By Melissa Lauber
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
– Isaiah 43:19
Sometimes challenges within the church present interesting opportunities for innovative mission and ministry.
The pandemic and financial shortfalls in The United Methodist Church have recently given rise to a unique opportunity to rethink the role of the episcopacy and how geographic regions relate within the connectional system. Thus, plans are now being considered to align the Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula-Delaware annual conferences.
An alignment allows both conferences to maintain their autonomy while sharing the leadership of one bishop. However, within this new configuration, a variety of opportunities present themselves for new and creative ways of doing shared ministry, streamlining administrative tasks, and practicing faithful stewardship.
The Baltimore-Washington Conference is made up of 615 churches in Washington, D.C., parts of Maryland, and the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. The Peninsula-Delaware Conference is comprised of 416 churches in Delaware and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Tentative plans to connect these two conferences were announced by the Northeastern Jurisdiction’s Episcopacy Committee Feb. 13 during a meeting of delegates to the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference.
At a meeting of U.S. General and Jurisdictional Conference delegates, the General Council of Finance and Administration reiterated their concern that without changes, the denomination’s Episcopal Fund would run out of money by 2024. Giving is not keeping pace with the fund’s obligations and the fund is depleting its reserves, the United Methodist News Service reported.
"If we want to reduce the Episcopal Fund, the most significant way — and probably the only place to do so — is by reducing personnel, reducing the number of bishops,” said Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, president of the Council of Bishops. The cost for each U.S. bishop is about $285,000 a year, including salary, benefits, housing allowance, and office staff.
To address this financial challenge, the Council of Bishops is asking that no new bishops be elected this quadrennium, when 16 of the 46 active bishops retire. Jurisdictions would then explore new ways of handling episcopal oversight.
Within the Northeastern Jurisdiction, which ranges from West Virginia to Maine, three bishops have announced plans to retire – Bishops Jeremiah Park, Sudarshana Devadhar, and Peggy Johnson. This would leave six active bishops to lead 10 annual conferences.
At the NEJ meeting of delegates, Bishop Cynthia Moore-KoiKoi, of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, announced the plans were being considered to propose the affiliation of the Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula-Delaware conferences under one bishop. She also announced other configurations to ensure episcopal oversight in every conference.
To begin conversation about the potential affiliation, Bishops Peggy Johnson of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference and LaTrelle Easterling of the Baltimore-Washington Conference convened an online meeting of their Extended Cabinets on Feb. 18.
Bishop Johnson, who was ordained in the Baltimore-Washington Conference and now leads both the Eastern Pennsylvania and Peninsula-Delaware conferences, expressed her enthusiasm for the possibilities inherent in the proposed partnership. “We have to trust God to do a new thing,” she said. “We have the opportunity to work together as brothers and sisters in Christ. God is creating a new vision. God is creating a new future.”
Bishop Easterling, who is expected to lead the two conferences when the affiliation is approved, said the leaders of both conferences are beginning to think about how to “leverage our strengths, resources, our intellectual property and how we are for the kingdom of God.”
Bishop Easterling acknowledged that some people have expressed concerns that some of the weaknesses that were present when the two conferences were yoked, (from 1960-1990) might reappear.
She immediately addressed those fears.
“This is a new affiliation model. While it is always helpful to learn from the past, we will not be imprisoned by it,” the bishop stressed. “We are in an emerging place in the church. We will not be well served trying to grasp old methodologies or practices.”
It will be important that people not make assumptions ahead of the information that is available about the affiliation, the bishop added.
“If the Book of Discipline doesn’t explicitly disallow something, we will consider it,” Bishop Easterling said. “We will be creative in leveraging our strengths to deepen our ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Other people expressed concerns that the smaller Peninsula-Delaware Conference might in some ways be overtaken by the larger Baltimore-Washington Conference. However, the bishop said it is her plan that the two conferences will collaborate as peers, not competitors; and that they will move forward with nimbleness and grace in their shared commitment to follow Jesus.
“How do we do that as a team? How do we walk this road together? We will discover that together. If we are a grace-filled people and give one another room to grow into the partnership, this affiliation will succeed” she said.
Ministry and stewardship leaders in both annual conferences have already begun considering ways to share resources, training opportunities, and more.
Both conferences are deeply committed to their young people’s ministries, and hold annual retreats for youth in Ocean City, which might in some way be combined. Both also have robust anti-racism ministries and camping programs that might share expertise and resources. Many other ideas for collaboration are presenting themselves.
In addition, a new process for considering the resolution of complaints that are filed with the episcopal office is being created to free up time for the bishop to focus on her teaching, preaching, spiritual formation, and other duties of her office.
“We are living in extraordinary times, unprecedented times. God is doing a new thing, can you not perceive it,” asked Easterling, quoting Isaiah 43:19. “God will not take us where God will not bless us.”