By Melissa Lauber
The people of the Baltimore-Washington Conference must “keep the main thing the main thing: we are followers of Jesus Christ, tasked with the transformation of the world,” Bishop LaTrelle Easterling told more than a thousand United Methodists in eight online listening sessions Sept. 27-30.
The bishop thanked lay and clergy leaders for their sacrifice and hard work during the past year, as she shared her hopes, vision and prayers and laid out plans for “100 percent of our churches to become 100 percent vital and thriving.”
In a denomination sitting on the precipice of schism and the creation of new streams of Methodism, a significant lawsuit threatening the church and the Boy Scouts of America, and the ongoing crises of the coronavirus, racism and climate change, United Methodists must make space for grief, lament, Sabbath rest and self-care, she stressed.
And, the bishop said, “we need our congregations to be vital, mission-centered, engaged community partners, and strong and vital places of transformation. … Beloved, the time is now, even in this liminal moment, God calls us to be the church.”
Bishop Easterling outlined her vision and focus five years ago when she became the BWC’s episcopal leader. It closely dovetails with the denomination’s foci to advocate for justice, remember who we are as disciples, follow the call God places on our lives, promote health and wellness, and practice generous stewardship. The plans of the BWC continue to build on these elements, recognizing that “it takes time to make transformational change.”
At the listening session, she enumerated four pillars that will help churches grow into being 100 percent of all that God is calling them to be. They include living and loving like Jesus, multiplying impact, seeing all the people, and deepening discipleship. The activities at the heart of these vital congregations include building Beloved Community; connecting the why, what and how; following Jesus; and cultivating cultural humility.
“The conference wants to walk with you and work with you to become more vital and vibrant. There’s an on-ramp for every church and ministry in this conference,” Easterling said. In addition to lifting up the BWC’s comprehensive ministries of leadership development, new faith expressions, advocacy and action, wellness and missions, and young people’s ministries, the bishop called on conference staff to illuminate three new initiatives: Mission Action Planning, pathways for congregational development, and expanded opportunities to work for anti-racism and building Beloved Community.
Innovative ministries enliven discipleship
Easterling was joined in the webinars by conference leaders, who provided details on the new initiatives.
Christie Latona, the chief program officer and director of Connectional Ministries, outlined the Missional Action Planning initiative, or MAP, a new process and mindset that leverages and uses church property and resources to better serve congregations and their communities.
“We want to look out at the conference for places that don’t have outward facing mission that matters to the community and co-create it with God and residents of the community,” Latona said.
To address congregational development, the BWC will not hold programs, but will offer processes and pathways designed to address churches at various stages in their life cycles, said the Rev. Bill Brown, the Conference Director of Innovative Evangelism
A study by the Texas Methodist Foundation found that of all the United Methodist churches in the United States, only 10 percent are thriving; and one-third are dying. The pathways will provide resources for these two groups, and those churches in the middle facing opportunities and challenges.
The Catalyst Initiative, a 12-month journey in which 10 congregations are currently involved, is a key component. Catalyst takes congregational leaders through a process of discovery, exploration and renewal that enables them to capture a Spirit-led vison for their church and put it into action.
“We’re looking for congregations ready to move beyond the status quo. We’re looking for congregations willing to take a risk. We’re looking for congregations willing to capture a contagious faith. We’re looking for congregations that are willing to be more protective of their future than they are of their past,” Brown said.
While not a new initiative, the Conference is building on its existing racial justice ministries, providing new ways to engage and assisting church leaders in building Beloved Community through People’s Supper groups and three cohorts designed to resource churches for a wide array of antiracism ministries, said the Rev. Stacey Cole Wilson, the conference Executive Minister of Beloved Community.
(For more about these ministries and the listening sessions, see the PowerPoints slides and a listing of related links.)
Addressing issues facing the denomination
During the eight listening sessions, Bishop Easterling also fielded a number of questions on a wide variety of issues. In each of the sessions, she received a query about the Boy Scouts of America, which is undergoing a Chapter 11 bankruptcy (for reorganization), following many claims of sexual misconduct over several decades. The United Methodist Church is one of Scouting’s largest chartering organizations.
The bishop stressed that United Methodists do not want to sever their relationship with Scouting. However, she is asking Chartering churches not to sign a new chartering agreement until the denomination reaches agreement with the BSA on a new agreement which provides more protection to both the church and the Scouts. In the rare instances that a church needs to sign an agreement before that time, it is recommended that a facilities’ use agreement be used.
Anyone with questions about their church’s involvement with Scouting is encouraged to contact the Rev. Rebecca Iannicelli at .
The bishop also answered questions about the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation expected to come as legislation before the postponed 20201 Session of General Conference, currently scheduled for next fall. The Protocol addresses the denomination’s theological differences around the issue of homosexuality and provides for the creation new streams of Methodism. Recently, the Global Methodist Church, a more conservative expression of church, emerged and announced its hopes to launch in 2022.
Bishop Easterling is calling for all United Methodists to be informed about the issues affecting the denomination’s future and for districts to offer good, unbiased, non-manipulative information sessions. “Individuals and churches will be required to make a decision about whether they will stay or go,” she said. “Unless our members are fully informed, how will they know where God is leading them? They must be offered unbiased information, and then allowed to enter a time of prayer and discernment.”
Looking toward the future with prayer and hope
Bishop Easterling was also asked about the greatest spiritual challenge facing The United Methodist Church today. She responded by quoting Methodism’s founder and then casting her vision forward.
The question, she said, evoked a quote from John Wesley about his fear, not that Methodists would cease to exist, but that they would exist as a “dead sect, devoid of power.”
“We’ve got to take the time to remain grounded in our spiritual disciplines. We must take the time to fervently pray, study God’s Word, fast, meditate and listen to the Holy Spirit. It sounds counterintuitive to add more activity to one’s day when we’re already exhausted. However, through these disciplines, we are renewed, revived and filled with hope. That is where we derive our strength, our power.”
United, the people of the Baltimore-Washington Conference must “live into the fullness of who God calls us to be,” Bishop Easterling said. “And, together, we will then take the next faithful steps.”