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Michigan delegates prepare for NCJ Conference

Bishops being consecrated during NCJ 2016

Delegates from the Michigan Conference are preparing to go to Fort Wayne, IN, next week for the 2022 North Central Jurisdictional Conference to elect bishops and plan for shared mission and ministry.

Content Editor

The North Central Jurisdiction (NCJ) of The United Methodist Church convenes in person next week, November 2-5, in Fort Wayne, IN, for the first time since 2016. The theme for this jurisdictional conference is We Press On. The lay and clergy members of the Michigan Conference’s delegation, elected in 2019, are preparing along with 160 other NCJ delegates from the 10 annual conferences to elect bishops and report on mission and ministry.

Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, the Michigan Conference’s only endorsed episcopal candidate, is on the ballot along with nine other candidates for election. Delegates will elect three bishops to fill vacancies and relieve the pressure of active bishops serving more than one conference if a recent recommendation from the NCJ Committee on the Episcopacy is approved.

The North Central Jurisdiction has been operating with a reduced number of bishops (eight), but the Committee on the Episcopacy, in consultation with the College of Bishops, has proposed reversing a 2021 decision and returning the number of bishops to nine until the beginning of the next episcopal season, presumably September 1, 2024. This decision will not compromise the fiscal responsibility of the jurisdiction, according to a joint statement given to delegates.

Each bishop will receive their episcopal assignment after the elections at the conclusion of the jurisdictional conference. All United Methodists are encouraged to be in prayerful support of Bishop David Alan Bard, the delegates, Kennetha and the rest of the episcopal candidates, and the entire election process.

In his most recent blog, Bishop Bard noted the important Spirit-led discernment that happens at the jurisdictional conferences and invited all to pray: “It is my hope that the delegation and every Michigan United Methodist will be in prayer for the NCJ Committee on the Episcopacy, whose task it is to assign all bishops to their areas of ministry following the elections. Every bishop, newly elected or currently serving, is open to a new assignment at jurisdictional conference.”

Gathering in the Interim

The 16 delegates and one clergy alternate from the Michigan Conference chosen to serve at the upcoming North Central Jurisdictional Conference have been waiting for some time to serve and fulfill their duties. Originally elected in 2019, they had anticipated participating in the May 2020 General Conference and July 2020 NCJ Conference, but both conferences have been delayed by a string of postponements due to the COVID-19 pandemic. General Conference is tentatively scheduled for 2024, with an anticipated NCJ Conference that year as well since jurisdictional conferences usually meet to elect bishops every four years following General Conference, The United Methodist Church’s top decision-making assembly.

In the interim, there have been two NCJ gatherings to ensure that shared ministry continues. Last November, a virtual NCJ special session was held where delegates participated via Zoom with bishops attending in person at the Media Center in Lansing, MI. No episcopal elections occurred, but important work was done as jurisdictional delegates created and overwhelmingly approved a covenant naming their collective commitment to the dismantling of racism and to the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons. The conference also discussed the future of episcopal leadership within the jurisdiction and the future of the United Methodist Church.

This year’s NCJ Conference is permissible because of a ruling by the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, on May 20, 2022, which allowed episcopal elections to be held this year. Similar elections are occurring in other jurisdictions, with central conference elections to follow. Our delegates and alternate will have a chance, at long last, to elect bishops.

It’s uncertain whether Michigan Conference’s NCJ delegates will also serve at the 2024 General Conference or whether new delegates will need to be elected prior to the conference. The answer depends on whether this General Conference is viewed as a postponed conference or a brand-new assembly. The Judicial Council has not yet ruled on this matter, and the NCJ and all respective annual conferences are looking to them for clarification.

Electing Bishops and Valuing the Connection

The Michigan Conference’s delegates to NCJ Conference have been elected to vote on behalf of the people in this annual conference and make decisions at the jurisdictional, or regional, level.

Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, clergy delegate, and Laura Witkowski, lay delegate, have aided the delegation and facilitated their regular meetings as co-chairpersons. It’s been a challenge through the pandemic to keep the delegates connected and focused on the work set before them, especially since General Conference has been postponed multiple times.

Kennetha noted, “It has been challenging to keep delegation members engaged and to try to help people find their footing in this in-between time. Laura and I have worked hard and I think done fairly well. The Michigan delegation members have also done what they can in these trying times.”

The delegates have varied backgrounds—some veteran, some new—but the wisdom they all share gives the delegation a wonderful mix of gifts and graces. The bonds the delegates have formed—and will continue to develop once they gather in person—enrich their work and prepare them for their tasks ahead.

“The people I get to do this work with,” said Laura Witkowski, “gives me immense joy. Very few things can be done alone, and this is no different. The NCJ delegates are people living out their faith in a very unique way. None of us take it for granted, and we want what is best for God’s church and the UMC.”

The NCJ delegates are committed to the future of the church. Gordon Grigg, lay delegate from Ishpeming: Wesley UMC in the Upper Peninsula, noted this as something inspiring. “What has encouraged me in my faith while doing delegation work,” Gordon said, “is seeing that there are people who haven’t given up on The United Methodist Church.” He also said that he is encouraged “knowing that the UMC will be different, but trying to make the UMC centered around Christ’s teaching to care, show love, and welcome everyone to God’s table.”

They are eager to help elect bishops since episcopal leadership within the jurisdiction has been stretched in these unprecedented times in the church’s life. Work in The United Methodist Church during this season has been taxing, and the need for new leaders is great.

Rev. Joel Fitzgerald, clergy delegate from Albion: First UMC, said, “We’ve seen the disruption that not holding episcopal elections has had on the operation of the church. I’m excited that we can finally get together and elect bishops . . .  to lead through the tumultuous times ahead.”

The NCJ Committee on the Episcopacy has recommended to this year’s delegates to elect three bishops to fill positions where a retired bishop is assisting in the interim or a single bishop is helping to provide provisional coverage of an additional annual conference. Bishop David Alan Bard, assigned to the Michigan Conference in 2016, is in this situation. He began an interim assignment to the Minnesota Conference on January 1, 2021. The other item of note is the announcement of the forthcoming retirement of Bishop Laurie Haller of the Iowa Conference. She plans to retire at the end of this year and will be acknowledged at NCJ Conference.

The Committee on the Episcopacy also proposes that the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area again be united under one bishop. Currently, episcopal coverage is being handled separately.

Another factor in the election of bishops is the realization that changes are anticipated in 2024, as reductions in conference membership, primarily due to disaffiliation, are causing each jurisdiction to begin conversations and actions to reduce the number of episcopacies and the number of bishops allocated to each jurisdiction. The North Central Jurisdiction will likely have fewer bishops to serve the 10 annual conferences in this jurisdiction. Conversations among the delegates at this year’s NCJ Conference will happen on this very topic.

The pandemic and the current schism within The United Methodist Church have precipitated the need for visionary leaders with creative, innovative ideas. Many of the episcopal candidates speak of being able to provide this in their profiles. This has been helpful to Rev. Joel Fitzgerald as he gets to know each episcopal candidate. “I am encouraged that many folks recognize the need to do things differently,” he noted. “Many of the episcopal candidates named the need for change.”

Rev. Joy Barrett, clergy delegate from Chelsea: First UMC, has served as a delegate to 8 jurisdictional conferences, dating back to 1992, and has experienced the discernment process when choosing episcopal candidates. “Listening attentively to the Spirit of God, and through the people of God, for clarity about ‘is this the one for this time?’—that is the challenge.” But she says this discernment process is rewarding. “I am hopeful for the future of The United Methodist Church,” she said, “and look forward to helping select episcopal leaders who will guide us with faithfulness and creativity in the coming years.”

Delegates attending NCJ Conference vote for episcopal candidates with their conference in mind. And this is true, even for those from the Michigan Conference. Episcopal assignments are not guaranteed until the Committee on the Episcopal gathers after the elections are complete, reviews the needs of various annual conferences, and makes final decisions.

Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, co-chair of the Michigan Conference’s delegation, is also an episcopal candidate, as endorsed by the Michigan Conference at this year’s Annual Conference. Since January 2018, she has served as the Chief Connectional Ministries Officer of The United Methodist Church’s Connectional Table. Kennetha understands the beauty of The United Methodist Church’s connectional nature, a worldwide body of believers committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One recommendation that points to the connectional nature of the jurisdiction will be presented by the Committee on the Episcopacy to NCJ Conference delegates. There is a need for more sharing of resources and leadership. Conversations will occur and possible task forces may be initiated during this year’s NCJ Conference.

Jen Peters, lay delegate from Flint: Court Street UMC, mentioned that the connectionalism found at NCJ Conference gives her hope. “It’s truly amazing to chat with people across the region and across the country,” she said, “with the same passion for making the world a better place while compassionately listening to and caring for each other.”

Building Beloved Community

The NCJ Conference plans to report on various mission goals related to the ongoing work to dismantle racism. Laura Witkowski mentioned that she is “looking forward to fulfilling pieces named in the Covenant to Build Beloved Community delegates passed in the special session in November 2021.” She concluded, “The conversations on the impact of white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism will be heavy and powerful. It is incredible that we have been offered an opportunity to participate in this meaningful way.”

At NCJ Conference, time on Thursday will be set aside for conversations about white supremacy and Christian nationalism. Delegates have been asked to prepare by engaging resources prior to the conference. This important work dovetails with the Michigan Conference’s commitment to becoming an antiracist/antibiased annual conference.

Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai believes the North Central Jurisdiction is providing leadership for the whole denomination with this covenant. “What gives me hope,” she said, “is the North Central Jurisdiction’s work on developing the Covenant to Build Beloved Community, and our commitment to full inclusion and dismantling racism.”

As the delegates press on and prepare to worship and do business together in Fort Wayne, Kennetha’s prayer is for a transformed United Methodist Church not afraid to move into the future: “As delegates of North Central, we will lean into what is possible. I pray that, in every action and decision, we will lean into a future for a United Methodist Church that is inclusive, antiracist, prophetic, relevant, and vital.”

Last Updated on November 2, 2022

The Michigan Conference