The North Central Jurisdictional Conference met online November 10-11. Michigan Conference leaders reflect on the extraordinary nature of their time together.
Senior Content Editor
A significant part of the agenda of the 2019 Michigan Annual Conference was the election of delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference. The 16-member delegation, co-chaired by Laura Witkowski and the Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, started meeting soon after adjournment of AC 2019. They began to prepare for the General Conference that was to take place in Minneapolis, MN just 11 months in the future, with Jurisdictional Conference to follow in July of 2020.
However, after the pandemic twice-postponed General and Jurisdictional conferences, those delegates would not take their first official action until November of 2021, at a special called session of the North Central Jurisdictional Conference hosted online from Lansing, MI.
The Wednesday session of the Virtual NCJ was spent in three conversations about dismantling racism, the future of episcopal leadership in the NCJ, and the future of The United Methodist Church. See report of November 10.
Thursday’s session engaged delegates with the work of a writing team that concluded with the approval of a “Covenant to Build BeLoved Community” committing the NCJ to the work of anti-racism and LGBTQIA+ inclusion. Further, the NCJ affirmed the recent Council of Bishops document called “A Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church” and “A Call to Grace,” an open letter that supports strategies for “a gracious exit” of churches that can be enacted at the annual conference, central conference, and jurisdictional levels. See report of November 11.
It remains to be seen when Michigan delegates will next have the opportunity to vote on petitions or cast ballots for episcopal leaders. Because of the lingering pandemic, there is uncertainty about the plan to hold an in-person General Conference in August 29-September 6, 2022, and the jurisdictional conferences that follow.
Perhaps that makes the actions taken by the special called NCJ Conference during this in between season all the more significant. It was a unique event in several ways. It was the first virtual jurisdictional conference. It was the first jurisdictional conference “out of sequence” with General Conference. And there were no episcopal elections.
MIconnect asked Bishop David Bard and members of the Michigan delegation to reflect on what took place online Nov. 10-11. The Michigan Conference Anti-Bias, Anti-Racism Working Group was also asked for comment, and the Rev. B.Kevin Smalls, co-chair, responded on their behalf.
Bishop David A. Bard | Michigan Area — “The North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops was pleased to be able to bring elected delegates from the jurisdiction together for this special session of the jurisdictional conference, and the active bishops were delighted to be together here in Lansing, our first time together in-person since January 2020. We enjoyed the opportunity to lead together in a unique way. We also missed our colleague Bishop Frank Beard, who is on medical leave.
“I believe the gathered delegates from the jurisdiction clearly stated values important to them as the jurisdiction and The United Methodist Church move into the future. They identified their desire to see the church be about God’s work in building BeLoved Community, a community of love and forgiveness, and identified painful places where the church has not lived BeLoved Community.
“I think the covenant statement approved by the delegates fits well with core values affirmed by both the Michigan and Minnesota Conferences, and I will continue to work with the leaders in both conferences as we seek to live out and live into those values.
“I also think it very important to read the covenant statement in conjunction with two other statements approved by the jurisdictional delegates, ‘A Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church’ approved last week by the Council of Bishops and ‘A Call To Grace.’ These other statements supplement the covenant by offering a fuller picture of the future United Methodist Church as a church ‘rooted in scripture, centered in Christ, serving in love and united in essentials’ where ‘all our members, clergy, local churches, and annual conferences will continue to have a home’ (A Narrative). They also offer encouragement for inevitable separations to be managed with grace, so that the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world might be furthered rather than hindered.”
Rev. B. Kevin Smalls | Co-chair Michigan Conference Anti-Bias, Anti-Racism Working Group — “We are very excited about the actions taken by this past jurisdictional conference as it relates to the covenant that concretely addresses the horrific tragedy and impact of racism.
“This conference took bold steps primarily to hear the cries of those that are on the margins of dominant culture through the covenant of Beloved Community.
“Utilizing the liturgical imagination situated in our baptismal vows to address bias and racism is a brilliant place to start as liturgy is very much the work of the people.
“Now, the liturgy comes off the page and begins to find its roots in tangible and measurable ways that guide how we live out our baptismal covenant in the context of bias and racism.
“Our work will continue to unfold as we emerge with the conviction that indeed ‘we shall overcome.'”
Laura Witkowski | Co-chair Michigan Delegation — “The storytelling during the anti-racism presentation were incredibly powerful. I think it helped open the door for some vulnerability in the small groups. My group was engaged and open with each other. I appreciated hearing the stories of those in our connection.
“Speaking as a member and vice-chair of the North Central Jurisdicational Mission Council, we’ll have some work to do before the NCJ gathers again and I’m thankful for the directives we’ve been given. Evaluating the budget with an anti-racism lens and aligning with the priorities determined by this special session is a way for us to take action as jurisdiction and Mission Council.
“Having the opportunity to be in conversation and community with delegates within our jurisdiction was a gift. Having an opportunity to share our voice is why we are all here. I’m grateful we’ve been able to do that during this unusual pandemic time. Creating a ‘Covenant to Build BeLoved Community’ in the NCJ, affirming the Council of Bishop’s ‘A Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church’ and affirming the work of ‘A Call to Grace’ give me hope for the future United Methodist Church.
“It was a blessing to have the Michigan Conference Communications team behind the scenes. The team did such a wonderful job! As usual Bishop Bard led with grace, humor, and clarity in the process. A huge thanks to him and our bishops for leading us well.”
Rev. Paul Perez | Michigan Delegation — “I was deeply moved by the personal stories from the ‘Truth Tellers’ – several United Methodists from across the Jurisdiction. Many of the stories resonated with my life experience.
“I am committed to leaning into antiracism work in our Conference as my role as Director of Connectional Ministry. As a member of the Covenant Writing Team, I am especially committed to ensuring the words of the covenant become meaningful action.
“Our bishops are doing tremendous work. Three of our active bishops, including Bishop Bard, currently serve more than one Conference. This is not sustainable for our bishops or our conferences. By committing to have eight active bishops in the NCJ and stating, in the Covenant, a desire to hold episcopal elections as soon as possible, the delegates are ensuring the Jurisdiction has enough episcopal leadership to move through this challenging time. In the long term, the shift from nine to eight bishops will require re-thinking the role and responsibilities of bishops.
“I was grateful for the opportunity to serve as a member of the six-person Covenant Writing Team and humbled by the trust placed in us by the delegates. The NCJ was the only jurisdiction that gathered in a Special Session this fall after the anticipated General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference sessions were postponed for a second time. This gathering offered our Jurisdiction the unique opportunity to not only conference about the future of United Methodism in our region, but to also offer a word to the entire connection. I believe we did both. By passing a ‘Covenant to Build BeLoved Community’ and affirming the Council of Bishops’ ‘Narrative for the continuing United Methodist Church’ and the ‘Call to Grace’ statement, we set a clear, prophetic, and hopeful direction for United Methodism in the North Central Jurisdiction and across the connection.”
Rev. Dr. Charles Boayue, Jr. | Michigan Delegation — “The Special Session of the 2021 North Central Jurisdictional Conference was well attended and led. Bishop David Alan Bard did an excellent job presiding and guiding a difficult session. His persona soothed the assembly and many remarked affirmatively about his leadership and care. This is the Bishop Bard that Michigan has come to know. He is a blessing to the Church, and I thank God for his leadership.
“The Session dealt with matters of Church separation, witness in a diverse world, and took stands on anti-racism, anti-bias, LGBTQIA+ inclusion, and a number of important issues facing the denomination. Among those issues are episcopal elections this quadrennium. Because of the postponement of General Conference from 2020 and the retirement of two bishops from the NCJ, there has been some strains placed on other bishops to extend their episcopal supervision to other areas of the jurisdiction.
“The conference approved a document that affirmed the future of the United Methodist Church as an inclusive Church and within that document, authorized ‘the duly elected heads of the conference delegations and the NCJ College of Bishops to work together to call a special session of the jurisdictional conference for November 2-5, 2022, the time currently scheduled for the regular session of the jurisdictional conference, for the purpose of the election of bishops, acting on nominations for jurisdictional committees and general agencies, budgeting and other necessary matters’ in the event that the 2020 General Conference, currently scheduled for August 29 – September 6, 2022, is postponed or canceled, and a regular session of the jurisdictional conference is subsequently proposed to be postponed or canceled.
“As the NCJ session closes, I remain concerned about whether a special session of a jurisdictional or central conference or a college of bishops has authority to authorize the holding of episcopal elections and make assignments of bishops without General Conference authorization. I trust that our college of bishops will carefully consider this concern and help avoid setting a precedence that could open the floodgates for other jurisdictions and central conferences to act similarly. I do not want to further complicate denominational strains and stresses by adding another layer of actions that might be questionable. It is my hope and prayer that General Conference will not be further delayed. If it is delayed beyond the summer of 2022, I pray that everyone takes a deep breath and patiently avoids overreacting. God is with us! Never forget that, and everything will be alright. Amen.”
Nichea VerVeer Guy | Michigan Delegation — “The leadership of our bishops and guest Bishop Hope Morgan Ward was very meaningful. It illustrates the spiritual direction our bishops offer us in our roles as leaders in the church.
“The segment on Dismantling Racism was powerful. Our small group was exceptional practicing good, healthy group discussion practices. This lead us to have a trust relationship so we could discuss deeper emotions, questions, and thoughts on the issues of racism, inclusiveness, and the vision for the future of the UMC. Very powerful.
“I feel a sense of calm, that I had not felt before. I see there is a point that I have reached where I have had the time to do that hard work of discernment with the leadership of the Holy Spirit. It is not just me, I saw it today, across the Jurisdiction, across races, across politics, and across generations. It is called HOPE.”
~Note: The Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, co-chair of the Michigan Delegation, comments in a separate blog, “NCJ goes boldly forward together.”