Nov 16, 2016

The Eastern PA Conference will help lead off a more than yearlong United Methodist prayer vigil in 2017 by being the second conference to gather daily, even hourly in many places for a full week of prayer together. Our urgent cause for prayer could be the very future of the denomination.

January 8-14, 2017, is Eastern PA’s week to participate in the Council of Bishops’ Praying Our Way Forward Initiative. We are asked to pray for “the church’s effectiveness in fulfilling our mission of making disciples and for the outcome of the work of the Commission on a Way Forward.”

The council organized that global commission of lay and clergy church members to examine fully the church’s laws and teachings on homosexuality and determine whether to recommend requested changes to General Conference. The denomination’s unity hangs in the balance, as some groups anticipate division along ideological lines, depending on what the Council of Bishops recommends and General Conference decides.

The council has unofficially asked the General Conference business manager to explore venues for a special called session in early 2019, a year ahead of the next scheduled General Conference in May 2020. A formal request for a called session is expected in 2017, after the special commission begins its work.

Bishop Peggy Johnson and her episcopal colleagues stand in witness to the challenges ahead during worship at General Conference 2016 in Portland, Ore., in May. UMNS photo

Bishop Peggy Johnson and her episcopal colleagues stand in witness to the challenges ahead during worship at General Conference 2016 in Portland, Ore., in May. UMNS photo

The 32-member Commission on a Way Forward will likely commence its difficult deliberations in January, hoping to resolve a decades-long impasse that prompted protest demonstrations and tense moments at the 2016 General Conference in May. The bishops recommended the special study commission to avoid protracted debate then and allow the conference to manage its other business.

The bishops launched the multi-phase Praying Our Way Forward Initiative in October. For the first phrase, the council’s 84 bishops have each been praying 15 minutes a day for the commission. “That’s 21 hours of prayer a day for the work of the Commission on a Way Forward,” said Birmingham Area Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, who co-chairs the prayer effort along with retired Bishop Al Gwinn.

The second phase begins with rotating conference-wide prayer vigils in January, as each conference commits to come together in prayer, and fasting for some, during a designated week. The effort will continue into 2018.

“We want the church and the Commission on a Way Forward to be led by God,” said Wallace-Padgett. “This prayer emphasis puts us in a posture where as a church we are asking and listening for God’s leadership. Our prayer focus is twofold: We are praying that God will help us to more effectively fulfill the mission of the church.  And we are praying to be one in Christ.”

View a video of Bishops Wallace-Padgett and Gwinn explaining the prayer vigil initiative at  Praying Our Way Forward: We are One in Christ.

Gwinn said The Upper Room has developed a website called “The website features resources to help you to plan your week of prayer,” he explained. “Each week will feature information about what is happening in the conference that is praying that week, including a prayer-focused blog written by the bishop in that area.”

prayer_VigilPrior to our Jan. 8-14 week, members of Eastern PA churches can register their prayer days and times online or manually using a downloadable prayer vigil form at SignUpGenius. And in conjunction with the prayer vigil, Bishop Peggy Johnson will sponsor a conference-wide prayer service on Wednesday, Jan. 11, at 7 PM, hosted by Lima UMC. All are invited and encouraged to attend.

The Northwest District will also sponsor a special prayer service and vigil at First UMC Schuylkill Haven at 420 Saylor Street, Jan. 11, beginning at 6 PM. The service will include congregational, individual and small-group prayers. A concert of prayer will follow from 7 to 9 PM, after which attendees will be invited “to linger and abide in prayer” throughout the night until dawn. People will be invited to remain in prayer for as long as they are able and to leave as they must. The event is open to all.

Bishop Bruce Ough, Council of Bishops President, stressed the importance of the denominational prayer vigil initiative. “We need to begin to prepare the church for whatever might come out of the commission.”

The council has also encouraged its member bishops to initiate conversations among clergy and laity within their annual and central conferences that would parallel the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. Each bishop may freely structure the process and timeline for dialogue according to the needs of their area, while using suggested questions as a starting point.