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Talking about the future of The UMC

Bishop Bard leading conversation

Bishop David Bard invites all Michigan clergy and laity to join him for Connectional Conversations focused on the three plans that could shape the future of The United Methodist Church.

Senior Content Editor

Not every United Methodist in Michigan will travel to St. Louis next February to witness the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference. But every clergy and layperson in the state has the opportunity to express himself or herself regarding the important issues coming before that legislative body, thanks to Connectional Conversations hosted by Bishop David Bard.

Over the course of ten fall weeks, starting September 25 in Marquette and ending December 6 in Lansing, Bishop Bard will engage participants on the theme, “Weaving the Future.” Each setting also includes members of the Michigan Conference Delegation to General and Jurisdictional Conference, present to listen and to respond.

Matters at hand

The Council of Bishops, of which Bishop Bard is an active part, proposed the formation of the Commission on A Way Forward and that proposal was approved by the 2016 General Conference. The 32-member commission has met nine times over the past 17 months. It’s charge …  “to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.”

The fruit of the commission’s work is three plans: The Traditionalist Plan, the One Church Plan, and the Connectional Conference Plan. Forty-eight petitions related to these three plans, as well as another 52 related petitions, will be on the legislative slate of the 2019 General Conference.  

Bishop presents

For those considering participation in one of the remaining Connectional Conversations, here’s what to expect based on the session held at Georgetown United Methodist Church on Monday, October 15.

Present with the bishop in Georgetown were five delegates and alternates: Rev. Benton Heisler, Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, Rev. Mary Ivanov, Simmie Proctor, and Laura Witkowski. “You have an excellent delegation,” the Bishop said. “They have been working hard and praying hard.” He explained that The Michigan Conference has a total of four clergy and four lay delegates and will also send a number of alternates to St. Louis. 

Bishop Bard began the session with a half hour presentation about the values embraced by the commission, overviews of the three plans and the legislative process at General Conference 2019.

He stressed that “All three plans have deep theological roots and represent important values in our Wesleyan tradition.” Bishop Bard noted that the majority of the Council of Bishops recommends the One Church Plan.

Bishop Bard referred participants to the A Way Forward pages of the Conference website for further study and prayerful reflection.

Participants share

The bishop spent the evening’s remaining hour answering questions from the group. Inquiries ranged across biblical and theological topics, practical considerations around timelines and consequences, the outlook of young people in the church, and the pain and passion experienced by many, regardless of which plan they favor.

At several points in the conversation, Bishop Bard put the current debate within a broader context. “Every person fed or housed or befriended during this uncertain time must not be lost,” he emphasized. “They don’t care that we are having this debate and we don’t want to lose them in the midst of this controversy.” Asked where he senses the Spirit at work, the bishop answered, “In the midst of conversations like this. And I do think God shows up at General Conference. I pray the Spirit will guide us in new ways in St. Louis. God is not done with God’s church.”

The conversation could be described as authentic, respectful, transparent, open and honest. One participant thanked those in the room for giving her hope. “I was scared to come tonight,” she said. “I didn’t want to hear shouting and people saying terrible things. You have renewed my faith that we can desperately disagree but still stay part of the same family.”

The evening finished with words of encouragement from the Book of Ephesians and three words the bishop deems important going forward: self-knowledge, openness, and hope.

“What if what you want passes but somehow you lost your heart? That would be a huge tragedy,” Bishop Bard concluded.

Delegates listen

These Connectional Conversations serve several purposes. They are forums for the bishop to present information and resources for gaining additional insight and perspective. They are also opportunities for participants to ask questions and voice their heartfelt thoughts and feelings. And these conversations also provide Michigan’s delegates, who are preparing to head to St. Louis, a window into viewpoints and concerns of the grassroots.

“My prayer is, that despite our passionately held and vastly diverse opinions and beliefs, we will continue to focus on the proclamation of the Gospel to people who are in need of the Gospel’s saving message and the life-changing power found in a relationship with Jesus Christ,” said the Rev. Benton Heisler, Michigan Director of Connectional Ministry. “The moment we choose to disconnect from one another, will not change the constant and growing need for feeding the hungry, comforting the broken-hearted and preaching Good News to all who will have ears to hear.” Heisler says he listens in each session “for how this essential mission of the Church will be maintained whatever is the chosen path forward.”

Laura Witkowski, Conference Associate Director for Lay Leadership Development and alternate lay delegate, believes it is important to pay attention to questions people ask. She says “I’m trying to stay in touch with what comes out from the General Church. Staying up to date on information has been helpful in conversations I’ve had; being able to address rumors and hearsay.” Laura believes good questions are emerging as “United Methodists try to wrap our ears and hearts around a future we don’t know yet.” She adds, “I feel God present in delegation meetings, Jurisdictional gatherings, and now the listening sessions and hope others feel that too.”

Alternate clergy delegate and pastor of Muskegon: Lake Harbor UMC, the Rev. Mary Ivanov, is thankful for Bishop Bard’s leadership and willingness to travel the state to share details of the proposed plans. “His modeling of how we engage this issue in the local church is incredibly helpful,” Mary says. She is preparing for St. Louis “through personal prayer, prayer with others in the church where I serve, and reading the information from the Commission.” She is concerned about “the possibility that even with proposals in front of the General Conference, nothing will pass and, therefore, nothing will ultimately change.”

“If we get to General Conference and engage in a spirit-led process of discernment, we will be ok and the Church will be ok,” comments the Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai. “I am praying that the Spirit will show up and that we will allow the Spirit to reign.” Bigham-Tsai is one of Michigan’s four clergy delegates to the 2019 General Conference and currently serves as the chief connectional officer of the denomination. “I am trying to project non-anxiousness in the midst of a very anxious system,” she notes. Kennetha’s hope is based in what she calls the gifts of The United Methodist Church … “our connectionalism and theology of grace are the ways we reach out into the world in mission that impacts real lives. To me, that’s what we’ve got to hold onto. I keep those in the center through all of this.”

Bishop Bard has expressed appreciation to delegates joining him in Connectional Conversations. “I am very grateful that members of the Michigan delegation have and will be at every session,” he said.  “They want to hear from Michigan United Methodists, as do I.  To date every conversation has been meaningful and respectful.”  

More conversation

There are four more Connectional Conversations ahead. Plan now to hear and be heard in one of these settings:

  • Sunday, October 21 Northville UMC, 4 pm
  • Monday, October 22 Midland UMC, 7 pm
  • Thursday, November 29 Ann Arbor First UMC, 7 pm
  • Thursday, December 6 Lansing: Area Ministry Center 7 pm

Bishop Bard’s colleagues around the global United Methodist connection are holding similar listening sessions. Find a report here.

“I have deeply appreciated people taking their time to come out and hear about what is happening in The United Methodist Church and the decisions that will be made about our future,” Bishop Bard said.  “It is important that people have accurate information about the three plans coming from the Commission on a Way Forward, and I am doing my best to provide that in these gatherings.”

As important as the information-sharing and the 2019 General Conference are in the life of the denomination, the bishop encourages Michigan’s faithful to stay focused on ministry. “I hope people will continue to pay attention to what is going on, and yet not become so preoccupied that we lose focus on our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  The world needs the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ and the kindness and compassion of followers of Jesus, and we cannot lose sight of that.”

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