By John W. Coleman
The 2020 Eastern PA Annual Conference, Oct. 13-14, began and ended in worship, so fitting for a conference that begins each year’s session by singing dutifully Charles Wesley’s venerable hymn, “And Are We Yet Alive?”
Indeed, as the Rev. Sue Ketterer played and sang the hymn solo for the Clergy Session held on Zoom, the third verse must have seemed especially timely in a year of living dangerously through relentless assaults of a pandemic, politics, police brutality and protests:
What troubles have we seen,
what mighty conflicts past,
fightings without, and fears within,
since we assembled last!
Bishop Peggy Johnson picked an ideal scripture, Colossians 2:1-5, for her opening message, invoking the Apostle Paul’s appeal for the church to be “knit together in love.”* With so many church gatherings cancelled or shifted from onsite to online, what pastor or church leader has not uttered Paul’s hopeful assurance to their congregation: “For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.”
The Eastern PA Conference bishop opened the two-day session by emphasizing the primacy of redemptive love. And the next day Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi of the Western PA Conference ended it by uplifting the urgent necessity of exemplary leadership. She preached at the annual Service of Ordination and Commissioning, held for a limited audience at Olivet UMC in Coatesville and livestreamed for hundreds more on the Conference’s website.
“Like Paul, we have been separated and are absent from one another in many ways during this coronavirus pandemic. This has been a challenge,” said Bishop Johnson. “But I thank all of you for your creativity and patience during this time… We have learned that we can continue the love, even if we are not physically present. We do that through online worship services and Bible studies, but also by reaching out to one another with support, by helping the poor, by showing compassion wherever we see suffering, and by exercising sacrificial patience as this drags on. This loving encouragement goes a long way to keeping us strong.”
The bishop, who advocates often for her denomination’s unity, even as it moves steadily toward division in 2021, likened that endeavor to Paul’s efforts to calm dissent among the early Christian churches. “Paul spent much time… calling the church to be united in love,” she said. “Love was the secret sauce and always will be.”
She described plans for denominational division as “a failure of love and the relationship-building that love calls us to do.
“Our annual conference has been involved in much encouraging, loving outreach this year; and I thank God for the connectional system that enables even more good community outreach,” she said. Her pre-recorded sermon transitioned seamlessly into a colorful Connectional Ministries video that echoed her sentiments in its portrayal of ministry leaders across the conference bearing signs emblazoned with the Conference vision and mission statements.**
For theme music the video’s staff producers aptly chose the popular song “Bind Us Together.” “If this pandemic has shown me anything,” said the bishop, “it has shown that we are better together.”
Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi preached a call to bold, unifying leadership that is wholly dependent on God in her message at the Service of Ordination and Commissioning.
“You picked a heck of a time to be ordained or commissioned,” she began, citing the challenge of trying to lead ministries in the midst of “two pandemics—a global virus and 400 years of racism,” and also the denomination’s threat of schism.
“I know you didn’t pick this time for you to be ordained or commissioned,” she later admitted. “But God did. The God… who prescribed that for everything there is a season, a time for every matter under heaven, determined that this season of COVID-19, racial unrest and denominational turmoil would be the season for you to be blessed by the church to lead the church. So how do you lead in such a time as this?”
She went on to name crippling losses of jobs and businesses, white supremacy, violent protests, but also signs of hope—like the many churches reaching new people through online worship and ministries.
“If you feel inadequate and ill-prepared and not up to the task,” she told the group of new elders and deacons, “let me assure you that under the power of your skills and degrees, you are not prepared. But… God’s infinite mercy and grace has equipped you to do the job to which God has called you…”
The Pittsburgh Area bishop named Old Testament prophets whom God chose to face daunting challenges—Moses, Miriam, Jonah, Esther, David, Ezekiel and Jeremiah—prophets who were nonetheless empowered by God with abilities to lead God’s people.
“You are our Jeremiahs,” she proclaimed, recalling the prophet who helped encourage his people to remember Zion and to survive their exile and captivity in Babylon. “You are our Ezekiels and our Second Isaiahs. You are the prophets of our day, our time, and you are to speak hope into the world.
“Remind the world there is hope in the church. And remind the church there is hope in the world. We need you to keep us grounded in a hopeful imagination and dare to believe that someday we’re going to get back home.”
In a sprawling but mostly empty sanctuary—a sign of the times—clergy helped and observed Bishop Johnson as she commissioned a deacon and three elders and then ordained a deacon and seven elders. All sat safely distanced from one another during the ceremony.
Their family members viewed the preliminary parts of the service, including Moore-Koikoi’s sermon, on video monitors in various assigned rooms downstairs, their family names listed on the doors. They moved to the sanctuary only later to view up-close their loved ones being commissioned and ordained.
Event planning, safety protocols and hospitality arrangements were all done carefully by Conference staff and church hosts. That included re-sanitizing the sanctuary following the morning memorial service that was held to remember 18 clergy members, 13 clergy spouses and two former Conference staff, all of who “entered the church triumphant” in the past Conference year.
Bishop Johnson preached at that solemn, annual service, extoling the commitment of deceased leaders who had served churches, communities, institutions and the Conference, some for decades. She spoke of seeing Jesus in the lives and legacies of clergy who have followed and served Christ faithfully, “willing to die to self” that they might live “a life consecrated to the service of God through sacrifice.”
*Read Bishop Peggy Johnson’s opening sermon adapted as an essay, “Knitted Together in Love,” and view the Connectional Ministries video at the end. Also, view video recordings of both her sermon and Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi’s sermon on the recorded livestream videos.
**Eastern PA Conference Vision Statement: “United in Christ, Committed to Transformation.” Eastern PA Conference Mission Statement: Creating Disciples, Celebrating Diversity, Connecting Communities, Committing to Love and Justice.
Also, enjoy a full album of colorful photos of the Service of Ordination and Commissioning on our Flickr page.
Photos by John Coleman.