping people to lead the conference in its priorities.

The ABAR curriculum is rooted in our Wesleyan heritage and theology. There is a legacy of abolitionism and a long arc of justice work that has shaped our denomination. Learners look at The United Methodist Church’s long, complex history of practices, where racism and bias took root, and movements to repent and reconcile that need to be unpacked and learned from.

There are other aspects to anti-bias/anti-racism education that are woven in through the modules, including understanding systemic racism within American culture and society, learning about the effects of white supremacy on the church, building intercultural awareness in a particular setting, and moving from authentic allyship into multicultural ministry.

Bishop Bard notes that the ABAR working group has put together a strong learning tool for clergy and staff. One reason is that it’s a homegrown, contextual curriculum. United Methodists in Michigan wrote, edited, and curated the content, ensuring it addressed the issues facing our clergy today. The curriculum is also strong because there are practical projects to enhance the learning experience. The learning goes beyond just reading or watching video content.

Gutierrez agrees this is one thing that sets our training apart from others. “This curriculum is practice-orientated. This is different than most in that we are hoping that anti-racism is something we do together, not simply something we intellectually understand. The goal of the curriculum is to put United Methodist leaders in a position to use their existing knowledge and skills towards the work of anti-racism. That is to connect the history and theology of The United Methodist Church with their daily practices of leading the church. How are confirmation classes, sermon preparation, and committee leadership lived out differently?”

Responses from clergy and staff that have already taken at least one of the modules have been generally positive, despite a few technical hiccups with the online platform or the inability to see an overview of the module before signing up that some have experienced. Clergy have said the curriculum has been relevant and useful in ministry. And some have submitted ideas and suggestions for improvement as they have reflected upon their experience.

Several refinements to the curriculum are in the planning stages, according to the ABAR working group. There is a desire from some clergy to have partners to do aspects of the training together. Gutierrez says, “This work requires community to live out our call to create beloved community.” So, the working group is trying to figure out how to provide space for people to come together to study and dialogue. They hope to offer an in-person ABAR learning event to supplement the online modules at some point in the future.

The working group is also considering modules specific to lay conference staff in administrative roles or clergy not appointed as pastors since some exercises assume the context of ministry in a local church. Some modules may also be modified slightly to make them more flexible to people in various ministry settings. The team is also working to develop a more robust resource list for congregational study and discussion so that the conversation around our anti-bias/anti-racism work can be broadened to all.

The ABAR working group continues to meet quarterly as a whole group, and the co-conveners meet with Michigan Conference staff on a monthly basis. Going forward, Gutierrez says there are three priorities they’ve identified:

    • Focus on the Anti-Bias/Anti-Racism Education & Training to access additional modules and consider an in-person training option to complement the online modules.
    • Focus on resources for cross-cultural/cross-racial appointments. Bishop Bard says the Michigan Conference has been intentional about developing resources to strengthen congregational and clergy capacity to be part of cross-cultural/cross-racial appointments. He notes, “God calls people from all cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds into ordained ministry. While we have diverse local church appointment settings, some of our appointments will inevitably be cross-cultural and/or cross-racial. This is something to celebrate as it allows us to experience unique ways following Jesus is lived out among diverse peoples.” Also noteworthy is the fact that the Michigan Conference has a sizable percentage of active clergy serving cross-cultural/cross-racial appointments. A recent list provided by Rev. Margie Crawford, Dean of the Cabinet, showed 61 cross-cultural/cross-racial appointments in Michigan.
    • Review the racial audit conducted by the Michigan Conference that was requested by the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR). Legislation at the 2022 North Central Jurisdictional (NCJ) Conference mandated that each annual conference within the jurisdiction conduct its own racial audit of finances and budget to see if they align with the vision and intent of the Covenant to Build Beloved Community that passed at the 2021 Jurisdictional Conference. GCORR is managing the audit and will provide data to the NCJ Mission Council, who will deliver their Build Beloved Community Report at the 2024 Jurisdictional Conference.

The Michigan Conference’s ABAR working group is passionate about the conference’s deep commitment to becoming an anti-racist conference. The working group encourages clergy and staff to sign up to take one of the seven modules or consider a second one. The deadline is June 1, 2024. Additional updates on the curriculum will be published as they are available.

Gutierrez is grateful for the conversations and experiences the ABAR training is giving the Michigan Conference: “I am excited by the opportunity to learn and grow together as colleagues from such dialogues and hope you will join the conversation. We are enriched by learning together.”

Bishop Bard wants to remind the conference that this is not just work for clergy to do alone: “It remains my deep hope that every Michigan United Methodist congregation will be engaged in ABAR work of one kind or another. The ABAR team will also be working to develop a stronger resource list for congregational study and discussion. These resources can help us all learn more about the racialized thinking which continues to have an impact on our society and which gets in the way of creating God’s beloved community.”

As a final reminder, those clergy and staff who have already completed one or more modules must email a copy of their certificate of completion to Yolanda Thomas at [email protected]. Questions about the Anti-Bias/Anti-Racism Education & Training or issues with the online platform should be sent to Lisa Batten at [email protected].

Last Updated on November 28, 2023

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