Yesterday was the day my hope returned. Since General Conference, I have been discomfited. I don’t think I’ve ever used that word before, but it means to be made uncomfortable, uneasy, agitated, disoriented, or unable to be consoled. My heart has been aching because I have a deep investment in and commitment to The United Methodist Church, having chosen The UMC as my church home as a young adult.
I became a United Methodist because I was intrigued by the interplay between social and personal holiness and the necessity of living out our faith through mission and outreach. I was inspired by John Wesley’s teachings to reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness across the land. And I was encouraged by Wesley’s words to his preachers, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work.” I have been discomfited from experiencing so many people in pain, believing that there is no longer a place for them in The United Methodist Church.
In the past several weeks, I have participated in numerous conversations at all levels of the church around the future. But it was not until yesterday that my hope returned. I woke up early to run on the treadmill before leaving for First UMC, Fort Dodge, a 90-minute drive.
It’s good I left earlier than I needed to because my GPS decided to send me down a dirt road that I soon realized was not going to take me anywhere. After getting back on track, I turned off the music and enjoyed the pre-dawn silence. I remembered the words that Abba Moses, one of the great Desert fathers, would say to his monks, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
There were almost no cars on the road at 6:45 a.m. I watched light emerge from the darkness and the sun rise in the east, although it only lasted a minute or so before the sun vanished behind the clouds. The landscape was surreal, stark, beautiful — and wet. The farther north I drove, the more water there was, with flooding continuing across much of Iowa and some towns have been evacuated. The fields were literally lakes because of heavy rainfall and snowmelt, and I prayed for our farmers and all those affected by this historic flooding.
Arriving early at First UMC, Fort Dodge, there was plenty of time to wander around the gorgeous hundred-year-old sanctuary and also prayer-walk around the neighborhood. Pastor Andrea Kraushaar is an outstanding leader for this amazing downtown congregation that is heavily involved in outreach and mission at the local, national, and international level. Many of the laity that I met asked about General Conference. It’s on everyone’s hearts. Encouraging them to continue to reach out to their community and be welcoming of all people, I began to feel some glimmers of hope myself, especially when I sat with the many children in the chancel, we talked about what it means to be a difference maker, and each child received a difference maker button.
After worship, North Central District Superintendent Carol Kress, District Administrative Assistant Alanna Warren and I drove over to Trinity UMC, the other larger church in Fort Dodge, where the district middle school/confirmation youth were gathering for the afternoon. Almost eighty youth and adults showed up, and we had to ration the pizza! Meeting with these passionate and enthusiastic youth began to renew my hope. What fun it was to hear their questions.
- Are bishops’ church services longer than most worship services? (Hmmm. We do tend to be long-winded.)
- What did you want to be when you were in high school? (professional athlete or church musician)
- How many marathons have you run? (22)
- Have you ever been on a mission trip in another country? (Cuba, Haiti, Zimbabwe)
- How did you leave the Mennonite Church for The United Methodist Church (combination of a lack of opportunities for women pastors and my husband being a United Methodist pastor)
- What is the hardest thing about being a bishop? (having to make difficult decisions that may harm others)
- How many countries have you been to? (30? Not sure.)
- What is the best thing you have done as a bishop? (I was assigned to Iowa!)
After lunch, we went to Fort Frenzy, a Family Fun Center, where I played my first game of laser tag. At least I did not come in last! The joy and enthusiasm of the youth was infectious. My hope increased as I knew that the future of The United Methodist Church is in good hands with these youth, who were so caring and accepting of everyone and readily made friends with kids from other churches.
From Fort Frenzy, we drove back to Trinity UMC for the third and final General Conference gathering. The sanctuary was full, the spirit was good, and the comments were heart-felt. Folks wanted to know the details of the Traditional Plan that passed, asked about the punitive nature of some parts of the plan and wondered whether we will lose our young people, for most of whom human sexuality is not an issue. They also reminded me that 15,000 signatures of young people under age 35, advocating for full inclusion, were gathered overnight and shared on the last day of General Conference.
Honest questions were raised about how the Traditional Plan would be enforced, what the timetable is for when the plan will go into effect, and whether the 2020 General Conference can bring new petitions for restructuring (yes). One person wondered how the UMC is structured globally and why the United States can’t be its own Central Conference and make its own decisions the way the Central Conferences can. Still another asked how they can stay informed about what is happening at the denominational level. I recommended that they subscribe to the United Methodist Daily Digest for the latest news.
When participants asked what they can do right now, my best wisdom was to encourage them to be the body of Christ in the world. Keep loving, keep serving, keep including, keep reaching out, and keep connected. Keep making a difference in your context and show grace to all. And if you have an idea, submit a petition to the 2020 General Conference!
I was both surprised and deeply moved that so many people acknowledged the difficult position that our bishops are in as we attempt to lead with grace and integrity for such a time as this. We covet your prayers. As I made the long drive home, I suddenly realized that I am no longer discomfited and that my hope has returned. My hope returned in Fort Dodge yesterday because of a vital downtown local church; eighty active and faith-filled youth; and United Methodists from across north central and northwest Iowa. They are young and old and of varying theological positions who are convinced that God is yet not done with The United Methodist Church and that something new is about to emerge. Is God done with us yet? I hope not.
P.S. Because of a denominational meeting in the Philippines, the next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, April 1.