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Laity see ‘resurrection energy’

Zoom conversation

In this third article exploring the future of the church, leading laity point to signs of rebirth within The United Methodist Church in Michigan and beyond.

Michigan Conference Communications

“Resurrection energy!” Elizabeth Jowski took part in a recent conversation with laity about the future of the church. She said, “What I am noticing is this resurrection energy. It feels like we’ve seen death, but out of death comes new life. That’s what Jesus shows us, and that’s what we are seeing.”

The conversation was the third in a series inviting Michigan United Methodists to share their hopes for the future. Two previous conversations included diverse groups of pastors, particularly younger clergy, who will lead the church into the future. Read the first article in the series. Read the second article.

On March 6, 2024, laity from Ishpeming in the Upper Peninsula to inner-city Detroit, from small town Goodrich to downtown Flint, and the university town of Ann Arbor gathered via Zoom. Two of the participants are delegates to the upcoming General Conference, set for April 23 to May 3, in Charlotte, NC, and two come from the African central conferences of The United Methodist Church. The diverse group included both young adults and long-time United Methodists.

Seeing Signs of Hope

In sharing signs of hope, participants brought updates from their respective congregations. Kimberly Garver is the council chairperson at Ann Arbor: First UMC. She said, “Though attendance is not what it was before COVID, we have seen a slight rebound in attendance and stable giving commitments as the church makes major decisions about its future regarding ministry and its facilities.”

Sherman Louis, lay minister at Detroit: Metropolitian UMC, highlighted the growth of the online audience and their 5 O’clock Rush series, a music ministry that attracts the community to a time of music and monthly communion. “We encounter all kinds of people when we invite them into the church,” he said. “Then we allow God to guide their hearts and do what God does best.” Regina Allie, who is active in United Women in Faith, shared about a survey Detroit: Scott Memorial UMC took that will “help the church see where we can serve the community.”

Also in Detroit, Taylorie Bailey reported that Trinity-Faith UMC has managed to stay financially stable through the pandemic and is now focusing on attracting more young families. Taylorie recently has been nominated to become the next co-lay leader of the Michigan Conference. Her nomination is expected to be affirmed at the Michigan Annual Conference this June.

At Ishpeming: Wesley UMC, Gordon Grigg said there is a renewed vitality inspired by the appointment of a new pastor and their success in reaching around a hundred people each week through live-streamed services. As a young adult, he stressed the importance of young adult ministry through small groups with students. Gordon currently serves as the director of Camp Michigamme.

Jen Peters shares a unique perspective as the facilitator for the Michigan Annual Conference, a General Conference delegate, and the spouse of the pastor at Court Street UMC in Flint. The Court Street congregation has been focused on defining its identity, particularly its commitment to full inclusion, and today, they are attracting new members. Court Streeters have taken the ministry of hospitality seriously in welcoming visitors and are excited about where their church is headed.

Elizabeth Jowski, from Goodrich UMC, experienced signs of hope beyond the local church when she attended the Exploration 2024 event in February, sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Exploration brought together about 150 young adults from across the country and worldwide to explore their call to ministry.  She said it was truly inspiring to feel the spiritual energy among these young adults who will be leading the church into the future.

Across the nation, every denomination has seen a significant drop in participation, referred to by some as the “dechurching of America.” The shift started before COVID-19, but the pandemic exacerbated it. In addition, United Methodism has dealt with the discord caused by the disaffiliation of some churches. Even in the face of these realities, a recent report shows that almost 84% of churches in the Michigan Conference are committed to remaining United Methodist. “Resurrection energy” can be found in local churches throughout the state.

General Conference, Regionalization, and LGBTQIA+ Concerns

Moving on to a discussion about General Conference, The United Methodist Church’s top policymaking body, everyone agreed the two overriding issues will probably be regionalization and the removal of exclusionary language and policies against LGBTQIA+ people in the church. A recent group of more than 270 U.S. delegates, including some from Michigan, released a statement endorsing legislative proposals addressing these two matters.

The proposed plan for regionalization would permit the various international regions of the church to modify certain parts of the Book of Discipline in ways that are appropriate to their cultural setting. Currently, the seven central conferences outside the United States have that freedom, while the church in the United States is bound by the language of the Discipline. There was general agreement among the laity that this change is needed. Still, Taylorie Bailey, a native of Liberia, expressed hope that this would not weaken the connection between the church in the United States and the rest of the world. This is especially important for Michigan since the annual conference has long-standing covenant relationships with Liberia and Haiti. “We need to keep an eye on the mission covenants we have shared all these years,” she said.

As a native of Sierra Leone, Regina Allie also brought an international perspective. “At General Conference, it is imperative that the African delegates’ voices be heard and their feelings validated in decision-making.” She believes focusing on our shared theology and mission will help us stay connected, even as we acknowledge the cultural differences.

Elizabeth Jowski reflected the spirit of the conversation when she said, “Regionalization would give us more time and space to focus on how we can find more creative ways to reach more people and make disciples for Jesus Christ.” Regionalization is a way for global United Methodism to remain truly united and truly global while allowing for our distinct settings.

Though regionalization is not explicitly tied to the debate about LGBTQIA+ inclusion, there is hope it will enable the church to deal with matters of human sexuality and other controversial issues in ways that are appropriate to each nation. Clearly, the cultural standards and legal restrictions of some African nations are quite different from those of Europe and the United States. Coming from Sierra Leone but living in the United States for many years, Regina is sensitive to those differences. “If, as United Methodists, we profess to be open to differences,” she said, “how can we not be more inclusive?” She referred to youth in her community who are disillusioned with the church. “If we are not going to open our arms and welcome everyone, we are going to continue to lose out.”

Both Ann Arbor: First and Flint: Court Street discussed full inclusion before the current debate about the impending General Conference. Kim Garver said, “Ann Arbor: First has been a Reconciling Church for 17 years, so we had already resolved this internally. Today, there is exhaustion about when the debate in the General Church will be over and when we can move on. We need to get beyond this issue.” Court Street is in the discernment process of becoming a Reconciling Church. Following the special 2019 General Conference, Jen Peters said, “we wrote a Court Street Creed which includes a commitment to full inclusion. It has given the church a new sense of identity and has attracted new families.”

At Goodrich UMC, Elizabeth said the decision to be inclusive was not without controversy and precipitated the loss of some long-time members, but she expressed optimism for the future.

This small group of lay leaders within the Michigan Conference affirmed United Methodism’s desire to continue to be a “big tent church,” making room for persons with diverse points of view while affirming the direction toward full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ members around our shared mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Sherman Louis expressed the hope that this General Conference will “model Christlike behavior, demonstrating for a broken and divided world our ability to deal with issues without animosity.”

Moving Forward in Hope

Out of the struggles of recent years, the pain of seeing some of our churches disaffiliate, and the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, this group of leading laity is looking forward to what the future will hold for United Methodism in Michigan and around the world.

Taylorie Bailey’s contagious optimism expressed the spirit of the conversation when she said, “I’ve got hope! And the hope is that God’s got a new thing coming. There’s a new birthing coming through, so we’re going to hold on to God’s promises.”

Just as the church journeys through Lent and the darkness of Good Friday anticipates Easter morning, these United Methodists know they have been walking through dark days. Still, they seek signs of resurrection energy, bringing hope, light, and life to the church. As the hymn by Brian Wren says:

This is a day of new beginnings,
time to remember, and move on,
time to believe what love is bringing,
laying to rest the pain that’s gone.

Then let us, with the Spirit’s daring,
step from the past, and leave behind
our disappointment, guilt, and grieving,
seeking new paths, and sure to find.

Last Updated on April 3, 2024

The Michigan Conference