By Melissa Lauber
How will God use the people of the Baltimore-Washington Conference to be vessels of peace, vessels of love, vessels of change?
This question sparked lively online engagement as Bishop LaTrelle Easterling met in eight sessions Oct. 26-29 with 331 clergy and 603 lay people. The conversation centered around how to lead, live, love and learn in this exceptional season.
‘You make a difference’
The bishop expressed gratitude to those who have been serving the local church during the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial unrest. “Thank you for the ways your pour yourself out on behalf of the Gospel and the Beloved Community,” she said. “We all be overwhelmed at some point, but you’ve kept your hands on the Gospel plow. Thank you for who you are, thank you for continuing to lead with integrity, faithfulness and joy.”
Using an online Menti-poll, the people of the BWC shared how they’ve been feeling since March, living in this season of uncertainty and upheaval. Some said they are experiencing hope and felt “cracked, but not broken.” But many others were vulnerable, claiming to be “overwhelmed,” “anxious,” “depleted,” “drowning,” “soul scared,” “weary,” and “beleaguered.”
Following a time of deep prayer led by the Rev. Tony Love, Bishop Easterling admitted that she and BWC staff are also feeling all of these emotions, sometimes several that the same time.” “You are at the very heart of God and the center of God’s care,” she said. “As you live out this panoply of emotions, know that we are walking with you. We see you. We hear you. We love you.”
Leading in Liminal Times
Leading in this season is different, the bishop said as she lifted up four small lessons from authors Susan Beaumont and Peter Drucker, the theologian St. Francis of Assisi, and Isaiah 46:4.
She encouraged the pastors and laity to be nimble, flexible, adaptive and able to confess they don’t have all the answers. “We need to leave more room for uncertainty and be open to the Spirit in order to discern a brighter and better way forward,” Easterling said. “The sin of certitude will keep us frustrated. It will keep us bound. We need to ask God, ‘how can you equip us anew?’ We need to live into the newness of now.”
She encouraged church leaders to “risk boldly, dare greatly” and know that “we learn more in failing than we do in success. Losing and learning is still winning.” And, most importantly, said Easterling, and “best of all, God is with us.”
God, the bishop promised, “will sustain us every step of the way. God will give us all that we need, beloved.”
COVID-19 calls churches to innovation
In this season of the coronavirus pandemic, “I don’t think we’ll ever go back to normal,” Bishop Easterling told the laity and clergy at the region gatherings.
Since March, the Conference has taken a number of steps to assist churches in addressing the virus, including providing financial relief from benefit payments, offering guidance about payroll grants, giving grants for Peace with Justice ministries and technology and worship needs, and providing an extensive library of online resources that include information to help churches discern how to “re-enter well.”
The decision about when and how to re-enter church buildings is now firmly in the hands of local church leaders, who are cautioned to continue to “privilege life above all.” The bishop encouraged churches to be knowledgeable, proactive and patient, and to not allow re-entry to become a source of division, noting that local churches could work with district superintendents if conflicts arose.
In an online poll, participants revealed that 4% of their churches were meeting in their buildings only; 1% were meeting outside only; 35% were holding worship online; and 60% percent were using a hybrid model of online and in-person worship.
The bishop applauded those using the hybrid model and encouraged churches to continue to host an online presence even as they move back into their buildings, so that they can continue to reach out in innovative ways to more people. “Do ‘both/and.’ Our future will look very different. This is the blessing we’re living into.”
Three churches celebrated that have brought in new members from other states as a result of online worship.
“The best pathway to making disciples is relationship,” said the Rev. Bill Brown, director of New Faith Expressions. Brown shared several platforms churches can use as they continue to develop online worship experiences. They include: StreamYard, Streamlabs, the Church Online Platform, Church Streaming.TV, and Sermon by Phone.
Churches also shared how they’re being active in their communities and some of the needs they are still experiencing as they continue to learn how to be God’s people amid the ongoing pandemic.
“I hope we resist the temptation to believe we have to be perfect,” the bishop shared. “We offer God our best, and God blesses.”
'We Rise United'
Although racism is often noted as America’s sin and its unfinished business, the recent horrific murders of people of color have called the church to a renewed sense of mission. There have been some people who questioned if this work is detracting from the church’s ministry. But Bishop Easterling is adamant. “Addressing racism is the mission of The United Methodist Church. At the core of who we are as United Methodists is to be the conscience of the nation – never partisan, but always prophetic. … It isn’t extra work, it’s the Gospel.”
She shared how Article 5 of the United Methodist Constitution, the founding document of the church, lifts up the value of each person as a unique child of God and names the sin of racism as destructive. And, it goes on to mandate that The United Methodist Church “shall (with no equivocation) confront and seek to eliminate racism whether in organizations or individuals in every facet of its life and in society at large.”
Some people in the Conference have expressed concerns about the term “anti-racist,” and the bishop addressed that head-on. “Anti-racist does not mean anti-white,” she stressed. She encouraged people to find the words and actions that best suit their feelings about equality and justice and to move forward in dismantling systems of racism as they preach, teach, model and demand equity and justice for all.
“From Genesis to Revelation, God has been breaking into human history to speak out against injustice, enslavement, and inequity,” Easterling said. “We cannot give up and we cannot turn back. The only bright line I have is that we don’t stop doing this work. It takes courage. But don’t stop”
Living Your Faith Out Loud
In other conversation, Bishop Easterling shared that information about the postponed General Conference, scheduled for Aug. 29 – Sept. 7, 2021, the Northeastern Jurisdiction Conference, which will be hosted by the BWC, Nov. 10-12, 2021; and the Annual Conference, scheduled for Oct. 25-27, 2021.
In a poll, clergy and lay participants overwhelmingly expressed a desire to hold a “hybrid” annual conference session, with a mixture of online and in-person activities.
People from throughout the conference also asked a wide variety of questions. They covered a vast array of topics including evaluations during the coronavirus pandemic, gun violence in Baltimore, human sexuality, the 2020 elections, Communion, new streams of Methodism, and answering one’s call to ministry.
Members also celebrated the Conference receiving a $1 million grant from the Lilly Foundation, which will be used for the new Catalyst Initiative, designed to empower 108 churches to thrive in ministry. Applications to participate in the Initiative will be sent out to churches in January, as an Epiphany gift.
In closing, the bishop affirmed her gratitude for the people of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. “We have experienced creative ways of moving through the storm,” she said. Thank you for your leadership, your faithfulness, and your heart. … Thank you for continuing to be vessels of the Living God.”