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Clergy ready to ‘serve the present age’

Clergy meet for future of the church conversation

In this second article exploring the future of The United Methodist Church in Michigan, six clergy members share how they are moving forward to serve a renewed church that is united and inclusive.

Michigan Conference Communications

Editor’s note: This is one of several articles that will explore the future of The United Methodist Church in Michigan. Click to read the first article in the series.

“I would rather look at this moment as a really difficult chiseling out of our identity.” Rev. Dillon Burns, pastor of Okemos Community Church, used the phrase “chiseling out” to describe the challenge for The United Methodist Church following the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and a season of disaffiliation by traditionalist congregations. He was part of a conversation of clergy from across the state who connected online to share their hopes for the future of United Methodism in Michigan. They serve in diverse appointments, from Lexington on Lake Huron to Marquette in the Upper Peninsula, and from Coldwater in the southwest to downtown Grand Rapids, the Michigan State University campus, and suburban East Lansing. One of the things they have in common is that they are all in the first or second year of their current appointment. Second, they share a sense of hope for the church’s future as a united, inclusive community.

They intend to move forward from the internal conflict and the loss of about 17% of United Methodist churches in Michigan because of disaffiliation. As Rev. Melanie Carey, lead pastor at University United Methodist Church in East Lansing, said, “I think it’s way past time to focus our energy on actually being the church instead of just being a bunch of people who fight with each other.” The pastor at Coldwater UMC, Rev. Scott Marsh, echoed that desire: “I am hopeful about what we can become.”

Putting the ‘United’ Back in United Methodist

The group talked at length about what it means to be United Methodist and the task of re-creating a United Methodist identity for this time. Scott Marsh referred to the well-known Wesleyan aphorism, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, freedom; in all things, charity,” as one of the elements he feels can unite the church. He said, “I feel like that is something which can help us put the ‘united’ back into United Methodist.”

The conversation focused on what it means to be a connectional church built around covenant communities rather than creedal doctrines. “We are not a creedal church,” said Dillon Burns. “We are a communal church where the faith is lived out and our theology is worked out together. Our commitment is to one another.” In response, Rev. Steve McCoy, pastor at First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, said, “Unfortunately, I think we were getting to the point where we didn’t really understand what it means to be United Methodist. Now, in the light of recent struggles, a shared understanding of United Methodism becomes even more important.” Referring to people coming to United Methodism from other traditions, he said, “We have to help people know what defines us, and when they find it, it’s great. We’ve had folks come to us and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know a church like this existed!’”

Rev. Erica Thomas is a deacon serving in an ecumenical campus ministry as part of Marquette: Hope UMC, a multi-site ministry with four campuses in three different communities. She noted that fewer congregations are scattered across an extensive area in the Upper Peninsula, so “how we create community over such a large geographic area when we have lost some churches is a real challenge.” In this ecumenical setting, the various denominations share their commonalities, but they also allow for the unique contribution of each denomination. “We are a global connection,” Thomas said, “and I think that is one of the things I am most excited about. It means we are able to connect across so many cultures in a way some other denominations cannot. Our connection is huge!” She lifted up the Social Principles as a foundation for unity among United Methodists in their witness in the world. “It’s something we can all stand firm on.”

Okemos Community Church, where Dillon Burns serves, is also an ecumenical ministry. It is a federated congregation with historic ties to four denominations. Because of that, the congregation has had what he called a “buffer between the congregation and the strife within the denomination.” He added, “For all of us, every new day is a new context to live into what it means to be the Body of Christ.”

Rev. Geri Hamlen recently moved to Lexington UMC, one of the remaining United Methodist churches in Michigan’s Thumb, where many small, rural churches disaffiliated. She has encouraged her members to connect with other United Methodist congregations while keeping their friendships with those that left, acknowledging what has been lost and celebrating what they have as a congregation. “In that way,” she said, “we will be able to grieve the past and then be able to envision a future.”

Shifting Structures

With the rapid changes in our society and the impact of COVID-19 and disaffiliation, the group recognized the need for the local church and the denomination to make the structural changes necessary to be effective in ministry today. Melanie Carey said, “Our current structures were designed for 1968, and some of you in this group weren’t even born then! It’s an exciting time in terms of structural change.” They agreed on the need to simplify our structures to be nimbler and more responsive while still maintaining our historic identity and the global connection of United Methodism. In Michigan, that downsizing has meant reducing the number of districts and eliminating conference staff positions. Nationally, the boards and agencies that serve the denomination have also reduced staff and focused on remote work via Internet technology to respond to the church’s changing demographics.

One of the unique characteristics of Methodism has always been itinerancy, that is, the system where clergy are sent rather than called to places of service. It relies on the covenant between the conference, the clergy, and the local church. Pastors agree to be sent by the appointment of the bishop, and the conference assures them of a place of service. The local church relies on the bishop to appoint a pastor, and the conference commits to send one. However, as Steve McCoy said, “There is a lot of discussion about how we recruit and deploy pastors. It’s too complex and needs to be streamlined, even as we maintain high standards.” Affirming the need for longer appointments, Scott Marsh said, “pastors should treat their current appointment as if it were the last one they would serve.”

The willingness to change was reflected in Steve McCoy’s encouragement to experiment with new options: “Sometimes, we need to say, ‘Let’s go ahead and try this and see if it works.’ John Wesley would probably agree. When he was encouraged to try [open-air] field preaching, he considered it ‘vile.’ But when he tried it and found that it worked, he said he was determined to be ‘more vile.’”

Geri Hamlen also spoke about the need to grow, even as we experience downsizing. She said, “I think the reality is that anyone who comes to church right now is there because they want to be, not just because it is socially acceptable or because their parents did. One of the ways to make lemonade out of lemons is for congregations to seriously reflect on what has happened and what comes next. I truly believe a more robust theology of transformation, new life, and resurrection will help move us into God’s future.”

A New Generation of Leaders

Currently, The United Methodist Church is experiencing an aging membership. Also, the average age of United Methodist clergy has been climbing as fewer young adults enter professional ministry. Undeterred by these facts, the younger clergy in this conversation used the word “perseverance” to identify one of the key values for facing the future.

On the positive side, Melanie Carey said that in her university setting, she has seen an increase in millennials taking leadership. “Those of us who are older need to step aside and offer mentoring and support for new leaders.” The younger clergy in the conversation exemplified that shift in leadership. Scott Marsh remembered a seminary professor telling his class they would be the generation who would redefine the church. Marsh explained, “The professor said it was our duty as young pastors to take that calling and run with it. And I am hopeful for what we can do.”

Together, they shared a vision of a church built around the Wesleyan theology of grace available to all and the transformation of society and the individual. They are committed to building a more inclusive church where all persons feel welcomed and loved and are willing to make the changes necessary to fulfill that vision. These church leaders are anxious to put the divisions and debates of the recent past behind them and move into the future with hope and courage.

In conclusion, Melanie Carey asked the crucial question: “Are you willing to risk everything for the sake of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world?” For this new generation of leaders, the answer is yes. They are determined to “chisel out” a new identity and future for United Methodism in Michigan for the sake of Jesus Christ and the church’s mission. In the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn “A Charge to Keep I Have, they are ready “to serve the present age.” May it be so.

Last Updated on February 5, 2024

The Michigan Conference