As I watched the de-icing of our plane out of Grand Rapidslast Thursday morning, my prayer was, “Lord, may my eyes, ears and heart be open to however you speak to me this weekend. Not only does my own spirit need some thawing out, but I pray that you would de-ice The United Methodist Church and set us on fire.”
I was one of 17 West Michigan Conference leaders and 1,300 United Methodists from around the connection who attended a quadrennial training event in Jacksonville, Florida. The training revolved around how the 4 focus areas of our denomination can be lived out at every level of the church.
- Developing principled Christian leaders
- Starting new churches and transforming existing churches
- Being in ministry with the poor
- Creating global health initiatives to eliminate disease
I experienced this conference through eyes of a superintendent, always asking, “How do these primary foci inform ministry on the Grand Rapids District?” I learned a lot about the resources offered by our general boards and agencies. I was inspired by creative worship and spirit-filled speakers. But God spoke to me most clearly through the bridges.
Outside our hotel I could see numerous bridges spanning the St. John’s River. The first thing I noticed was how important these bridges are in connecting different parts of the city of Jacksonville. In the same way, one of the primary roles of a spiritual leader is to connect people with God, with each other and with the community in which the church is located. Through leadership training events, clergy forums, the weekly email Connection and Leading from the Heart, the district office attempts to develop Christian leaders through training, equipping and empowering clergy and laity for ministry.
- How is your congregation building bridges by falling in love with the community around your church?
I also noticed that one of the bridges was very old, but the others were quite modern. These bridges symbolize our call to resource the revitalization of older churches at the same time as we start new churches, all for the purpose of making disciples for the transformation of the world. At the same time as I rejoice at the renewal of many of our long established churches, I am very excited that Allendale has been chosen as the site for our newest United Methodist congregation in the West Michigan Conference. Matt Bistayi has the gifts and graces to lead this ministry, but he will need the support, encouragement and resources of all of our district churches in order to offer Christ. In addition, a small group of district leaders will meet this week with consultant Rev. Eugene Blair from the Detroit Conference, as we continue to seek discernment related to a possible new African American church inGrand Rapids.
- How will your congregation build bridges to and support the Allendale new church start as well as other churches going through transformation?
On an early morning run, I encountered a pedestrian bridge along the edge of the river. At 6:30 a.m. it was dark, and I almost tripped over 2 homeless men hunkered down in sleeping bags. Giving thanks to God that these men found a safe place to sleep on the bridge, I was reminded of our call not only to care for the poor but to be in ministry with the poor. The third focus area is clear that mercy and justice go hand in hand. It’s not enough to distribute food. We need to get to know the poor in our community, hear their stories, then work to change systems and structures so that all people in our world have the opportunity for a secure environment, an education and a meaningful job.
We have an incredible opportunity this year to work together as a district by initiating a mission project at Africa University. By offering a place inZimbabwe for Africans to receive a higher education, we are strengthening the infrastructure of the entire African continent.
- How are you in ministry with the poor, the homeless and the unemployed in your community?
The most fascinating bridges in Jacksonville were the drawbridges, one for cars and one for trains. Drawbridges span chasms that otherwise could not be crossed, at the same time allowing for the passage of large boats carrying cargo up and down the river. Drawbridges are mechanically complex, however, and demand continual maintenance in order to function well.
Healthy pastors, churches, districts, conferences and denominations have the flexibility of drawbridges. They are grounded in spiritual formation, are able to respond quickly to disasters and health crises around the world, are generous in opening their heart and purses, and are intentional about maintaining their own wholeness.
- How nimble is your congregation in removing roadblocks to innovative ministry as you seek the health and welfare of your community and the world?
The four focus areas of our denomination offer a path for United Methodists not only to build bridges between God and the world but to become bridges ourselves. Building bridges over troubled waters is risky business, though. It demands a strong foundation in scripture and our Wesleyan heritage, an intentional outer-directed focus, and disciples who are willing to be de-iced, energized and spirit-filled.
In an effort to build stronger bridges between the Grand Rapids District and local churches, a task force of our district Leadership Council has been working on new vision and mission statements over the past 4 months. If you click on the external attachment, you can read the expanded statements and see our new logo, which will be presented to our district conference on February 15. Here are the bumper sticker versions:
Vision: Growing Together, Reaching Out
Mission: Our mission is to connect and support vital ministries of Jesus Christ.
Our call as a district is to grow together and reach out. We do that by connecting the people of our local communities and the world with God and the church through acts of mercy and justice.
I hope to see all of you at our district conference on Sunday, February 15, at Northlawn UMC in Grand Rapids. The business meeting is at 3:00 pm., and Dr. James Salley fromAfricaUniversity will speak at 4:15 p.m.
Let’s get de-iced and start building some bridges!!