The Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference
State of the Jurisdiction Episcopal Address
Bishop John Schol | November 2, 2022
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. (First line of the song sung by soloist.)
As the Northeastern Jurisdiction, we gather together to be in ministry with the world. Yet there are those who are troubled among us.
There are United Methodists among us today and in our congregations who feel harmed, unheard and unseen. They feel the United Methodist system oppresses and devalues their gifts, their calling and their service.
There are United Methodists among us today and in our congregations who are seen and yet feel their income, race, sexual orientation, gender, ableness, theology, nation of origin, have relegated them to second class status or even no status.
There are United Methodists among us today and in our congregations who are pandemic-exhausted, anxious, burned out, fearful of whether or not their congregations will come back.
There are United Methodists among us who are tired of the fight, of the continual push and pull, of rulemaking, rule bending and rule breaking, who would rather disaffiliate or feel the church is trying to push them out. We are turning on each other, rather than turning to each other and turning together toward God in ministry to all the world.
Let us be honest: the state of the church, of ministry, of our people is beaten down. We are weary, anxious, frustrated and some are angry.
Having the mind of Christ is a hard thing to do when you are not seen, not heard, when you have been wrestling with a pandemic and racism and feel the denomination does not embrace you for who you are or because your theology and beliefs are not valued.
But every time God has been ready to do a new thing, trouble was at its height, trials were all around, hope was at its lowest ebb. For a tormented people enslaved in Egypt, or a wandering people on a dusty trail in the wilderness, or a brave boy facing a fearsome giant on the battlefield, or a huddled group of disciples in an upper room, God was working a new thing. Can’t you see it? God’s new thing is springing up all around us even today. (Isaiah 43:19 and 65:16-17). You, the Northeastern Jurisdiction are examples of God springing up and doing a new thing.
- In West Virginia, a mobile children’s ministry goes to where the kids are to share God’s love.
- Asbury Church in Western Pennsylvania partnered with the Fijian Community to open a Fijian Store to offer food and other commodities from the Fijian culture.
- In New England, a Sex/Gender-Based Crisis Response Team has been organized to respond to instances of sexism and discrimination based on gender, as well as to provide training to prevent harm across the New England Conference.
- In Greater New Jersey, a young pastor shaved his beard except for the mustache to give him a Ted Lasso look for his worship series using Ted Lasso video clips.
- Linglestown Life Church in Susquehanna has two campuses and a community center called Ray’s Place. Ray’s Place is a converted garage which houses a bicycle and reading program and a community garden. It is a gathering place for the community.
- In Baltimore Washington, their Catalyst Initiative works with congregations to meet with the community to understand what the church can do to partner with the community. New community ministries are springing up all of the time.
- Pastor Joan Brooks of the Peninsula Delaware Conference has led her congregation into the community and beyond. As a bi-vocational parttime local pastor she and the congregations have formed relationships with the chief of police and other community leaders. As a result, their ministry feeds thousands of people in the community. The congregation also held a water drive for the people of Jackson, MS during their water crises. When the WM F Stewart Trucking company heard about it, they transported two truckloads of water to Jackson, MS. In 2022 the congregation received more than 25 new members through baptism and profession of faith, and they burned their mortgage.
Troubles may be all around, but God is ready and is doing a new thing when we are in ministry together with the community. Don’t you see it springing up?
In each instance where a new thing is springing up, the mind of Christ is pervasive and persuasive. Just as is stated in Philippians 2, where we find the theme for our Jurisdictional Conference.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
In humility, regard others better than yourself. Look to the interests of others. -Philippians 2
There are a number of important missional challenges, spiritual faith challenges, affecting the state of the church, and today I would like to talk about four of them: 1) navigating the pandemic, 2) ending the sin of racism, 3) living into the future, and 4) connecting with the people in our communities.
Navigating the Pandemic
More than 6.5 million people so far have died because of Covid. The effects of Covid and a worldwide pandemic are not fully understood yet. Its impact on the church has affected every congregation, and we are grateful for our lay and clergy leaders who are leading us through this time. Our pastors especially have done an amazing job providing pastoral care, imagining new ways of being in ministry, and moving thousands of congregations from in-person to virtual worship in a matter of weeks. They also refereed the struggles of masks versus no masks, onsite or online worship and the politics of any decision.
They literally saved the church and we our indebted to their courage and spirit of determination and ingenuity. But it came at a cost. Frustration, anxiety, depression and burnout are higher among the clergy than at any other time in our memory. They sacrificed their time, relationships and well-being for the mission and ministry of the church. They demonstrated the mind of Christ and we are indebted to them. Today, the bishops and the leaders of the Jurisdiction thank our pastors.
What are we learning from the pandemic?
- The importance of community, and that community, including the worshiping community, is being formed and shaped in new ways. Online worship and online gatherings are here to stay; and virtual communities will be an important means for connecting people in addition to physically gathering in the same space. We need to continue experimenting, innovating and improving how we gather virtually.
- We are also learning we can change more quickly than we ever believed. When there is an urgent need that is clearly felt, people are willing to act together in ministry, making the necessary changes to adapt and serve.
Eastern Pennsylvania camping and retreat ministry navigated the pandemic. In 2021, EPA reopened their four camps and 11,000 guests engaged in camping and retreats. Evidence that people respond to a compelling ministry that meets their needs and is done well.
The pandemic has created troubling times; but learning and working together strengthens our serving in the world together.
Ending the Sin of Racism
Every conference within the Northeastern Jurisdiction has a plan and is engaged in ending racism through learning, changing unjust systems, recognizing implicit bias and ensuring inclusion and equity. This is a crucial step toward ending the sin of racism within the Jurisdiction.
These plans are taking action across the Jurisdiction.
- The New York Conference has been active in its communities, raising awareness and action about the killing of African Americans and civil rights violations.
- Rodney Hudson of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, after racial violence in his Baltimore community, led his congregation into the community, launching the Resurrection Sandtown Project to address systemic racism and poverty. A business donated a $2.2 million property for mental health services and to help community entrepreneurs start their own businesses
- Recently the Susquehanna Conference Cabinet, along with clergy and laity there, participated in a Civil Rights Journey. In preparation for this experience, participants read books and met online monthly in order to discuss the readings and begin to prepare for the experience of the Civil Rights Journey. The Civil Rights Journey was immersive and included readings, videos, museums, and visits with firsthand participants and witnesses to Civil Rights.
- The Eastern Pennsylvania and Greater New Jersey Conferences created a more equitable apportionment and billing system, and Greater New Jersey approved giving back the land of closed churches in two counties to Native Americans. The conference set aside 1.3 million dollars for the land transfers and to sustain the St. John’s Native American United Methodist Church property.
- The Upper New York annual conference has taken a multigenerational approach and trained coaches to work with groups to Imagine No Racism which is helping people move from contemplation to action.
Racism is a pervasive sin, sewn into the fabric of the values, culture, systems, policies and procedures of the church and society. It is insidious. Most white people do not even recognize racism and their own privileges that are often hiding in plain sight sometimes. Racism advantages white people and disadvantages people of color. It is a sin against the Creator and the created order.
Equality is not the answer. Allow me to illustrate why. I am aware of a church that has 41 worshipers and a church that has 108 worshipers. The church with 41 worshipers has a full-time pastor while the church with 108 worshipers has a parttime pastor. Why? The congregation with 41 worshipers is in an affluent white suburban community, and the congregation with 108 worshipers is in a low-income African American community. Not only is there an injustice in appointments, but in apportionments as well. Both congregations are apportioned an equal percentage share of the full apportionments. We call this equality, but it is not equity.
Let me illustrate further. The white, suburban congregation has reduced billings by the conference because it is a small congregation; but the African American church in a low-income community receives the full billing rate from the conference because it is a larger congregation. Rewarding smallness is not equity. At times, it is racism hiding in plain sight. Equity creates an apportionment and billing system that takes into consideration the community’s average income and most of the time because of racism, is much lower in communities of color, particularly in African American communities. Might it be good for all the conferences in the Northeastern Jurisdiction to evaluate their appointment, apportionment and billing systems, and create systems not built on equality but on equity and root out any implicit bias.
Racism has a way of repeating itself because White people choose to either flee or ignore what is in plain sight. Again, let me illustrate. The overwhelming majority of churches disaffiliating are white congregations, often with some means. African Americans are once more staying with The United Methodist Church to make it a better church, as they have done before. The United Methodist Church owes a great debt that must be paid by ridding the church of the sin of racism and making ours a church that choses equity rather than only equality. We are called to change our systems so that we will be diverse, inclusive, equitable and free of racism. This is a debt we have incurred, and we have not yet repaired the harm of the past nor rid the church of our present racism.
Trouble! These are troubling times that call for us to be in ministry together to rid the church of racism and to serve the whole community.
Song – Nobody knows…
Living into the Future
We are saddened and pained that there are churches who are disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church. Our differences about ministry with and by LGBTQ persons has led congregations to engage in a process of disaffiliation. For many, their hearts and our hearts are broken. Most of the congregations have been United Methodist for more than 100 years. They have faithfully participated in the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church; and like in any separation, we are all losing something whether we are staying to continue the United Methodist mission or leaving.
During this divisive time, we have a choice about how we will engage. A monk teaching students under a tree was stung by a scorpion several times, until his students asked him, ”Why don’t you kill the scorpion?” The monk said, “Just because it is in the nature of the scorpion to sting, it does not have to change my nature.” Friends, let us, in our nature, speak the truth in love and have the mind of Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)
As congregations disaffiliate, those who continue the United Methodist mission will have differences among us. The faithful will always encounter trouble. On the last night of his life, Jesus gathered with his disciples in a room. During the evening, there were differences between the disciples and heated debate. One disciple would later turn Jesus in to the authorities. Another would deny he even knew Jesus. At least one was still carrying a sword and by the end of the evening, not one would be left standing with Jesus. But in the midst of their differences, Jesus would continue to stand with them and by them demonstrating what he taught, the law for love of God and love for others rises above every other law. The mind of Christ does not sting when stung.
The majority of congregations in The United Methodist Church, particularly in the Northeastern Jurisdiction, including both traditional and progressive congregations, are choosing to continue the United Methodist mission in the midst of their differences. One matter is not going to divide them. Like the disciples, there will be differences among us; but we have a mission and ministry that unites us as we together serve our communities and the world.
Our present United Methodist controversy is about people, not issues. That is what Jesus realized. He saw his disciples as people, not objects, not as an issue, not as those who were with him or against him, but as people. When we objectify or “issuefy” people, it is a sin against the Creator and creation. The state of the church will continue to be weary, anxious, frustrated and some angry if people feel harmed, unheard and unseen.
In the midst of our differences, let us follow Jesus, who recognized difference among the disciples, but who said the ultimate law is to love God and to love our neighbor. We are called to include all people regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation in ministry and leadership. While living with differences, we must stop the harm against those God has gifted and called for ministry, particularly in the LGBTQ community.
It is time for the LGBTQ community to no longer be unseen, unheard and harmed. It is time for the full inclusion of queer children of God. While there will be congregations and conferences in United Methodism that may not choose this path, hindering other congregations and conferences that recognize the calling and giftedness of the LGBTQ community is only driving a deeper wedge among us and hindering the mission. God is ready to do a new thing among us, can’t you see it. We can achieve true unity, equity and inclusion if we have the mindset of Christ, if in humility, we regard others better than ourselves and look to the interests of others (Philippians 2) and keeping the mission first.
Engaging with the People in Our Communities
There are important justice and mercy ministries throughout the Northeastern Jurisdiction. We have the mindset of Christ Jesus when we serve together in and with our communities and the world. A deeper challenge for us is connecting with the people in our communities with a compelling relevant message that captures the hearts and imaginations of people, especially younger and more diverse young people, inviting them into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Let us look at some numbers that represent how we are reaching the people in our communities.
33,449 to 11,840
The number of new disciples in the Northeastern Jurisdiction made in 2019 and today.
263,060 to 126,535
The number of youth and children in the Northeastern Jurisdiction in 2019 and today.
11% to 5%
The percent of clergy elders under 35 in the Northeastern Jurisdiction in 1990 and today.
30% to 62%
The percent of clergy elders over 55 in the Northeastern Jurisdiction in 1990 and today.
1990 – 90%
2020 – 67%
2050 – 47%
The declining percentages of self-described Christians in the United States in 1990, 2020 and projected by the Pew Research Center by 2050.
These numbers do not represent church attendance, but people who call themselves Christians. Without a relevant and compelling message that captures the hearts and minds of the people in the community, participation in the church will decline rapidly which impacts our serving together in the world.
New and younger generations of disciples are looking for churches that exemplify the life of Jesus, that inspire them, that accepts them and their friends as they are, that demonstrate signs and wonders, that helps them experience meaning and purpose in their lives, and that offers inspiring worship and teaching and ministry that connects with their everyday lives.
We are in trouble unless we look for the signs of new life rather than depending on what worked in the past. The signs are springing up! Can’t you see them? It is Rodney Hudson, Joan Park and Ray’s Place, and the thousands of leaders who have inspired their congregations to break through their complacency and lead people into their communities to connect with their neighbors and to be in ministry together.
Today, more than anything else, we will be served well by recruiting and developing transformational leaders who understand the congregation is our primary place of mission in our communities. They will grow vital mission congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As a Jurisdiction, as conferences, we do not make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But we do recruit and develop leaders who lead their congregations and ministries into the community to meet and connect with the people…and yes, to transform the world. The challenge of leadership is further compounded by the fact that we are still trying to emerge from the pandemic, and we continue to suffer the wounds of serving during the pandemic. Leaders of our Northeastern Jurisdictional conferences will need to be especially compassionate in this season, while developing our clergy and lay leadership to be transformational.
Leadership development is not just about having workshops. If it only took workshops, The United Methodist Church would be the largest church in the world. Workshops are a small component of development. Most of us here today did not become a better leader because of a workshop. Most of us developed as leaders by being confronted with a deep challenge and supported by someone who worked with us to help us grow and develop. How will we free our bishops, superintendents, connectional ministry directors and other senior staff from the minutia and administration of keeping the denomination running and be freed so that they can connect with and support the development of our clergy and lay leadership. Our clergy and congregational leaders have the highest calling of the church, to lead congregations into the community and they need the church to support them in deepening their calling and growing their ability to lead the church into the community to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The challenges of the pandemic, racism, difference and inclusion, and growing leadership to lead us into the world can seem daunting, yet there are signs that God is doing a new thing, it is springing up around us.
Maybe a gift during this season, is for all of us to become more curious. It has been said to choose curiosity over judgement.
Right now, our church is filled with people with answers. But Jesus approached people with curiosity. Right now, our church is filled with single solutions, or hierarchical decisions and policies, rather than asking, ”What can we do to more effectively raise up transformational leader and support and release congregations for ministry in their communities?” Having only answers leads to judgement. What would it look like for us to become more curious?
Emerging from a pandemic, ending the sin of racism, living with differences and raising up and developing leaders is hard work, deep work. Deep work, hard work can lead to making judgements, or it can lead us to be more curious and seek to discover the signs all around us that God is ready to do a new thing. It will take the mind of Christ Jesus and humble hearts to see others as better than ourselves and to move into our communities together…to truly be in ministry with all the world together. Yes, together. Let it begin with us?
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, amen.