By Melissa Lauber
Hello, Baltimore-Washington Conference! Your new episcopal leader is a self-described Jesus freak, a cat-whisperer, a bishop for everybody, a bold believer in Holy Ghost power, a tither, a Sabbath-taker, a prophetic witness for justice, a former newspaper delivery girl, a grateful daughter, mother and clergy spouse, a poet, and a singer of sacred songs whose spirit gives honor to God. But, more than anything, she is a child of the living God.
During the months of October and November, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, who was consecrated as a bishop in The United Methodist Church in July, introduced herself to the people of the Baltimore-Washington Conference in a series of eight sessions on each of the districts.
From the opening chords of banjo and trumpet music at the Big Blue worship center in
In Washington East, churches placed themselves on the map and had speed dating with the bishop; in Annapolis, there
Amidst the diversity, Easterling noted the faith that unites the people of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. “This is a strong conference, with many gifted leaders, both lay and clergy,” she said. “This is a vibrant conference. It is also economically strong, and poised to take even greater risks in Christ’s name.”
To encourage conference leaders to think about spiritual growth and discipleship, Bishop Easterling lifted-up the passage of Acts 1:6, which she sometimes looks at as “the greater commission.” In this passage, Jesus tells the disciples that the power of the Holy Spirit will come upon them and they shall be God’s witnesses at home in Jerusalem, in their communities in Judea, in places beyond where they are comfortable in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Easterling, who worked as a prosecuting attorney before entering the ministry, explained that to be an effective witness one must have first-hand knowledge. “We can’t be witnesses to that which we haven’t seen, known and experienced for ourselves,” she said.
When serving as a superintendent in Boston, she was tasked with asking people to share their Christian witness during their Church Conferences. “They talked about their relationships with their dogs, their cats, their grandchildren and, sometimes, their spouses. But it broke my heart how few people could talk about their relationship with Christ. If we don’t have that, what it is that we are testifying to?”
Do you know that you know that you know you are saved, she asked. “Can you offer that to somebody else?”
Easterling admitted that her expectations of herself are “pretty high.” Her expectations of the leaders of the Baltimore-Washington Conference are high as well. “I expect we will operate with standards of excellence in all that we do,” she said. “The days of mediocrity are over. If anyone was dancing to the tune of mediocrity, understand the dance floor for that in the BWC is closed.” The work the church is called to do is too serious. Life and death can hang in the balance,” the bishop said. “We do not serve a God who wants us to walk in timidity. There ought
Toward this end, the bishop said, she expects church leaders to practice daily spiritual disciplines. This includes regular, fervent prayer; grounded in listening, trust and obedience. “God is not our cosmic bellhop, standing at the ready to give us all we want and desire,” she said.
Easterling also expects conference leaders to tithe, recognizing that “our bank statement is our love story.” And she hopes they will be involved in deep Bible study, fasting, worship and service. “We can’t lead where we have not gone,” she said.
In addition, Easterling expects conference clergy, who belong to an itinerate system, to be willing to move, when they are asked, to wherever the Cabinet discerns that their gifts are most needed.
Being a Christ-follower is not easy, she said. “You have to get up every morning, reclaim your baptism and then live it.”
The bishop’s expectations of the conference’s churches are equally high.
Too many United Methodist congregations are Ichabod churches, she said, “The spirit has departed from them.”
At the very least, Easterling said, members must see the image of God – the Imago Dei – in one another and work to be making true and positive changes in their communities.
In frank and honest sharing, she said, the greatest challenge before the Baltimore-Washington Conference is starting several new faith communities. “It’s not just enough to be insularly fruitful. If a church is growing,” I want to ask what church plant are you working on,” she said. To do this, churches need to be willing to risk and not be afraid to try. “If we’re not failing, we’re not trying, and if we’re not trying, we’ve already failed.”
She also expects churches to bring young people into ministry in meaningful ways and to be a significant presence in the neighborhood, having relationships and partnerships with community leaders.
In the eight sessions, the bishop fielded many questions, some were about her vision, others were about the church’s response to LGBTQ people, the relationship between lay and clergy, the national landscape after the presidential elections, to what extent she values church metrics in measuring success and several more.
In conversation with those at the district gatherings, she shared how she’ll be taking time to watch and discern before she announces any plans; that she believes all people are entitled to have full membership in The United Methodist Church, and that any potential schism would be a failure of our faith in God and love for one another. She hopes the conference will embrace its continued work for justice and the idea that “the eagle should never fly higher than the cross;” and declared her conviction that deepening faith and Christian witness, rather than just counting how many seats are filled, is the true measure of discipleship. But, she also stated that when we are living out our commission, we are also drawing others to Christ. It is both and, not either or.
Easterling also asked people to pray for her that she might have stamina and wisdom to meet this moment and the seasons ahead.
“There are still too many people who have never heard the name of Jesus,” Easterling said. “God wants us to go further, deeper and to soar higher. To God be the glory.”