The United Methodist Church in 2032

Last week, at the Leadership Institute sponsored by the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, I was invited to be one of several bishops to articulate their vision of what The United Methodist Church might look like in the year 2032. I am sharing that vision on my blog today, knowing that, while specifically referencing the conference I serve, the anchor principles of this vision could well apply to other areas of The United Methodist Church. These principles have already been part of cabinet discussion.  

As we begin to live into a new future for The United Methodist Church, I envision a church thirteen years from now that is fully engaged in contextual ministry around the Iowa Annual Conference and in every other conference. Iowa is a farming state, and we are highly dependent on the weather and our crops. We have corn and soybeans; corn and cattle; corn and pigs; and corn and dairy products…and we have approximately 150,000 United Methodists in 750 churches.

The first thing many Americans think about when Iowa is mentioned is the Iowa caucuses. In fact, a week ago Sunday in the Des Moines church I attended, I met one of our presidential candidates who is a United Methodist and was in town to campaign. 

Iowa has also been home to immigrants since the 1830’s when settlers started moving west across the country. Our fertile farmland topsoil, also known as the “black gold” of Iowa, was a huge draw. Immigrants from around the world are woven into the fabric of Iowa and are an integral part of our churches as well.

Unfortunately, farming is a difficult and often stressful profession, highly dependent on circumstances beyond the farmers’ control. This has been an especially challenging year because of severe flooding, tariffs, and the shutting down of ethanol plants. And in our rural communities, suicide rates are increasing. Two years ago, I talked with a pastor who said that the first three funerals in their first year at a new church were suicides. 

The closing and consolidation of schools and hospitals in our rural areas has also had a deep impact on our economy and our churches. At the same time, it has opened doors for United Methodists to be a spiritual presence to communities in crisis and engage around things that really matter, including environmental and racial justice and class disparity. 

There are three things I want to share with you about my vision for the church in Iowa in 2032. First, in 2032, relationships will be more important than theological convictions.

In Iowa, we’ve been pretty evenly split around human sexuality, but the landscape is changing. Do you know what I’ve learned? Our rural farming communities tend to be more theologically conservative than our bigger cities. However, in smaller churches, there is usually someone who is either lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer. Or they know someone who is. And our LGBTQ friends are accepted for who they are because, after all, they’re part of the church family. They belong. In 2032, human sexuality will be a non-issue because long before then we will have recovered our heart—that we are all connected with one another in love. 

People from other parts of the country often don’t know that from its creation as a state in 1846, Iowa has had a long and proud history of being on the cutting edge when it comes to justice and civil rights. In 1851, Iowa eliminated the ban on interracial marriage. In 1934, the first permanent mosque in North America was constructed in Iowa. And in 2009, Iowa was the third state in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage.  

I envision a church in 2032 where our faith communities may be smaller, but they will also be more agile. Our churches will find their own niches in ministry. At the same time, they will also open the doors to everyone who desires to know who Jesus is and deepen their own spiritual lives, at the same time as they participate in mission and justice ministries. Iowa Nice is not just a phrase. It’s real!

Consider Grace Ottumwa UMC. Until this year, the large town of Ottumwa had three churches: Wesley, Willard Street, and First. Last December, they all voted to merge, with a 2/3 majority from each church. They’re selling all three facilities and are now worshiping in the high school cafeteria. There is a new young pastor, and the church’s long-term goal is buying property in the next three years. In the church of 2032, relationships will be more important than theological convictions.

Second, in the church of 2032, innovation, creativity, and imagination will be more important than stagnation, rigidity, sacred cows, and the status quo. In 2032, Iowa congregations of all sizes will be birthing new faith communities and Fresh Expressions of Christianity. They might revolve around ethnic or interest groupings, or they might be simply small groups who choose to worship in homes on a weeknight around the dinner table. 

New ministries will evolve organically from folks who have a particular passion. Our congregations will become twenty-four hour a day saving stations that host various community groups. All ideas will be welcomed, discernment of the gifts of laity will be a priority, and the enthusiasm and vision of new young leaders will be encouraged and celebrated rather than squelched. I envision a church that throws open its doors, not just so all people can come into taste and see, but so we can all go out to serve.

Consider First UMC in Des Moines, formed in 1835. By 1906, it had a thousand members—after it had birthed eleven other churches in the city! Like many downtown churches, First Church, Des Moines, has experienced decline in recent decades, but at the same time, the city has changed and is very multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. 

In addition to the primary congregation, there is also a South Sudanese Mabaan congregation worshipping in the church and partnering with FUMC. In July of 2019, a new lead pastor who is Hispanic was appointed, and a new Hispanic worshipping community held their first service was yesterday! In the church of 2032, innovation, creativity, and imagination will be more important than stagnation, rigidity, sacred cows, and the status quo.

And, third, in the church of 2032, our primary focus will be on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment: to go out into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ and to love God and our neighbor in all that we do. 

In 2032, we’ll have fewer elders and more local pastors, bi-vocational pastors, and Certified Lay Ministers (CLM). But we’ll also be able to do more with less, as we unleash the power of the laity. The days of expecting the pastor to do everything are over. There will likely be fewer district superintendents, so they will supervise the elders, and selected elders will supervise local pastors and CLM’s. This will free superintendents to be the missional strategists of the districts. 

Our larger churches will become teaching churches, and we will recommit to our Wesleyan heritage of class meetings for education and encouragement. I also envision clusters of churches, yoked together with larger county seat churches that become hubs. In 2032, staffing will be creative and contextual. At the same time as we focus on creating vital congregations, we must also care for the health of all our clergy and work with them around effectiveness, physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being, and self-care.

And then there is appointment-making. By 2032, the days of entitlement will be long gone. Clergy will no longer be guaranteed that each successive appointment will include a higher salary and a larger church. We will deploy according to gifts, graces, and effectiveness.

In the church of 2032, we’ll be looking at appointments through missional eyes and will seek the right leadership with the right skills in the right place at the right time. When a church becomes open, we’ll ask the SPRC Committee, “What are the three most important things that your new pastor needs to do for your church to thrive?” With that information, we’ll announce open churches and invite clergy to indicate their preference and why they would be a good fit for the church’s priorities. Our cabinet will be as transparent as possible with appointments so that we can place the best possible pastor for a particular church to thrive. 

Consider our kid preachers at Broadway UMC in Council Bluffs. Broadway has a “kid pastor” program where they teach children as young as pre-schoolers how to pray and be in ministry. Who says kids can’t lead in prayer or teach a class or create a new mission? In Iowa, we have a lot of after school programs in our county seat towns and rural churches. Children and youth, as well as adults, are hungry to learn, to participate in hands-on mission around immigration, racism, climate justice, and mental health, and to create programs that minister to the unique needs of their community. 

In the church of 2032, our primary focus will be on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment: to go out into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ and to love God and our neighbor in all that we do. 

The good news is that Jesus is at work in communities all over Iowa. What an exciting time it is to be the church! 2032 will be here before you know it. Are you in? Are you all in? Let’s do this together!

Please Save Your Praise 

Greta Thunberg is the leading youth voice on climate change in the world. A native of Sweden, Thunberg was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize award for organizing Fridays for Future youth climate protests. She recently traveled thirteen days and eight hours on a zero-emissions racing yacht boat from England to the United States. Thunberg is willing to cut through all the red tape and spoke boldly to Congress last week. 

Greta Thunberg is the face of climate change protests in our world today. And guess what? She is only sixteen years old! Who says that children and youth can’t change the world?  

Last Friday an estimated four million young people around across 150 countries took part in protests demanding that governments take action on climate change. One of the largest protests was in New York City on the eve of the UN’s climate action summit. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres convened the summit in order to “put climate action into higher gear.”

I am fascinated by Greta Thunberg’s unwavering will, passion, and determination to make a difference around climate change. Last Tuesday Thunberg met with Senate Democrats, who said to her, We need your leadership. Young people are the army.” Whereupon Thunberg replied, “Please save your praise. We don’t want it. Don’t invite us here to tell us how inspiring we are without doing anything about it. We don’t want to be invited to these kinds of meetings because, honestly, they don’t lead to anything.” 

Thunberg is extremely effective in turning adult compliments into challenges. And she is not afraid to confront us by our inaction on one of the most important issues facing our world. 

When Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) stressed that the youth would soon be able to run for office themselves and bring about change, Greta responded quickly, “We don’t want to become politicians, we don’t want to run for office. We want you to unite behind the science. I’m sorry, I know you’re probably trying very hard, and this is not personally to any one of you but generally to everyone. I know you’re trying, but it’s just not hard enough.” 

In a divided Congress, bold action on climate change may not come easily. Yet, Greta Thunberg has reminded us once again that, at times, our partisan political climate prevents us from effecting deep change in our states, country, and world.   

NASA’s Global Climate Change website presents compelling evidence of the warming of our planet. According to The Intergovernmental Climate Change Panel, The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th  century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia. Evidence of global climate change includes global temperature rise, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, glacial retreats, decreased snow cover, sea level rise, declining arctic sea ice, extreme events, and ocean acidification.    

In case you did not hear it, I am including part of Greta Thunberg’s speech to the US Senate last Thursday. May God speak to us through the courage of this remarkable young woman.    

My name is Greta Thunberg, I am 16 years old and I’m from Sweden. I am grateful for being with you here in the USA, a nation that, to many people, is the country of dreams. I also have a dream: that governments, political parties, and corporations grasp the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and come together despite their differences – as you would in an emergency – and take the measures required to safeguard the conditions for a dignified life for everybody on earth. 

Because then, we millions of school striking youth, could go back to school. I have a dream that the people in power, as well as the media, start treating this crisis like the existential emergency it is so that I could go home to my sister and my dogs. Because I miss them. In fact, I have many dreams. But this is the year 2019. This is not the time and place for dreams. This is the time to wake up. This is the moment in history when we need to be wide awake. And yes, we need dreams, we cannot live without dreams. But there’s a time and place for everything. And dreams cannot stand in the way of telling it like it is. 

And yet, wherever I go I seem to be surrounded by fairytales. Business leaders, elected officials all across the political spectrum spending their time making up and telling bedtime stories that soothe us, that make us go back to sleep. These are feel-good stories about how we are going to fix everything. How wonderful everything is going to be when we have solved everything. But the problem we are facing is not that we lack the ability to dream, or to imagine a better world. The problem now is that we need to wake up. It’s time to face the reality, the facts, the science. 

And the science doesn’t mainly speak of great opportunities to create the society we always wanted. It tells of unspoken human sufferings, which will get worse and worse the longer we delay action – unless we start to act now. And yes, of course, a sustainable transformed world will include lots of new benefits.  

But you have to understand. This is not primarily an opportunity to create new green jobs, new businesses or green economic growth. This is above all an emergency, and not just any emergency. This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced. And we need to treat it accordingly so that people can understand and grasp the urgency. Because you cannot solve a crisis without treating it as one. Stop telling people that everything will be fine when in fact, as it looks now, it won’t be very fine. This is not something you can package and sell or like on social media. 

Stop pretending that you, your business idea, your political party or plan will solve everything. We must realize that we don’t have all the solutions yet. Far from it. Unless those solutions mean that we simply stop doing certain things. 

Changing one disastrous energy source for a slightly less disastrous one is not progress. Exporting our emissions overseas is not reducing our emission. Creative accounting will not help us. In fact, it’s the very heart of the problem 

 The USA is the biggest carbon polluter in history. It is also the world’s number one producer of oil. And yet, you are also the only nation in the world that has signaled your strong intention to leave the Paris Agreement. Because ‘It was a bad deal for the USA 

 Everybody says that making sacrifices for the survival of the biosphere – and to secure the living conditions for future and present generations – is an impossible thing to do. Americans have indeed made great sacrifices to overcome terrible odds before. 

Think of the brave soldiers that rushed ashore in that first wave on Omaha Beach on D Day. Think of Martin Luther King and the 600 other civil rights leaders who risked everything to march from Selma to Montgomery. Think of President John F. Kennedy announcing in 1962 that America would choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard… 

Perhaps it is impossible. But looking at those numbers – looking at the current best available science signed by every nation – then I think that is precisely what we are up against. 

But you must not spend all of your time dreaming or see this as some political fight to win. 

And you must not gamble your children’s future on the flip of a coin. Instead, you must unite behind the science. You must take action. You must do the impossible. Because giving up can never ever be an option. 

Please, save your praise. 
















Growing in Grace with our United Methodist Colleges

  • Did you know that there are 117 United Methodist-related colleges and universities in the United States?
  • Did you know that there are thirteen United Methodist-related seminaries in the United States as well as other non-United Methodist approved seminaries?
  • Did you know that there are more than one thousand United Methodist-related colleges and universities around the world?

Education and the development of leaders played a critical role from the very beginning of the Methodist movement in 18th century England. John Wesley believed education to be a priority for all ages and wrote manuals and tracts for children. He also emphasized the importance of Christian education and spiritual development in the home. The growth of the Sunday school movement in America was largely due to circuit riding Methodist preachers, and by 1844, Methodism was the largest denomination in the United States.

John Wesley also stressed lifelong learning, faith development, and mutual accountability through class meetings, bands, and societies. “It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people.” (John Wesley)

Last week, our cabinet spent the afternoon with the presidents of the four United Methodist-related colleges and universities in Iowa: Jonathan Brand from Cornell College; Christine Plunkett from Iowa Wesleyan University; John Reynders from Morningside College; and Jay Simmons from Simpson College. Our purpose was to get to know each other better; dialogue around the challenges of higher education today; discuss the ramifications of the 2019 General Conference decisions around human sexuality for both the church and academy; and brainstorm ways in which we can be mutually supportive of each other.

All four colleges are proud of their United Methodist roots and connections. At the same time, many students, faculty, donors, and administrators of our colleges were discouraged by the outcome of the 2019 General Conference because each college has statements around inclusivity a diversity is a core value. The colleges are now waiting to see what happens at the 2020 General Conference before responding.

  • Cornell College values diversity and strives to create a welcoming community in which all individuals are respected and included. We support respectful and meaningful inquiry across actual or perceived differences.”
  • Morningside College believes in and promotes non-discrimination. It is our policy and practice to promote equal opportunities without regard to age, sex, religion, creed, race, color, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, genetic information, or national origin.”
  • Simpson College is committed to a diverse and inclusive, culturally enriched campus community with many different identities, nationalities, sexual orientations, ethnicities, races, physical and mental abilities, and beliefs. We embrace the fact that diversity improves and enhances the quality of our academic experiences and campus life.”
  • “Energized and guided by historic memory, Iowa Wesleyan University respects individuality within the context of a community with a common moral purpose, a community that welcomes persons of diverse backgrounds and worldviews. In so recognizing both immediate and global dimensions of civic membership, individual aspirations are tied to the aspirations of all, echoing John Wesley’s declaration ‘The world is my parish.’”

Current challenges faced by our United Methodist colleges in Iowa:

  • Demographic changes – There are fewer 18-year-olds in Iowa than there were 25 years ago, which means there is a smaller pool of potential students.
  • Lack of ethnic representation – Diversity is a high priority and is increasing. There is also a growing Hispanic and Asian population in Iowa. At the same time, ethnic students have not historically attended small liberal arts colleges.
  • Enrollment – Like many, if not most, small liberal arts colleges, our UM-related colleges in Iowa struggle to maintain enrollment goals. Every student matters, and even with generous financial aid, the cost of attending a liberal arts college is more than the large flagship universities.
  • Finances – Tuition alone cannot support our colleges. They depend on the generosity of donors to offer the highest caliber of education.

Strengths of our UM colleges:

  • Liberal arts colleges enroll more first-generation students than large universities. A first-generation student is the first one in their family to ever attend college. A smaller campus ensures that students receive more direct and personal assistance.
  • Small colleges are also the drivers of social mobility. Social mobility refers to when individuals go up or down the social ladder. In the context of higher education, social mobility is usually about children becoming better off than their parents.
  • There are many students who cannot succeed at big universities and thrive in a smaller setting where there is more individual attention. I know that I would never have survived in a big university. I would have been totally lost! The smaller learning environment that I had as an undergraduate student at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio enabled me to better adjust to college.

Our United Methodist institutions of higher learning are monitored by the University Senate, which is an elected body of peer professionals who both support and evaluate our UM colleges and universities. They also ensure that every one of our institutions maintains appropriate academic accreditation.

I’d like to share one unique aspect of each of our four colleges and urge you to peruse the websites of our colleges to get a bigger picture of the excellent education that is provided.

Iowa Wesleyan University was founded in 1842 and is one of the oldest four-year higher education institutions west of the Mississippi River. One of IWU’s graduates is Dr. Peggy Whitson ‘81, a NASA astronaut who has twice served as station commander for the International Space Station and holds several NASA records.

Over the past three years, Morningside graduates have had a job and graduate school placement rate of 99%. Since 1894, the college has been helping students become flexible, confident thinkers in an increasingly fast-paced world. Morningside College was also recently named among the national finalists for The American Prize in Opera Performance (College/University Division) for its production of “Dido and Aeneas.” Morningside is the only private liberal arts college to receive this designation for the 2018-19 season.

Cornell College was the first college west of the Mississippi to grant women the same rights and privileges as men, and, in 1858, to award a degree to a woman. In 1978, Cornell faculty adopted the One Course at A Time curriculum, transforming the way teaching and learning happen at Cornell. Cornell’s innovative education was recognized with the 1996 publication of Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives and continues to be recognized with each new edition.

One of Simpson College’s most famous students is George Washington Carver, who was an American agricultural scientist and inventor. Carver was a professor at Tuskegee Institute and pioneered the promotion of alternative crops to cotton and methods to prevent soil depletion. After Carver was refused admission to a college because he was black, he enrolled in Simpson College in 1890, where he studied art and piano for a year. Every spring, classes are cancelled at Simpson so that students can participate in service projects around the community.

“I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God’s creation intentions.” –John Wesley

Thank be to God for the thousands of college students who are making a difference and changing the world through social justice, service, spiritual values, civic engagement, and responsible action. And thank you, Presidents Plunkett, Reynders, Brand, and Simmons, for your leadership in our United Methodist institutions of higher learning and for helping us all to grow in grace.