This coming Saturday, delegates from the West Michigan and Detroit Annual Conferences will be voting whether to merge and become The Great Lakes Annual Conference. Since both conferences affirmed their intention two years ago to develop a plan for merger, I’ve been listening, observing and pondering the implications of this immense change in the life of United Methodism in Michigan. I am deeply grateful to the members of the MATT team. Their work has been complicated, challenging, tedious at times, and, I trust, fulfilling.
Last month the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a landmark study based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans over the age of 18. The report describes American religions as “a vibrant marketplace where individuals pick and choose religions that meet their needs.” Denominational loyalty is a thing of the past. In fact, the survey noted that 53% of those raised in the Methodist faith tradition of their childhood have moved to other Protestant or non-Protestant churches or are no longer part of any faith tradition. In such a competitive religious milieu, where the primary expressed spiritual needs of people are a place to belong, to grow in faith and to reach out in service, how can United Methodists move beyond preserving the institution and step outside the church to offer Christ to a hungry world?
In light of the Pew Report and our gathering on Saturday, and without any intention of telling you how to vote, I’d like to share some reflections.
- Life is a continuous process of death and rebirth. That’s the heart of our resurrection faith. The old self has to die in order for the new to be born.
We live in a world that is changing before our very eyes. There is no more business as usual. Countless businesses close every year because they are not able or refuse to adapt to change. In order to simply survive, every organization must continuously reinvent itself, including the church.
That means that whatever the outcome of the vote on Saturday, United Methodism in Michigan will have to change. We continue to lose members, many of our churches don’t even have one person join on profession of faith, and congregations struggle to pay the bills. That can’t continue. Change will have to involve the transformation of attitudes and behaviors as well as structures and strategies at the conference, district, local church and personal level.
In our own ministry as pastors, we have to constantly reinvent ourselves as well. Whenever we receive a new appointment, whenever the church we are serving moves to another level of growth or experiences cultural or socio-economic change, or whenever our pastoral role in a particular church changes, we are called to discern the movement of God in our lives. That involves the courageous work of reflecting, analyzing, evaluating, letting go of old ideas of who we are, and setting new vision.
Change comes from the top down and the bottom up at the same time. No one is exempt. Bishops, superintendents, conference staff, pastors, local churches, lay persons: each one of us must model the change we hope to see in others. I personally vow to embrace the change process and die to old ways of doing things in order for the new to be born.
No matter how we vote on Saturday, the West Michigan Conference must change. Will you passively observe or actively embrace that change?
- Change entails risk.
Last week, in an effort to prepare myself for April 5, I read Robert E. Quinn’s fascinating book Deep Change; Discovering the Leader Within. Quinn refers to change as “walking naked into the land of uncertainty.” Change always involves stepping out in faith, confronting our fears and desire for self-preservation, and making adjustments along the way. Living into a new paradigm takes patience, perseverance and a commitment to, in Quinn’s words, “build the bridge together as we walk on it.”
In my travels around the district, I am aware that some of you have concerns about parts of the organizational plan. That’s only natural in an undertaking of this magnitude. But I wonder: can we perfect the plan as we move forward rather than wait many more years before we try again, confident that God will always be there before us?
What does it mean for you to “walk naked into the land of uncertainty”?
- Collective good is more important than personal good.
Like you, I wonder how a New Great Lakes Conference will affect my ministry. How will I be able to care for 10 more churches? How will I adapt to a different model of resourcing local churches? What will the clergy clusters look like? Your questions are similar. How will my relationship to the conference change? Will I get lost in the shuffle? Will I be appointed to the Upper Peninsula? Will my DS even know me?
A primary building block of a new Great Lakes Conference will have to be personal sacrifice for the collective vision. After all, that’s what it means to be a connectional church. Whenever we accept a new appointment, we offer our lives and ministries for the greater good of the connection.
In a new conference which will be twice as large as our present conference, teamwork, communication, cooperation, reflection, training, trusting relationships and understanding will become more important than ever. I am convinced that when we covenant to work together, we are far more than the sum of our individual talents.
Are you willing to look beyond yourself?
- A new Great Lakes Conference has the potential to provide the framework for deep, Holy Spirit powerful change and growth in the United Methodist Church if we empower ourselves and others to change.
When I allow my best self to continually emerge in my life, I also empower others to discover their true selves. What could happen if we all began to listen deeply to God’s call and build the bridge together as we walk on it?
Just imagine a circular vision for ministry emerging from the grassroots. There would be a continuous flow of resourcing among local churches, pastors would freely share ideas and strategies; clusters of churches would initiate bold, innovative ministries; missions would continue to be a top priority; urban, suburban and rural churches would collaborate to care for the very least of God’s children; new churches would pop up all over Michigan. Most important, thousands of lives would be transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
My prayer: God’s will, nothing more, nothing less. See you Saturday!