By Melissa Lauber
Being endorsed as a candidate for the episcopacy was the furthest thing from the Rev. Joseph Daniels’ mind when he attended the 2022 session of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. But when he heard his name recommended, something in his soul told him to pay attention.
He conferred with his family for three of the four hours allotted for discernment. In that time, “the Lord moved,” Daniels said. He filled out the nomination form. The next morning, on June 2, members voted to endorse him to be a candidate for bishop in The United Methodist Church.
“My life was literally turned upside down in less than 24 hours,” he said.
The nature of this experience has made it a spiritual journey for Daniels as he responds to God’s call. “It’s been very humbling,” he said. “It’s been very moving. It’s been very emotional. I just want to do God’s will. That’s the bottom line. If that is what God desires, then I want that. If this is not what God desires, then I don’t want to be a part of it.”
On Nov. 2-5, Daniels will join other episcopal candidates at the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, where between one and three new bishops are expected to be elected. They will take office Jan. 1, 2023.
An Apostolic Visionary
Daniels’ 30-year ministry as pastor of Emory UMC in Washington, D.C., and his time as superintendent of the Greater Washington District, have given him a reputation as a visionary throughout The United Methodist Church.
“I am a visionary. I see things. I see what can be, what must be,” Daniels said. That vision allows him to build relationships across lines of difference. “I believe God has gifted me to be able to bring people together around the common good that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “And in that coming together, to be able to dream, to be able to vision, and to be able to strategize and live out a strategy for how we can transform lives and communities for the better.”
One of the most notable examples of Daniels’ vision had its origins in 1994, when he stood in the dry cleaners near Emory and looked across the street at the church. “God revealed a God-sized vision of what might happen in our community,” he said.
Daniels went to work.
In 2019, the Beacon Center, a $60 million endeavor that provides 99-units of affordable rental housing, and commercial and community space, opened. The vision also included the renovation and expansion of the once 300-seat sanctuary and church, into a 400-seat worship and multi-purpose area which sits at the center of this gathering space for the community.
The Beacon Center showcased what Daniels believes are some of his apostolic gifts of organizing the private, government and public sectors to meet real, tangible needs. But he also lives out these gifts in a daily way, developing and empowering leaders and working in the local church and Washington, D.C., community. Over the years, God has used him to help facilitate the growth of Emory UMC from a church that worshipped 55 upon his arrival and that had almost closed on three occasions and almost sold twice, into a congregation of more than 400 worshippers committed to helping people experience Jesus in the Brightwood neighborhood and beyond.
Healing a Broken Church
In his spiritual and church development consulting work across the globe, it has become clear to Daniels that “our denomination is broken. The church with the big “C,” the Church of Jesus Christ, is not broken. It is very much alive; but in many circles within The United Methodist Church and other denominations, there is a sense of brokenness, a sense of crisis that needs to be healed and transformed.”
This brokenness, Daniels said, is a reflection of the deep divisions seen in the United States – divides centered in racism and classism from our country’s inception as well as in other unresolved -isms that have yet to be resolved in our culture or our church. But this devaluation of people must end, he said. “We need to figure out a way, we need to find a way, to get at the heart of what our Gospel is all about. … We have got to get back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is grounded in love, grace, forgiveness, liberation, reconciliation, healing, justice and fairness for all people; faith and hope that informs us that all things are possible with God.”
Daniels can preach and teach about revitalization, equity and reconciliation for hours. It is at the heart of who he is. But at the center of his message is always wholeness and salvation – “sozo in Greek,” he said. “All Jesus did was simply offer people holistic salvation through himself while meeting the tangible needs of broken people needing to be whole. Salvation means to be healed, to be made complete, to be made whole. So, that's where my hope is; it’s where my commitment is. How do we lead people to a whole life? If we can invest ourselves in that, we'll have plenty to do, healing and restoration will be our focus, and people and communities will be revived.”
This is the second time Daniels has been nominated by the Baltimore-Washington Conference to be a candidate for the episcopacy. The first was in 2016, when Emory was displaced from its church building as the congregation began work on the Beacon Center. Daniels declined at that time, unable to abandon that shared ministry.
Responding to a Call
There is something new about this time around. Daniels is sensing a new call. “I think the word for me now is ‘follow,’” he said. “I’m trying to follow in a deeper way what the Lord wants. Jesus said, ‘follow me. If we do that, we’ll be alright.’ That’s what I’m trying to do.”
As the church discerns who will serve as its new bishops, Daniels says his “hope and prayer is that we choose visionary spiritual leaders who are grounded in Jesus Christ, competent, committed, and with the courage to point people to something greater than ourselves – a world where love, justice, fairness, mercy and humility are the norm for everyone.”
“If elected, I would be coming to the episcopacy as a pastor,” Daniels said. “A pastor, amongst many things, leads people, shepherds people into possibilities perhaps never dreamed of. That’s what Jesus did when he called people to follow him. That’s what bishops can do – faithfully lead people and the church into wholeness, in this world and the world to come. That is my prayer.”
Speaking of Faith: The Conversation Continues
A preacher, professor, author, community organizer and thought leader, the Rev. Joe Daniels has a lot of ideas. Below are some of his thoughts from a recent conversation as he stands as the candidate for the episcopacy from the Baltimore-Washington Conference.
Vision and Calling
“We serve a big God and I believe that as we dream God-sized dreams and see God-sized visions and have the courage and strength to go after them, phenomenal things can happen.”
“I think my call, by and large, is wrapped up in six words: ‘He helps broken people become whole.’ … And my role is to communicate to people wholeness and hope, in particular through preaching, teaching, vision-casting and positioning leaders to chase after, and to be, what God is calling them and positioning them to be.”
“My call is rooted biblically in Jeremiah 1:4-10, a prophet to the nations, a minister who ‘plucks up and tears down, destroys and overthrows, builds and plants.’”
“My biblical, spiritual, and theological foundations are grounded in Jesus Christ who offers us the gift of holistic salvation – physically, emotionally/mentally, spiritually, relationally, and financially. I believe in this holistic salvation offered to us by grace through faith in Jesus Christ – a wholeness that can transform the world, revive communities, and give people eternal hope.”
“When a leader’s passion, a congregation’s purpose, and a community’s cry come together, it’s a powerful thing. In that space where the three intersect is where God speaks vision mightily and powerfully.”
The Work of the Church
“Your community is your congregation.”
“The church is changing, and life is changing. We must be willing to be courageous, to take risks, and to change in ways that lead to life.”
“The church will not make it doing business as usual. We will make it if we authentically, and transparently, and sacrificially, and boldly live out the Gospel.”
“As a denomination, we really need to value and empower the local church. Everything we do is grounded in what happens in the local church. If the local church is not thriving, we, collectively, don’t thrive.”
“Jesus said, ‘you will be my witnesses.’ You will be the ones who tell the story of what you have seen Christ do in your own life. That witness must go out.”
“We need to do those things that fill us so that we can fill others.”
“We serve a big God. … God is not to be limited. And if God is not limited, why do we limit ourselves?”
“We need to have fun. Living a life with Jesus is fun.”
“Just be yourself and love people.”