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Re-envisioning the Global Church

Krystl Johnson
Krystl Johnson

A speech delivered by Krystl Johnson to the Wesleyan Covenant Association Northeaster Regional Meeting, at Washington Crossing UMC May 11, 2019

It is an honor to stand before all of you as a young adult and to share this platform with Rev.(Joe) DiPaolo, (WCA) President (Keith) Boyette, Rev. Caulfield, and Rev. McDermott for such a time as this. I will be presenting an individual and millennial perspective on the Global Church. You can see that I remixed the title. It is now called Re-envisioning the Global church. And as a special treat, I am going to be speaking to you in PC that’s as Politically Correct as possible and then translating it to FB that’s in blunt and direct Facebook comments.

So, that we are on the same page, my understanding of the global church means we make disciples around the world. As an interconnected, international community of believers in Jesus Christ, we share this common purpose across so many nations, upholding the Word of God and magnifying the name of our Lord Jesus. We, too,—in America—are the Global church and our best-played role is that we help the world.

‘Who we are’ changes quickly. The nearest Next Methodism is me— millennials with Generation Z close behind. So, when we talk about the future and what is at stake, WE are talking about me—millennials. Our life’s purpose as the Global Church is at stake.

We are about to be rocked and rattled by all of the plans and provocation to resist the passing of the Traditional Plan. I do not doubt that this is by God’s design. I believe that by God’s doing, WE, as a global church, will be changed. As always, God is making a way for millennials, the next Methodism. Therefore, it is my hope that you allow the Holy Spirit to help you see and understand my perspective on our need to update our status as the Global Church; to re-envision and recommit in a new way to what it will take for us individually and corporately to sustain and remain the Global Church.

I’d like to take a Facebook photo and let the rest of the Global Church know that we are here, before moving into my first point. I am going to walk you all through taking an ‘usie’ photo. (Ms. Johnson here instructs the audience on how to take a group photo with themselves included in the frame.) I’m going to give you a moment to take your usie photo with the people to the left and right of you.

Look at your photo. I can guarantee it is a beautiful portrait of Methodism. But I want you to imagine what—or who, rather—could be beyond the frame. I hope y’all are ready for your first Facebook translation: We need to revise how we frame Methodism.

Subsequently, this fight around Homosexuality has made our focus quite narrow, seemingly a gathering of those who are already with us. To sustain and remain the Global Church, we have to recognize that it is more of ‘them’ than it is of us. It’s always going to be more of ‘them’ than it is of us.

  • When I think about the rising of the U.S. UMC Resistance, it seems to be more of them than it is of us.
  • At the 2019 General Conference, when I looked up to the upper level of the America’s Center Dome, it seemed it was more of them than it was of us.
  • When I think back to the sessions of Holy Conferencing at the 2016 Jurisdictional Conference, it seemed it was more of them than it was of us.

Thank God they are not the ‘them’ that I am talking about. I’m talking about the unsaved, kind of saved, and the not yet saved. It’s more of them in this world than it is of all of us who call ourselves Methodists. All of ‘Them’ is not bad at all. ‘Them’ bring us epic opportunities to live out our life’s purpose. ‘Them’ allows us to build up the global church by making disciples of Jesus Christ just about anywhere. And you know what, some of ‘Them’ don’t expect us to loosen our grip on the absolute truth of Sscripture in order to get them to join our church.

Some of us have bought into the image of Methodism, meaning that we are to be everything the world needs; everything for everybody. ‘To be everything’ is God’s job. This skewed image is calling us to reassert and reframe what it means to be Methodists, even if only some of us are willing to do it. If being a Global Church means we do everything the worlds does and expects us to do, we will cease to be God’s church.

The Global Church is God’s ministry and His movement. He is committed to building up His church. It is His responsibility to do it; it was a part of His Life’s purpose on earth. So, we have to do our part—live out our life’s purpose by baptizing people from all nations, teaching them to obey the commands of Jesus, proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name to all people, and witnessing for Jesus to the ends of the earth.

I envision a Global Church that keeps salvation in the forefront. Who knows what demon we will have to fight next after Homosexuality? It won’t matter if we remain certain that Jesus is the God that saves, changes, transforms, and delivers. Facebook translation: We can love people just the way they are.

Millennials embody the indescribable compassion of Christ. So, when I imagine what’s next for Methodists, I see a generation bold enough to say to anyone in any place, of any language or shade that the Holy Spirit wants to transform them and fashion their desires towards God’s righteousness and His holiness. I see a generation bold enough to say to them: ‘Yes. You were born this way. But Jesus is calling you to be born again.’

I believe the most important way for us in the U.S. to sustain and remain the Global Church will be to revisit our missional priorities. Our top priority should be to create active young stewards of the Global Church. And we can do this by fostering a keen understanding of the interdependence of our local and global existence. That was the PC version. My FB translation expresses what I am really trying to say: The Global Church needs the African American church just as much as it needs the African church.

You can say Amen to that because I am not fussing. I am just making a blunt observation that we are within driving distance from Philadelphia, Camden, Trenton, Bed-Stuy, Baltimore and other communities filled with people of color. In order for us to be confident in our future as Methodists, when I look out, I should see diversity in representation of every race and every region. All of us banded and built up together.

Yet, somewhere there’s a disconnect in what we say we are as a Global Church and what we see. The fact that this room is not lively and vibrant with color shows that our missional priorities don’t represent an interdependence of our local and global existence. There just doesn’t seem to be a clear and working understanding that everything global starts locally.

If this is so, we will not create active young stewards of the Global Church. You know, I often get asked: “How do we get the Black Church involved in something like this? What are they thinking?” My response is: “Well, what were the Africans thinking? How did you get involved with them? And more importantly, what did you learn from them and their local focus?” As the future of Methodism, I need to know this. Fellowship, connectedness and unity are all learned things. Everything we bypass as a church, like intentional interconnectedness within our diverse Christian community—gets passed down. This is what is at stake:

  • The next generation of Methodism will continue to drive through local mission fields and overstep local minority missionaries on its way to international airports to engage in global ministries.
  • The next generation of Methodism will continue to function as the Black Church, the White Church, the Latino Church, etc. If we continue to define and divide territory by our race and color, we will miss out on local opportunities that boost global causes simply because we don’t go there. 
  • My greatest fear is that the next generation of Methodism will lose touch with grassroots styling of local outreach and connectedness. Despite the outreach available within our local context and due to our primary focus on global connectedness, the Methodist ministry in America will seemingly be exported and offshore.

Our inactivity, responses of apathy, and the lack of engagement on the local front decreases our viability as a Global Church. In revisiting our missional priorities, I encourage you to take a visit to Philadelphia, Camden, Trenton, Bed-Stuy, and Baltimore to see where God is at work and where else the future of Methodism could come from.

Can you imagine what could be next for Methodism if we moved into those neighborhoods? Is our Global Church ready to get planted there? Have we considered where we can partner there? Who are we sending there to save, shape, and send out the next set of Global Church stewards?

My last point is to re-envision how the Global Church engages with a world that is now at our fingertips. Generation Z, better known as the iGeneration, the generation that grew up with the internet—they expect the world to move at the speed of Google. They solicit acceptance through ‘likes’, reposts and retweets. Their goal is to acquire the status of Superfan and Top Commenter on social media sites. If we ignore the opportunity to update ourselves to the times of this generation, we will continue with business as usual, and business as usual will eventually outdate itself.

Potlucks, PowerPoints, Coffee, Flat Screens and Contemporary bands. We’ve added all these beautiful things to our church. Yet, still, we can’t get the upcoming generations to lift their heads or take their earphones out. The church is still one of the last places they want to be. It seems the only place most people want to be is on their phones. It’s because they are seeking acceptance; they want status and they want it now. Somehow this translates into a need the Global Church can meet.

I envision a Global Church that can help young people live out their faith in real time. A church that is not concerned with what it can do to attract the next generation but that is focused on how Jesus is drawing them in. The world has warped their minds, distorted their view of the image of God, and defiled their true identities. They are hurting.

Accepting the world’s way is not the cure. How can we instead place salvation from their sins at their fingertips? They need us to testify to Christ’s ransom and they need it now. They need us to bring them into the full recognition of their life’s value. And they need us to do it quicker than Google.

FB translation: Just because they ‘d rather spend time on snapchat and Instagram rather than talk to us right now, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking to them and giving them opportunities to serve and to change the world. It is our job to build them up in the Christian faith. It is our job to correct them—even if they don’t want to hear it. If we fail to do this, we will produce a generation of Methodists that carries out its faith with a skewed understanding of repentance, commitment, and self-denial.

Thank you for allowing for my perspective on the global church. Wholeheartedly my vision can be summed up in a blunt, yet simple statement. So, I’d liked to close with that Facebook translation: I envision a Global Church that is intentionally interconnected and interdependent, a fellowship of bold, spirit-filled believers that understand what Christ accomplished through His life, death, and resurrection. Therefore, it delights in making disciples of Jesus Christ and burdens itself with the duty of upholding the truths of Scripture, even if it has to do it alone.

Abortion: Navigating a complicated problem through a path of grace

By Bishop Peggy Johnson

Quite a few states have passed new restrictions on abortion this year, and more are making similar plans. These restrictions include things like a ban on abortion after just six weeks, even if the woman is a victim of rape or incest.  There will be court challenges and even the possibility of this issue going to the Supreme Court.

Many would like to see the landmark “Roe v Wade” case of 1973 over-turned. That law states that abortion is legal until a fetus would be viable outside the womb.  Many others strongly oppose any law that would restrict abortion rights.

What does The United Methodist Church’s “Social Principles” say about this?  It is found in the 2016 Book of Discipline, in paragraph 161.K:

“The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence.  While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born.  Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve of abortion.

Respect sacredness of life and well-being for mother and child

But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child. We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers.  We support parental, guardian or other responsible adult notification and consent before abortions can be performed on girls who have not yet reached the age of legal adulthood.  We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection or eugenics.

We oppose the use of late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction (partial-birth abortion) and call for the end of this practice except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life.  This procedure shall be performed only by certified medical providers.  Before providing their services, abortion providers should be required to offer women the option of anesthesia.

We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may cause them to consider abortion.  We entrust God to provide guidance, wisdom and discernment to those facing an unintended pregnancy.

The Church shall offer ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies.  We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth.

Is The United Methodist Church pro-life or pro-choice?  Yes and yes! 

We mourn and are committed to promoting the diminishment of high abortion rates.  The Church shall encourage ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies such as comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education, advocacy in regard to contraception and support of initiatives that enhance the quality of life for all women and girls around the globe.

Young adult women disproportionately face situations in which they feel that they have no choice due to financial, educational, relational, or other circumstances beyond their control.  The Church and its local congregations and campus ministries should be in the forefront of supporting existing ministries and developing new ministries that help such women in their communities.  They should also support those crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women explore all options related to an unplanned pregnancy.  We particularly encourage the Church, the government, and social service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption.  We affirm and encourage the Church to assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion.

Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral and other appropriate counsel.”

Instead of legal wrangling, forge connections with real people

So is The United Methodist Church pro-life or pro-choice?  Yes and yes!  What is written above is a fairly balanced and nuanced statement.  United Methodists of goodwill have strong convictions about abortion, and we as a pluralistic church have the freedom to teach what the church teaches and yet have our own opinions. 

What I like about our abortion statement is that it is high on relationship building.  The best answer to difficult questions is not to write a law or hire a lobbyist or even march in a protest (on either side).  The best approach is always deep connections with real people that cuts through all the judgments and “one-size-fits-all” mentality and deals with each situation relationally, prayerfully and in community.

Years ago my husband’s church happened to be next to the office of an abortion clinic.  Very often it was the scene of protest marches with people holding signs and giant pictures of bloody aborted fetuses and even someone dressed in a hooded black robe and holding a sickle.

When I would take mail out to the mailbox they would shout at me that I was like a Nazi who watched the Jews being taken to the death camps and ignored the plight of the innocent.  I walked over to them one day and engaged in conversation.  These were people of deep conviction and a passion for life.  I understood their position, and I respect our First Amendment rights to free speech and heart. 

I told them that I had been working with a pregnant, single deaf woman in the inner city, who was expecting her 9th child.  She was considering an abortion because there was barely enough money to feed the ones left at home, and three of her older children were serving time in prison.  I went with her to the doctor’s office and she decided to go ahead with the pregnancy.

Women with crisis pregnancies need spiritual, relational, financial support

I shared with the marchers that she needed financial resources.  They promised to help but no one ever called me back. I am sure that many people in the movement do help and this was just an isolated case.  

But my point is: supporting women spiritually, relationally and financially with crisis pregnancies and abortion decisions is the important key to this huge, complicated picture.  Our faith calls us to “get in the weeds” with the nuances of peoples’ lives and try to weave a path of grace, hope and life for people, one situation at a time. 

Pray for our country as we navigate these legal battles over abortion in the months to come.  Engage in conversations at church and in the community around these issues.  Most importantly, if you really care about this, become relationally involved with real women who are facing crisis pregnancies.  Be the hands and feet, the mind and loving heart of Christ, who came to give hope and abundant life.

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.

“It Only Takes a Moment”

By Bishop Peggy Johnson

“God’s divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of God, who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which God has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them, you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.  

“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness and godliness with brotherly affection and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:3-8

Aldersgate Sunday

The Broadway musical “Hello Dolly” is back in New York City, starring Bette Midler as the leading lady.  I can actually boast that I saw Carol Channing perform this role in 1968 when I was in high school on a field trip to the United Nations building. Now to see it again 40 years later does make me feel a bit old.  

But the signature love song in this musical is “It Only Takes a Moment.”  It speaks of romantic love: “It only takes a moment for your eyes to meet, and then your heart knows in a moment you will never be alone again.” The leading lady and man croon together, “It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long.”

United Methodists believe in moments too: moments of experiencing for the first time God’s wooing grace, moments of conviction of sin and repentance, moments of conversion to faith in Jesus Christ, and one special moment that happened to our founder, John Wesley, at a Bible study on London’s Aldersgate Street nearly three centuries ago.

John Wesley was raised in the Anglican Church and was a priest and the son of an Anglican priest.  But when he was 35 years old he was struggling with his faith.

As the story goes on May 24, 1738, he went reluctantly to a Bible study and prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London.  Someone read from Martin Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.”

John writes in his diary “About 8:45 PM, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

This was Wesley’s defining moment of assurance of salvation and freedom from sin and death.  What he experienced was what St. Peter describes as “the precious and great promises of God.”

In this moment he felt the power of the Holy Spirit to preach salvation. From that day on he dedicated his life to proclaiming that good news around England to anyone who would listen.  They say he preached as if he were “out of breath in pursuit of souls.”

Eventually, he inspired a movement that found its way to America when Wesley sent his preachers to “spread Scriptural Holiness” across the continent.

United Methodists observe Aldersgate Sunday every year around the 24th day of May.  We do this to remind people of the love of God for everyone and that all can be heirs of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ and be blessedly assured of the same.  

It is also a time for us to rededicate our lives to not only spreading the gospel but being the loving presence of Jesus Christ out in the world. This is another important thing to know about John Wesley:

He preached conversion but also sanctification: that is the Holy Spirit working on one’s soul to improve one’s character and obedience to God through prayer, study of the scripture, accountability groups, the sacraments, and fasting.  He called this personal holiness.

The passage above, from 2 Peter 1:3-8 describes it well. We are to supplement our faith with virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly and sisterly affection, and love.  This personal holiness is vitally important because it gives us strength and direction for the works of Christ out in the world.

Wesley calls that “social holiness.” It means being a “sermon in shoes” through sacrificial giving of ourselves to the poor, to minister to those in prisons, to visit the sick, and to speak out on social justice issues for those without a voice.  

There are many ways to give yourself away for the love of God’s children.  This is the heart of mission. And as we engage in mission, God’s witness increases and we decrease.  Mission is the fire and we are merely the candle.

When I was in seminary back in the late 1970’s, there was an early, heavy snow storm.  Some seminary students—being seminary students—went out to throw snowballs and make snowmen, rather than study in the library.  One of the students, an amazing artist, crafted a snowman that looked exactly like John Wesley. We all commented on this incredible work of art.

A few days later, when the autumn sun returned, the snowman had melted some, and there appeared a sign on the sculpture: “My heart was strangely warmed.” (quoting of course John Wesley’s experience of assurance of salvation at Aldersgate).  

We all had a good laugh. But truly, as we engage in heart-warming mission, we give ourselves away—or melt away, as it were—so that we are not important any more. It is the work of ministry that is most important. We give ourselves away out of love for Christ.

Aldersgate Day can be everyday as we remember the love of God poured out for all of us in abundance. It only takes a moment to realize that we are loved a whole life long.  

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog

Musing a Methodist Mulligan: Reflections on General Conference 2019

by David E. Woolverton

I’ve been a church pastor for over thirty years; consequently, there’s still a lot that I have to learn.  Yet, there’s one thing I do know: Church conflict makes good people do stupid things.  Why?  In my experience, it’s usually because we either forget who we are, we forget why we’re here, or we forget where we’re supposed to be going.  I know because I’m one of them.

Conflict leadership fundamentally is not about the resolution of disagreements.  It’s about leading people through a discipleship process that helps them remember who they are in Christ, why the Church exists, and what the mission of the Church actually is.

Developing a Kingdom of God mind-set is critically important for conflict leadership.  The local church was never intended to be the end of the process of discipleship, but rather a means to an end.  The church is a movement of God’s Spirit, a vehicle by which God accomplishes God’s mission of multiplying disciples for the transformation of the world, through divinely-empowered acts of self-sacrificial love invasively perpetrated by lives changed by Christ. 

Clearly, the best way to navigate through conflict situations is to work harder on the front end in creating a normative culture in our churches built around the Way of life that Jesus modeled, and then to reinforce that culture within the day-to-day relational connections of the congregation.  Why?  In simple terms, we become what we allow

The language of the Kingdom of God communicates – in multiphasic ways – the values that Jesus Himself espoused.  Learning that language comes best by immersion in real time – living out and living into the cultural expressions of community life under the leadership of Jesus Christ.  Those values are seen first in the mandates that Jesus brought to the table of fellowship with the Twelve.  It was as they journeyed together, ate together, laughed together, learned together, prayed together, did life together that Jesus taught them the most basic qualities of life in the Kingdom of God… and then challenged them to live out those values with each other as a testimony to the world: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

All those values create a visual image of how the Body of Christ, the Church, is to be different from the rest of the world.  The Church thrives best when it is living out those values, representing Jesus in the world by how it treats those within its fellowship.  When conflict arises, the Church has the opportunity to represent itself differently than the human condition would warrant, so that its witness is consistent with the values of the One who gave His life for the sake of its mission, as well as with the sanctification processes wrought by the Spirit embedded in His people.

It would seem that the problem with conflict is that we humans tend to think and respond way too often within a linear worldview – when, in fact, reality calls us into seeing life and all its complexities more as a mosaic.  A mosaic is a “picture or pattern produced by arranging together small colored pieces of hard material, such as stone, tile or glass.”[1] Most often, the best view of a mosaic is from a distance – so that one may see the full expression of the visual image that the composited tiles are to represent.  For me, the mosaic is a powerful way of looking at different facets of the life of a disciple – from grief and trauma, to conflict and contrition, to forgiveness and reconciliation.

My theory is that when a “significant” event occurs – aka, a conflict, a trauma, a loss, an offense, a violation, a birth, a marriage, a divorce, an affair, a suicide, etc. – that event becomes imprinted on a tile in the greater masterpiece God is rendering out of our life story.  Our emotional response to that event creates a framework for how that event is catalogued and interpreted by our mind, coloring our experience of its expression within our day-to-day life.  The more “traumatic” the event, the more intense becomes the emotional reaction and the more focused we become on that event as defining our reality. Trauma – or more specifically, intense emotional pain – restricts our view to the individual tile representing that significant event, preventing us from seeing the larger picture of how that event contributes to our life story.  Additionally, it blinds us from seeing how God could possibly redeem that pain.

As we proactively empower a mosaic view of our life together, we nurture a communal perspective of the redemptive capacity of God for all experiences in the lives of Jesus’s followers, both individual and corporate.  For Jesus’s followers, God reframes our experiences of brokenness, inviting us both to trust Jesus’s redemptive work on our behalf, as well as to learn how to mediate and moderate our responses to our own feelings of offense for the sake of the greater mission.

There is an over-arching rhythm to the Kingdom of God’s discipling culture that anticipates conflict and invites us to harness its energy towards transformation and growth.  That rhythm is based on the all-encompassing value of self-giving love – and followers of Jesus are called to live that love better than the world does

As John 13 begins, Jesus is spending His last hours in the Upper Room with His closest friends.  He knows what’s coming towards Him: betrayal, arrest, abandonment, severe beating, a mock trial, scourging, humiliation, crucifixion, an agonizing death.  He knows He has limited time to equip His disciples with what they will need to endure not only the darkest night of their souls’ journey, but a mission that will become bigger than they would ever know.  As an expert carpenter, He must whittle down all that they saw Him do and heard Him teach into one main lesson, something they will never forget.  So, He takes off His garments, wraps Himself with a servant’s towel, grabs a bowl and a pitcher of water from near the entry door, and proceeds to wash the disciples’ feet.  Each and every one of them.  Including the one who would betray Him.  In spite of Peter’s protest, Jesus embraces this act of self-denial for it visually implants into each of their memories the profound illustration of that one lesson. 

When He finishes, Jesus takes off the towel, puts away the bowl and pitcher, puts His garments back on, returns to His place at the table, and asks a critically important question: “Do you understand what I have done for you?” (v. 12). 

Back then, feet were dirty.  Literally.  And they smelled.  Those guys did a lot of walking.  Upon entering a home, foot washing was the house servant’s job, or the homeowner’s, if they could not afford a house servant, as a sign of hospitality.  But it also served a very practical purpose: It improved the atmosphere of the home.  Hold on to that thought.

Jesus’s act of humble service demonstrated that genuine love is willing to get dirty.  It’s willing to shed rights and privilege for the sake of someone else’s best.  It’s a willingness to assume that another person – any person – is more important than you.

Do you understand what I have done for you?”

Then Jesus explains His object lesson.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:13-17, italics mine). 

Notice that Jesus sheds His positional authority (i.e., He took off His garments and donned a servant’s towel) to demonstrate His object lesson, and when finished, He “returns to His place [of authority]” (v. 12), and then uses that same positional authority to tell His disciples not to use their positional authority.  Now, that is leadership.

In the Kingdom of God, typical values are upended, lessons are paradoxical, and disciples are challenged to live… and lead… differently than those in the world.

Meanwhile, back in the Upper Room, in the face of betrayal (Judas, in John 13:18-30) and denial (Peter, in John 13:31-38), Jesus downloads into them the main idea of His object lesson: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, italics mine).

The anxiety in the room is rising.  The reality of Jesus’ departure is getting more palpable.  Judas exits.  Peter is prophetically confronted with his pending denial.  Jesus is losing the disciples to their fear.  So, He speaks words of peace and promise (John 14) and invites them into a new metaphor, a vine and branches (John 15).  Then, like a master-teacher, He repeats the main lesson:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command”. (John 15:9-14 NIV, italics mine)

The model has been demonstrated, explained, reinforced and encouraged.  It has to be enough… for now.  Their destiny is about to unfold.  They leave the Upper Room and go to the Gethsemane garden where, in John’s Gospel, Jesus prays – for Himself, His disciples, and for all of us who are yet to believe. 

The core framework of conflict leadership is learning to dance the rhythms of love – the self-giving kind of love that Jesus embodied.  It is the over-arching language of the Kingdom of God.  Therefore, it must be the priority of the local church.  As leaders, we must model, disciple, reinforce, encourage, and pray for that kind of love within the culture of our congregations.  Without it, conflict leadership will be moot.

As the Church of Jesus Christ, especially within conflict situations, we need to lean into the redemptive love of God – a commitment to what can be, not just what is – based on the covenantal markers of the Cross-Event of Christ.  A price has been paid for this special relationship – the relationship experienced between congregation members, but reflective of the bond between the Church and Jesus. 

That price was intense and intentional – and its commitment must undergird the process that mediates our personal and corporate brokenness.  Our individual pain and offense must be brought under the umbrella of our corporate missional witness and our corporate mandate of covenantal, accountable love.  In doing so, God redeems our pain and uses its story as an embodied, prophetic testimony to God’s greater mission.  Through it, God connects God’s long-suffering call to faithfulness with our willingness to submit our pain to a larger mosaic of global healing and redemption.

On purely human terms, this is not easy, of course.  We must navigate through the powerfully inclement storms of our feelings – of violation, guilt, shame, justified anger, self-righteous indignation, unchained and recurrent emotionally traumatic memories, entitlements, the need to avenge, the need for revenge, rage and outrage, hatred, isolation, alienation, bigotry, fear, terror, to name but a few – in order to arrive at even the possibility of healing.  On purely human terms, this does not make logical sense, when all our sympathetic impulses cry out for therapeutic intervention – the validation of our feelings and individualized treatment plans… and our perceptions of justice.  Offense, by human nature, often compels us to push away from one another, not lean towards each other, unless, of course, we are trying to justify our victimization through collusion of shared misery.

Yet God is not defined by our human need for life to make sense.  And the Lord of Life has issued a command.  What will we do with that?Regardless of whether one considers the General Conference decision an ecclesial victory or a reflection of theological heresy, the entire process, in my opinion, was a no-win scenario. From the prospects of obtaining unity around the issues before us, I believe the specially called General Conference Session was already doomed to fail before it began.  Approaching any significant conflict from the standpoint of positional negotiations automatically structures the resolution process into a win-lose arrangement. We began with options – a Traditional Plan, a One Church Plan, a Simple Plan, etc. – and dared our representatives to find enough voting ground to choose.  Each leg of the journey, as item after item was chosen by “yes” or “no” vote, the weight of the win-lose arrangement became palpable.  Win-lose within the Church always carries with it the ramification of abuse of power, layers of filial abandonment, and missional decay… even when we believe we are defending “doctrinal purity” or “social holiness.”  Is there truly a “winner” when we must bear on our actions – however righteously intended they may be – the separation of those who are part of our fellowship?  Would we not genuinely grieve at the prospect of significant portions of our Body exiting; or would we rejoice with relief?  What if the proverbial shoes were on the other foot? 

It is the aftermath of any conflict, the “wake,” that always reveals the character and life-doctrines of its participants. Stress always exposes both our strengths and vulnerabilities. Win or lose, what does our wake reveal about our own discipleship? Our own character? Our own value integrity?

Additionally, “unity” – a term used by both “sides” of the conflict – was significantly defined by standards only supported by each party: “Let us come together and be united as you support what is the most obvious way forward – ours.” This was not simply a clash over doctrine; it was a clash of perceived irreconcilable values and identity.  And in spite of all of the years of a priori dialogue, no movement towards each other could be found to prepare the emotional and spiritual dimensions of the gathering in St. Louis.  Mediation is only possible when both parties at least are willing to look for a mutually agreeable solution. Mediation did not take place in St. Louis. Doing the work of conflict leadership is laborious and emotionally draining, and thus we resort to parliamentary procedure to define our course.

Rather, from the perspective of its perceived goals, the General Conference session was doomed to fail – at no specific fault of any particular participants, and regardless of whichever plan was to be chosen.  The stage was set long before anyone set foot onto the floor of the Conference, longer even before anyone was elected to be a delegate, and longer than before the bishops gathered to commission the Way Forward. No-win scenarios in conflicts occur when we focus on what we see solely in front of us, in linear terms, and thus fail to ask the most important questions. In my opinion, we did not ask the right questions.

For example, if genuinely we are wanting to create a solution to our long-embedded impasse, would we be willing to draw an end to the United Methodist Church as we know it?  Would we, could we, fathom an act of self-sacrificial love so radical – for the sake of the mission that we proclaim – that we would sacrifice intentionally the very Parent-Church that gave birth to our present circumstances?  The pattern of Abraham sacrificing Isaac as a test of faithful trust may seem antithetical to our 21st century mind, perhaps even reprehensible. Yet woven into the biblical meta-narrative is the invitation to “take nothing with you” as we go on the mission field of the gospel (cf. Mark 6:6b-13). When the Apostle Paul says that “nothing shall separate us from the love of God” in Romans 8 he is issuing both a declaration of assurance as well as a missional mandate.

Even if such an action was not what we in fact would perpetrate, asking the question and being willing to move into that direction has the power to set us free to value the mission greater than the vehicle designed to achieve it.

Rather, we sent our delegates into this special session each with the goal of preserving the “unity” of the Body of Christ, which we inevitably and mistakenly and perhaps unconsciously assumed meant the denomination and its doctrine – into which everyone had to fit, preferably agreeably.

What if preserving the denomination was not necessarily the only option?  I’m not talking about shutting down the denomination, as some had proffered, as an act of conflict avoidance or as an act of resigned anger.  As followers of Jesus, we are not called to tolerate one another, but to love one another.  Love also demands that we step into the dirty places of interpersonal challenge.  Rather, I’m talking about an act of radical love from a Parent on behalf of a Child for the sake of a greater mission. Would we do that?

It would seem to me that after a gestation period of over 40 years, nurtured by often vitriolic debate, the labor pains are finally announcing that a birth is about to take place.  And in the womb of the Parent are two – maybe three – newborns that have been grabbing at each other’s heels trying to see which will emerge first and receive the birthright… when in fact, the Parent, to model its own Upper Room object lesson, is needing to give its life “as a ransom for many.”

Lest we miss this, the United Methodist Church is in transition… whether we like it or not. In order for us to enter into the “new beginnings,” as William Bridges has so wisely taught us in his classic book, Managing Transitions,[2] we must go through an “ending” phase. And the season we then must enter into is the “neutral zone” of high anxiety and high creativity. God is transforming us on our way towards transforming the world for Jesus Christ. Would we be willing to engage the creative parts of the neutral zone within which we find ourselves – in spite of the high levels of reactive anxiety we feel? The United Methodist Church as we have known it is going to die regardless. Would we not want to end it with eulogy rather than unresolved bitterness that reflects the very image of what we, on both sides of the debate, have preached and taught against. If our Wesleyan values of scriptural holiness and social holiness are indeed to be embodied with integrity, and if indeed we espouse the underlying mandates of call and love intertwined within ordination and marriage, then for the sake of our witness to the world, our unique faith in Jesus Christ must compel us to lead through this conflict differently.

Using a golfing metaphor, I believe it’s time for the United Methodist Church to declare a mulligan, a do-over.  It’s time for “both” sides to come back to the Table, realize in love that they are God-bearers of an important legacy that is far more important than each is individually, and celebrate in eulogy their Parent as it willingly dies for the sins of its children in order for them to have Life.  Of course, I would suggest a much smaller group – perhaps consisting of Adam Hamilton, Rob Renfroe, their counterparts in Africa, Europe and the Philippines, and a few others who also would be willing to handle the deeper, tougher realities that prophetically are before us. Definitely they should be persons who have the maturity to ask honest questions and make honest decisions apart from the vitriolic need to justify or save face. Handling this with 860 delegates is further illustration of the muddled adage, “Wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’s name… there’s bound to be a fight.”

It’s never too late. Never.  Nothing that happened at St. Louis was a surprise to the Alpha and Omega. Perhaps what happened needed to happen in order to set the stage for more honest interactions.  What spurred on John and Charles Wesley, Martin Boehm, Jacob Albright, Francis Asbury, Philip William Otterbein, Barbara Heck, Sojourner Truth, Sophronia Farrington, Clementina and William Butler, Fanny Crosby, Anna Howard Shaw, Charles Albert Tindley, and the many, many others towards creating a next step for the Kingdom of God, was not the preservation of a denomination, but a movement of God’s Spirit in reaching people – all people – for Christ.  We must remember who we are, why we’re here, and where we’re going.

Ultimately, each Child of the Parent will show itself as being “of God” by the fruit that is borne from their labors.

God is not defined by our human need for life to make sense.  And the Lord of Life has issued a command.  What will we do with that?

~~~~~~~~~~~~

David E. Woolverton has been an ordained elder in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church for over thirty years. Currently, he serves full-time as Lead Pastor at St. Paul’s UMC, Elizabethtown, PA.  Additionally, he is the United Methodist Student Advisor, Affiliate Professor of Leadership Studies, and Program Director of the Masters of Arts in Leadership at Evangelical Theological Seminary, Myerstown, PA.  David also is a doctoral candidate in conflict leadership, a Spiritual Care Professional with the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education, a church conflict consultant, a clergy mentor, and a workshop leader for clergy and congregational transitions. He is the 2011 recipient of the Harry Denman Award in Evangelism. Portions of this article are taken from his book, Kingdom Rules: What I Wish I Knew About Church Conflict Before I Became a Pastor (soon to be published) copyright © 2018 by David E. Woolverton. All rights reserved.


       [1] “mosaic,” New Oxford American Dictionary Online, Version 2.2.1 (194), Apple Inc., 2005-2006.

       [2] William Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1991).

Copyright © 2019 by David E. Woolverton. All rights reserved.

Musings after 2019 Special Session of General Conference

By Clarita Anderman Krall

Numbness!

                Disbelief!

                                Profound disappointment!

                                                Frustration!

                                                                Utter sadness!

                                                                                Depression!

                                                                                                Mourning!

                                                              Anger and a call to arms, figuratively speaking, to continue the quest for full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ United Methodists in their own church! This struggle for God’s justice is not over!

These were the range of emotions that I felt and thoughts that I had after the Traditional Plan was approved on Tuesday, February 26th, by a close vote of 438 to 384, a mere 54 votes difference. If only 28 more delegates had voted to defeat the Traditional Plan, it would not have passed.

As I listened to the delegates who spoke in favor of the Traditional Plan, it was my pained observation and understanding that, often, their views were expressed as an indication of our Church needing to be “biblically observant.” It made me feel as if those delegates do not believe that persons with a different opinion are being “biblically observant,” when it is rather the case that United Methodists of devout faith just DO NOT AGREE and do not always interpret scripture with the same point of view. Throughout the history of Christianity, Biblical criticism is an area of study that exists because of differing understandings within the faith.

The oft quoted scripture supporting the position that same gender relations are outside acceptability within church teaching are passages in which Jesus is asked a question about divorce. (See Matthew 19 and Mark 10.)  At that time in social history, there was not a legal recognition of same gender marriages. Had there been recognition, Jesus’ teaching on divorce would, most probably, have been all-inclusive. Yet, the United Methodist Church has found a way to accept persons who have been divorced as members and clergy in churches. Revered Old Testament figures practiced polygamy and kept concubines. However, these practices do not sit well today in our 21st Century North American practice of United Methodism.

Even John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, did not always agree with George Whitefield, another cleric in the early Methodist movement, particularly on the theology of atonement. They “agreed to disagree.” I cannot understand why our denomination cannot continue in that tradition of agreeing to disagree on something that has nothing to do with making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Bible students understand that there are various ways to interpret scripture, dependant on historical, societal, and cultural differences. When the Pharisees learned how Jesus was answering the Sadducees, they piled on and sent their best religion scholar to ask him about which command in God’s law is the most important. He answered, “’Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” (Matthew 22:37-40, The Message translation)

Not accepting the LGBTQIA+ community, as God created the community, flies in the face of Jesus’ second commandment. I do not believe that the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, since 1972, has been in keeping with Jesus’ commandments.