Last week, the laity and clergy of the North Central Jurisdictional Conference, guided by the theme We Press On, gathered in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to elect episcopal leaders. The Conference was conducted very smoothly and harmoniously. Wonderful sermons and worship were offered, which can be seen online here. Three bishops were elected for 2022-2024, the remaining years of this Covid-shortened quadrennium. What joy it was to hear our episcopal candidates share their faith as well as their hopes and dreams for The United Methodist Church.
For those who were not able to follow the results, delegates had the opportunity to interact with and ask questions of the ten candidates. Over the course of six ballots, Rev. Kennetha Bigham Tsai from Michigan was elected on the first ballot, our own Rev. Dr. Lanette Plambeck from Iowa was elected on the third ballot, and Rev. Dan Schwerin from Wisconsin was elected on the sixth ballot. The Conference delegates are eager to have the new bishops begin their ministry on January 1, 2023. What an adventure it will be for these episcopal leaders to lean into their new calling and “Press on!”
The Consecration Service for our new bishops was held on Saturday morning, followed by the announcement of assignments. My heart is filled with joy for Bishops Bigham-Tsai (Iowa), Plambeck (Dakotas-Minnesota), and Schwerin (Northern Illinois) as they prepare for their ministries. We Iowans are especially proud of the election of Lanette Plambeck, a daughter of our Conference, as she begins her episcopal ministry. We are also delighted in the appointment of Bishop Kennetha Bigham-Tsai to Iowa, as Gary and I have known and admired her for many years.
After the consecration service, we prepared to head home, for many of the delegates had Sunday responsibilities in their own settings. Gary and I packed our suitcases and were driven by a conference volunteer to the Fort Wayne airport. As we waited for our boarding time to Chicago and then on to Des Moines, I had the opportunity to chat with several clergy about their ministries. As always, I was greatly inspired and encouraged by the gifts of both clergy and laity.
About an hour before boarding, we heard an announcement that the first flight to Chicago had been canceled because of unusually high winds. To add insult to injury, the next flights out would not leave until Monday morning! This was not good news at all, especially for those who had to get home to preach and lead worship on Sunday. I remember saying to myself, “Oh, my! This may turn into an unfortunate adventure for many of us.”
To make matters worse, we were told that there was no room at the Fort Wayne airport hotel. At 4:45 p.m., and to our amazement, the car rental agencies seemed to have only one car they were willing to rent for a one-way drive to Des Moines. There were fifteen other people waiting. I remember thinking, “I am utterly exhausted. I just want to go home!” Meanwhile, I received a text saying that I had a new seat assignment on a nonexistent fight. Okay … Clearly, airport staff were overwhelmed dealing with bad weather, a lack of rental cars, and unhappy United Methodist travelers. “We are preachers! This is what we do! We need to go home,” some lamented. The only response was, “We are so sorry we cannot help you. We simply don’t have enough cars.”
Facing reality, one of our party immediately rented that lone vehicle, a Ford Explorer SUV, in order for us to drive 478 miles (7 hours and 29 minutes) all the way to Iowa. Our Ford Explorer left at 5:00 p.m. with seven of us and all of our luggage crammed into every nook and cranny we could find. I sat in the middle “seat” of the middle row with absolutely no leg room and came away with a terrific backache, but I survived. By releasing ourselves to our reality as “Explorers” heading home, we chilled and were able to have a very fine adventure indeed.
After detouring to Wendy’s for a quick meal, we entered Iowa. Nearing Des Moines, we made a stop to drop off two fellow explorers. Then we headed to the Des Moines airport, where the rest of us had parked our cars because, after all, we were supposed to be flying! The Ford Explorer spit us out with all our stuff, we found our cars and drove to our homes, many arriving at around 2 am.
I will never forget our “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” back from the 2022 North Central Jurisdictional Conference. It was a very fine adventure, indeed. We laughed, we cried, we lamented, and, thankfully, nobody threw a fit. But we also had some very fine conversations.
Additionally, despite being cramped and uncomfortable, it gave each of us space to center ourselves and reflect on the week just past. Yes, we had conversations among each other, but there were also long periods of silence, each one absorbed in our own thoughts, hope, dreams, and prayers. I took this time to turn off my phone and simply be quiet. I had no need to talk and was grateful to be free of stimulation and commotion. I reflected on how we are a pilgrim people on a journey of faith. And I pondered how, as a little Mennonite girl, it was never even in my ability to conceive of becoming a pastor, let alone be elected a United Methodist bishop.
Lifting up our North Central Jurisdictional Conference elections, I gave thanks for our three new episcopal leaders and began letting go of a forty-one-year ministry career in order to open myself to whatever new and very fine adventures lie ahead. On Saturday night, as throughout this Conference, we were family, beloved community rather than random encounters, and became the body of Christ for one another and our world.
O God, may I continue to be open to surprise along the way. Help me to remove my blinders so that I can truly see the glory and beauty of our world and reach out to my neighbors with compassion and joy.