Clergy and lay members of the California-Pacific Annual Conference, friends, brothers and sisters all: Grace and peace to you in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior! What a joy it is to be with all of you at this 2014 Session of our beloved conference, and what a privilege it is to serve as your episcopal leader. Your commitment to Christ Jesus inspires me and what I see God doing through you encourages me and fills me with great hope!
During these past twelve months nothing has blessed me more than to be with you in the service of Christ Jesus. This was particularly true as I joined our Mission/Vision Discernment Team and went on the road with them seeking God’s vision for our future. Being with you in district gatherings throughout our area and experiencing the Holy Spirit speaking to us of God’s faithfulness and of the marvelous opportunities God has for us to be the people of God in the world had me smiling in my Prius and in rental cars as I drove all over this conference with you! What a mighty vision arose through this process led by our visioning team and then crafted as a powerful statement by our articulation team. Listen to the voice of the Holy among us challenging us to be United Methodists who live…. Inspiring the world as passionate followers of Jesus Christ so that all may experience God’s life-giving love! It is an audacious vision, but then again we are the people of a mighty God!
I believe this vision statement is defined by the love of God, grounded in the servant leadership of Christ, and blessed by the very breath of the Holy Spirit. It is a vision that has arisen organically and connectionally among us. I am particularly pleased by the fact that the vision leaves no one behind or outside of its embrace. Why would it? It is a vision from God whose love extends to all. I pray that you will find it in your spirit to support this vision and send us forth from this conference to give it flesh and bone through the work we do together as God’s people. We give many thanks to those who have labored diligently and faithfully in our visioning and vision articulation process.
I also want to express a word of profound gratitude for your work on Imagine No Malaria. The people of the California-Pacific Conference are a compassionate people and you are once again giving expression to your compassion through your engagement in our United Methodist connectional work that leads us to imagine a day when malaria and its deadly impact on humanity will be no more. It is both an institutional and a personal matter.
Not that long ago I went to a Council of Bishops meeting and learned that one of our bishops from Africa was delayed. When he arrived Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa, our bishop in Zimbabwe, greeted us and shared with us that he had just buried his young adult daughter. She had died of malaria. Two years ago we established a brand new conference in the Democratic Republic of the Congo because God is blessing us with such incredible church growth in that part of the world that we needed yet another conference there. Soon thereafter we were pleased to welcome to the community of bishops of the church the new bishop of the East Congo Episcopal Area, Bishop Gabriel Unda. In our Council of Bishops, new bishops are invited to preach and share our faith journey. When it came time for Bishop Unda to do so, he shared with us that he is the father of 8 children. He is also a widower. His wife died of malaria. These who are dying of malaria are not strangers. They are, many of them, members of our United Methodist family.
Just a few months before coming to serve as your bishop I took a trip to visit Africa University and our United Methodist Mission in Mutare, Zimbabwe. When we visited the Old Mutare Mission we were welcomed by children who had been orphaned but provided a home and a family through our connectional ministry. Children are so beautiful all over the world! There was one child in particular who captured all of our hearts. A tiny little boy with cheeks that you just wanted to hold in your hands and kiss! He also had a spirit and a smile that were contagious. He ran around all the other children to be the first to welcome us, and welcome us he did, with a thumbs up! All of us held him in our arms, but I was the last one to hold him, and thus the one who had to let him go. As we left I wondered whether he would live or whether malaria would strike him down like so many other children in Africa, robbing the world of his beauty, his charisma, his gifts of spirit and possibility.
You and I can make a difference. I hope you’ll listen carefully to Bishop Thomas Bickerton as he shares with us how we are already making a difference. What I will say now is that our United Methodist work on Imagine No Malaria is not just about a momentary act of compassion. It is about saving the continent of Africa and our future with it. Our United Methodist bishops in Africa have invited us to think bigger than we have perhaps ever thought. They have shared how a community will begin to be built in Africa only to be destroyed by countless deaths at the sting of malaria. They have planted United Methodist communities of faith that have grown only to be decimated by malaria. Friends, we cannot build the church and we cannot transform the world if the children keep dying. But because of your good work, malaria will not have the last word.
Many of you are working so very hard to fulfill our conference commitment to Imagine No Malaria. You are doing such creative things to support the dream of eradicating malaria, giving of yourselves and of the resources God has placed under your stewardship in sacrificial ways. God bless you. Please keep doing it. I have made my pledge and am bringing my gift before God every month and encourage you to make your pledge and bring your gifts before God in an effort that could change the world.
I would be remiss in not mentioning that during this past conference year I have taken a step that encouraged some of you and troubled others. In prayerful consultation with my colleague bishop, Bishop Peggy Johnson of the Pennsylvania Conference, I invited Frank Schaeffer to come and join us in ministry in our conference. At that moment Frank Schaeffer had just been defrocked by a jury of his peers in his home conference for having conducted the same gender marriage of one of his sons. While it is understandable that some may have viewed my action as purely political in favor of full inclusion of persons of a homosexual gender identity, it was for me an action of Christian mercy and grace.
Frank Schaeffer in that moment was the representative of many in our churches and in our communities who feel excluded and alienated by the actions of our United Methodist Church. We cannot say that we are a body of Christians who stand on grace and grace alone and then legislate and bring to trial and defrock and exclude those who simply seek to live by God’s grace. The bottom line is that the God of Holy Scripture excludes no one, creates us all in our diversity including our diversity of gender identity, and calls us all to faithful living in the example and sacred name of Christ Jesus.
I stand before you once again declaring that I fervently believe that our United Methodist Book of Discipline is scripturally wrong in its exclusion of persons whose gender identity is LGBTQ. While working to change our Book of Discipline I will continue to invite us into holy conversation about this matter, for inclusion is not without a Holy Spirit illumined Christian understanding of what it means to be faithful to God and to Christ, an understanding that we must all grapple with whether gay or straight.
Last year as your temporal leader I came to you with the concern of our fiscal situation. The General Council on Finance and Administration had come and assisted us in a major assessment of our financial administration. The concerns they raised were serious. As I pledged to you, I gathered a table of our principle financial and administrative leaders and by the grace of God we were able to work through each of the major concerns our GCFA had brought to our attention. I trust that the report of the Strategic Financial Planning Task Force will encourage you as much as it has encouraged me. The work of this task force is a true testament to what the people of God can do through the power of Christ Jesus.
As we look toward the conference year ahead I will again be inviting persons to assist me in the ongoing work of assessment. One assessment will be of the work of our Congregational Loan office. The other will be of our conference’s organizational structure and rules. As we finished the work of our Strategic Financial Planning Task Force it was clear that it was time to determine how best to direct the work of our Congregational Loan office so that we tap its full potential for supporting the mission and ministry of our local churches. I am grateful for the hard work of our Congregational Loan Committee and look forward to working with them closely on this assessment.
During these two years of serving with you it has also become abundantly clear to me that our conference organizational structure and rules, while intended to be helpful, are so complex, complicated, and redundant, that they have become an obstacle to our ministry rather than a help. There are also questions about whether some of our structure and rules stand out of compliance with our Book of Discipline. I believe, however, that we can get ourselves to a better place by the end of this quadrennium. We will do our best to bring at least a progress report on a way forward by next year’s annual conference. Recommendations pertaining to both our Congregational Loan office and our conference organizational structure and rules will come back to the annual conference session for its action where appropriate and necessary.
Finally as your spiritual leader I need to bring to your attention that as a conference we continue to lose members and worship attendance. There is no good reason for this. There is absolutely no doubt that God continues to touch lives through God’s grace; a grace, abundant grace, that reaches out to every child of God even before we are aware of our need of God. I believe that our decline is because we have forgotten that the church exists not only for the maintenance of worship, and the edification of believers, but also for the redemption of the world.1 As United Methodists we believe that the church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world…under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, helping people to accept and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and living lives in right relationship with God.2 Friends, we need to look outwardly and with a spirit of humble and joyful invitation. Every church in our conference can grow but we will need to make those who have yet to know Christ Jesus and those who have no community of faith, the priority, above our own needs.
A few weeks ago I preached at one of our churches and had the joyful privilege of receiving 10 persons into membership in The United Methodist Church. In fact, that local church has in the last 2 years received 40 new members. I asked how this was happening. The answer was clear: they were welcoming others, some who look just like them and others who do not. Their recent church growth had begun with a phone call. A woman who lived in the neighborhood had called and asked whether the United Methodist Church on the corner had persons like her. She is African American. The church secretary had laughed to herself as she said to the woman, “But of course, our pastor is African American.” The congregation was primarily white at that moment, but the pastor was a person like her! That neighbor joined the church and brought her family and friends with her. What I saw the morning I was with this congregation was a multi-cultural congregation. Even more, I saw a congregation that welcomes its neighbors, every single one of them.
Growing the church takes great intentionality. We have to be willing to share Christ Jesus with others and invite others to consider following Jesus as Lord and Savior. This won’t happen if the primary focus of our church life is us. This does not mean that we cease to provide ministry to those who are already members of the church, but it does mean that we make others the priority.
Let us again reclaim our commitment to personal and social holiness, a commitment that once made us a vital and growing Methodist movement whose heart was making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
We are a broken people in so many ways, but we are so much more than that. We are the people of God, our faithful and loving God who will never abandon us on our journey to wholeness, the wholeness God will give us! Thanks be to God!
1The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, paragraph 201, p. 243.
2Ibid. Paragraph 202, p. 143.
3Ibid. Paragraph 122, p. 92.