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Amid rupture, bishops called to renew church (UM News)

May 1, 2023

Even as they grieve this season of disaffiliations, the Council of Bishops president urged his fellow bishops to work to reclaim, revive and renew The United Methodist Church. 

“The future of The United Methodist Church hinges on our ability to deeply pray that God will give us the strength and the courage to do what we must, what we have been called to do all along,” preached Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, who also leads the New York Conference.

He delivered the presidential address in a Chicago hotel ballroom to about 100 active and retired bishops from four continents joining in their first in-person meeting since 2019 before the COVID pandemic set in. His address was also streamed on the Council of Bishops Facebook page.

Bickerton spoke to a gathering characterized by the joy and hugs of a family reunion as well as the excitement of welcoming 17 new bishops — the most demographically diverse class of episcopal leaders in the denomination’s history.

But the gathering also carried the deep sense of sorrow and weariness that comes with a difficult farewell to another part of the church family. 

“I admit that I’m eager to get past this,” Bickerton told those watching. “I want us to stop talking about disaffiliations. I worry that we have spent more time on those who are leaving than focusing our energy on those who are staying.” 

Bickerton likened this time in denominational life to his own experience in recent weeks of marking the passing and celebrating the life of his father.

As he spoke and listened to time-honored funeral prayers, Bickerton said he “began to think about a local church that we have loved but will not see any more, a pastor who we mentored and ordained that we wish well even in our sadness, a longing to end these deaths that we are experiencing in the midst of the life.”

Church leaders and members need to grieve, Bickerton said.

The denomination is experiencing an upheaval unlike any that these leaders have experienced in their lifetimes, as they deal with a mounting number of disaffiliations under a church law that allows U.S. congregations to leave with property if they meet certain procedural and financial requirements. 

The denomination added the church law — Paragraph 2553 in the United Methodist Book of Discipline — in 2019 after increasingly rancorous debates over LGBTQ inclusion. However, the departures have accelerated since last year’s launch of the Global Methodist Church, a theologically conservative breakaway denomination that has been recruiting United Methodist churches to join. 

Not every departing church is heading to the new denomination. Some are joining another denomination in the Methodist movement and some are going independent, seeing no need to be part of any denomination. 

It will take a while to know how much membership loss these withdrawals represent. That’s in large part because some members of exiting congregations are opting to remain United Methodist by transferring to other churches or, in some cases, planting new United Methodist faith communities.

The church disaffiliation law has an end date, expiring on Dec. 31. 

“We have been dealing with negative rhetoric and strategies designed to divide rather than unite,” Bickerton said. “But this cannot be our posture moving forward.”  

He urged his fellow episcopal leaders to proclaim Jan. 1, 2024, the beginning of a time to refocus, rebuild and “get on with what God has called us to do from the very beginning.”

Still, he also acknowledged that the denomination will need to rebuild with less capacity financially.

“We should anticipate less bishops, reconfigured boundaries, reformed agencies, and a revised work plan to achieve our mission,” he said. “We cannot work with what is not there.”

However, he said, United Methodists can reclaim the denomination’s identity as a church that proclaims God’s grace in baptism, in an open table and in missional outreach. 

To make that openness a reality, Bickerton urged United Methodists to revive the tradition of inviting friends to church. He also encouraged those listening to renew their sense of God’s calling on their lives.

“Let’s not settle for anyone saying that we are about to expire,” he said.

Other bishops echoed that sentiment.

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey — immediate past Council of Bishops president — now leads the Texas Conference, which is planting new churches and restoring faith communities after weathering more than 290 church disaffiliations. 

She preached at the anointing service for new bishops before the presidential address. She told the new class of bishops that with their leadership, she is certain the denomination’s best days are ahead.

“And by the Holy Spirit, I’m more than certain that together, we will guide The United Methodist Church to a new future that’s filled with hope, promise and new possibilities,” she said. 

Arkansas Conference Bishop Laura Merrill is among those new leaders. She said Bickerton offered a clarity of purpose in not just a church but also a world that is so contentious. 

She hopes United Methodists can remember their foundational value of love.

“Love is not squishy,” she said. “It’s not flowery. It’s an act of the will. It’s a decision … And so we have a choice to make, and I think that our way through this time of uncertainty is to have this clarity about our purpose that is shaped by love.”

Fellow new Bishop Israel Painit, who leads the Davao Area in the southern Philippines, said while the church’s disaffiliation law is not applicable in the Philippines, the church is dealing with calls to secede from The United Methodist Church. 

“That presidential address is so timely,” he said. “And I find it very inspiring. When I go back to the Philippines, I will find ways to incorporate it in our messages.” 

Bickerton said bishops and other United Methodists have work ahead, but he too looks forward to a renewed church.

“Let’s love coming to church again,” he said, “and make absolutely sure that when people pass by our buildings, they will know that inside those walls are people who absolutely love God and genuinely love every soul as a precious part of God’s creation.”