On the friendship pads that were passed through the pews every Sunday, Lenny often wrote these words, “The body of Christ has AIDS.” It was a poignant reminder to us every week that we are all connected to the vine of Jesus Christ, intertwined with one another and called to bear each other’s burdens (John 15:1-11).
When Lenny put his offering envelope in the plate on Sunday mornings, he would always write on the envelope, “Thank you, God.” He had a way of seeing through his pain and suffering and was able to thank rather than blame God. As I led Lenny’s funeral service, I finally realized what he had done for my life. Lenny taught me that simply loving and bearing fruit after the example of Jesus is more important than anything else in life or death.
The words on my lips right now are, “Thank you, God. Thank you for the privilege of serving you through pastoral ministry in The United Methodist Church for forty-one years. Thank you for walking with me through the most joyful and challenging of times. Thank you for the opportunity to serve you by reflecting your light and love to a hurting world.”
This is my last blog for the Iowa Annual Conference. I am retiring at the end of 2022 after serving as a local church pastor for twenty-nine years, a district superintendent for six years, and Iowa’s episcopal leader for the past six years. I first started writing my blog in 2006, when I was appointed by Bishop Jonathan Keaton to be the District Superintendent of the Grand Rapids District in Michigan.
On my very first day as a DS, while taking a walk and pondering what this new ministry would look like, I distinctly remember saying to myself, “I have to find a way to connect regularly with both clergy and laity in the district.” The result: a weekly blog called Leading from the Heart, which has been read by clergy and laity not only in Iowa but throughout the United Methodist Connection. The blog was intended to keep us connected by sharing thoughts that would be, at times, provocative, challenging, encouraging, engaging, and inspiring.
I spent approximately six to eight hours a week writing my blog and would take several months off in the summer as my “recess” time. Unless I were deathly sick, an essay would be published every Monday to encourage and inspire laity and clergy alike. In my final Iowa blog, let me speak to three questions:
What did I cherish the most about living in Iowa for the last six years? Let me count the ways!
- The wonders of the prairie, which was always accessible right outside the episcopal residence in Clive.
- Connecting with wild animals as I walked the nearby trails.
- Cornfields: Corn on the cob is my very favorite food, and whenever anyone even mentions the “CC” words, I salivate.
- The sky: The most amazing and incredible cloud formations in the world can be found in Iowa.
- Sitting in my office, which faces west, so that every night I experience amazing sunsets.
- Iowa Nice is not just a catch phrase. It’s really true! “Iowa’s natural scenic views, friendly people, low crime rates, affordable homes, and small-town atmosphere make it one of the most coveted places to live in the United States.”
- Riding in RAGBRAI my first summer in 2017. RAGBRAI is an acronym and registered trademark for the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, which is a non-competitive bicycle ride organized by The Des Moines Register. The course is the oldest, largest, and longest week-long bicycle touring event in the world, averaging 478 miles. It runs across the state of Iowa from west to east and draws recreational riders from across the globe.
- The Iowa State Fair – “The internationally acclaimed Iowa State Fair is the single largest event in the state of Iowa and one of the oldest and largest agricultural and industrial expositions in the country. Annually attracting more than a million people from all over the world, the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines is Iowa’s great celebration, a salute to the state’s best in agriculture, industry, entertainment, and achievement.”
- Spending a year leading both Iowa and the Dakotas Annual Conferences. This included a ten-day road trip in North and South Dakota in the summer of 2021 in order to meet with various groups of clergy and laity throughout the Dakotas Annual Conference.
- Competing in the Des Moines Triathlon (swimming, cycling, and running) in the summer of 2017.
- My son, Garth, surprised me two days before the 2018 Des Moines Marathon by flying in from New York City to run with me in his very first marathon. He beat me by 7 minutes and 34 seconds.
- Running the Boston Marathon three times during my time in Iowa.
- The joy and collaborative work of leading 139,000 United Methodists in Iowa.
- Frequently the Des Moines Symphony, my “Happy Place.”
- Discovering fascinating places to hike around the state.
What has been most difficult/challenging in my ministry?
- COVID changed everything, and the ripple effects will be felt for years to come. It felt like a “donut hole” in the middle of my tenure.
- After the first two years of significant travel around the state and overseas, I learned how to access technology to conduct meetings from a distance.
- Physical isolation from one another and the inability to worship in person. Face-to-face meetings pretty much came to a stop.
- There was no choice but to reinvent ourselves and be creative in how to do ministry, whether clergy or laity.
- Leading became very challenging during a time when various factions with different theological understandings resulted in divisions within The United Methodist Church.
- The pain among congregations, with some members choosing to remain United Methodist and others choosing to leave, was disheartening.
- My February 16, 2022, fall on black ice resulted in a serious concussion and fractured wrist. The isolation of six months of medical leave was mitigated by constant cards and emails, which were instrumental in my healing.
- At the same time, one “angel” has sent me an encouraging card once a month for the past six years. Can you imagine how much that meant to me?
What, then, are my concluding reflections?
- During my medical leave, I realized that I had overloaded myself for many years with more than my mind and body could handle. This gave me the insight to help other clergy create a good balance between ministry and their personal life.
- While I loved the year that I spent with the Dakotas Annual Conference, this additional responsibility was not sustainable. We were all aware of the additional stress a number of bishops experienced by “doubling up.”
- By choosing to retire at the end of 2022, an additional bishop was able to be elected at the North Central Jurisdictional Conference in November. I am delighted that Kennetha Bigham-Tsai from Michigan was elected and assigned to the Iowa area and that our own Lanette Plambeck from Iowa was elected and assigned to the Minnesota-Dakotas area.
- Your support, encouragement, and notes have been life-giving, especially when we spent lots of time at home during COVID and could not see each other face to face.
Beginnings and endings are so important. As Gary and I prepare to move back to Michigan, we are deeply grateful for your love and care – and for being Iowa nice, of course! Just as I felt your prayers and support during these past six years, so I sense them now as I prepare to retire. God is not done with me yet, but I do know that I am a better person and a more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ because of each one of you. Thank you, God!