By Bishop LaTrelle Easterling
These remarks were presented by Bishop LaTrelle Easterling as the online townhall on Aug 31, the evening before the affiliation of the Peninsula-Delaware and Baltimore-Washington Conferences.
Beloved, here we are. Tomorrow launches the experiment between the Peninsula-Delaware Conference and the Baltimore-Washington Conference. This affiliation offers us a new opportunity to be in mission and ministry together. We have the ability to leverage our strengths where we have similarities and to listen and learn from one another where we have differences.
Tomorrow, September 1, 2021, is the date that we will embark upon a new beginning by crossing the bridge into God’s preferred future for our conferences. We have been collaborating to strategically connect ministry partners, identifying areas where collaboration can begin immediately and discerning ways to support one another where collaboration will be more challenging. As you will hear during this Town Hall, some collaborative work has been underway this summer to good effect. It is happening between our youth, it is happening with our discipleship ministries, it is happening with our extended and appointive Cabinets. We have already begun to cross the bridge from theory to praxis and we are excited to share some of that work with you tonight.
As I look back over my ministry, every time there has been a significant challenge and a commensurate move of God, there has been a bridge. When I left my employment, our family sold our home and we moved to Boston for me to attend seminary, there was a bridge. When I was asked to serve as a district superintendent in the Metro Boston Hope District, there was a bridge. And, now as we await the next General Conference and many episcopal servants are being asked to assume additional areas of leadership, there is a bridge. Here’s the funny thing -- I have a fear of heights, of crossing bridges -- so each time I have made this journey it has only been possible by the omnipotent hand of God. God is the only one who could call me beyond my comfort zone and then give me the courage and strength to cross those bridges into new opportunities, wider mission fields and greater fruitfulness.
I know I am not alone. Every disciple of Jesus is called, in some way or another, to cross a bridge or step out in faith into new spaces and new places, and to take that next step, whether quivering or confident, knowing that God will make our feet secure. We’ve already begun to discover the strengths and possibilities that span our lives together. I invite you to join me in stepping out on faith. Because there is a bridge that links our two conferences, I know God is present in this affiliation.
How did we get here?
Bishops are traditionally elected and retired during our Jurisdictional Conference, typically held every four years following our General Conference. Once elected, they are assigned to their areas of service by the Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy. As you are painfully aware, the pandemic has interrupted our denominational calendar and we have not been able to gather in Minneapolis, MN, as planned for General Conference. That inability to gather has caused a ripple effect in our quadrennial work. The sessions of General and Jurisdictional Conference are now scheduled for the fall of 2022. Some of our bishops were scheduled to retire during Jurisdictional Conference. Some episcopal leaders have decided to continue serving until the next Jurisdictional Conference, other bishops have exercised their right to take a vocational retirement, which is an option within the Book of Discipline. Bishop Johnson, who has done an outstanding job leading the Philadelphia Area, is one of those bishops. When there are retirements between sessions of the Jurisdictional Conference, the college of bishops, comprised of the bishops from each annual conference within the jurisdiction, can make interim assignments to fill those vacancies.
After significant prayer, discernment and consultation with the Northeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy, the College of Bishops discerned that coverage for the Philadelphia area should be undertaken by two episcopal leaders. Bishop John Schol will be providing interim coverage for The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference and I will be providing interim coverage for the Peninsula-Delaware Conference. Bishop Jeremiah Park is also retiring, and the Susquehanna Conference will receive interim leadership from Bishops Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and Sandra Steiner Ball as they continue to lead the Western Pennsylvania Conference and West Virginia Conference, respectively.
The Peninsula-Delaware Conference and the Baltimore-Washington Conference have been connected before from 1960 to 1990, under the leadership of Bishops Yeakel, Wertz, Mathews, and Lord. As is always the case, some have very fond memories of those years and others do not. Here is what I know for sure, we should always learn from the past but never be imprisoned by it.
We are invited to understand this differently than the 33-year period of being yoked together. This is an affiliation experiment where we seek to optimize our God-given assets. I have shared with leaders from both conferences: if the BOD doesn’t explicitly disallow it, we will consider it for a unified effort.
Also, let me be clear once again: This Is NOT A Merger!
This affiliation offers a fresh, new opportunity for collaboration, exploration and innovation. Nothing restricts our possibilities except our own creativity and willingness to take risks for the sake of the Gospel.
Innovation is born of bold leadership, leadership not bound by negativity, fear, or the past. Leadership that is deeply rooted in our call to be active disciples engaged in transformational ministry. I have heard all of the reasons for hesitation. Yes, the denomination is on the precipice of moving into multiple streams of Methodism, and we are still called to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Yes, the pandemic still has us in its grip, and God has gifted us with resilience, resourcefulness and ingenuity. Yes, reports abound that share data of declining numbers across all religious communities, and we still serve a God of resurrection power and we have a story to tell.
I am excited to see what God will do in and through us as we bring the best of ourselves into this sacred work. What bridge is God calling you to cross? Where will God breathe new life into that which we thought was dead? Where will God inspire creativity that we have not seen or experienced before? Where will God move mountains or give us the strength to climb? We have the opportunity to look at our mission fields from new angles and to approach our ministry with new insights. Yes, the terrain is familiar, but we can see new things by simply changing our location. God is doing something new, can you not perceive it?
A phrase I am often known to utter is, "tell the whole truth." I know there are individuals who have used this interim affiliation to spread fear of what my leadership within the Pen-Del Conference will mean. Through various mediums, some leaders have chosen to exploit this experiment to sow division, increase anxiety and presume what my leadership will bring to this affiliated relationship. That is unfortunate and I lament it. My leadership demonstrates that I work with the Cabinet to appoint with integrity based on gifts and graces. I can and will work with leaders of differing theological viewpoints. I lead by consensus and collaboration. This endeavor is new for all of us. We need to take the time to get to know one another. In the coming weeks we will conduct district gatherings and listening sessions, which will afford us the opportunity to listen, ask questions and reflect together. Nelson Mandela once said, “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” I pray we will work together to be ambassadors of liberation, faith, hope and love. Love is gentle and kind. Love seeks the best for others. Love does not catalog every wrong to be used as a bludgeon against one another. Love never fails.
Our conferences are engaged in vital and vibrant ministry. We are continuing to see expansion in discipleship, we are developing new faith expressions, engaging in transformative ministries of justice and reconciliation and working ecumenically to build the beloved community. In order to continue this dynamic work across both mission fields we have gained the expertise, skill and administrative acumen of the Rev. Erica Robinson-Johnson. Rev. Robinson-Johnson comes to us from the New England Conference, where she served for eight years as the Director of Connectional Ministries and Assistant to the Bishop. She has already hit the ground running as our Chief Administrative Officer. Please welcome Rev. Robinson Johnson.
Where Do We Go From Here?
- Keep the main thing the main thing.
- Continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
- Live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.
- Take new risks and evaluate our processes as the year progresses.
- Not be afraid of failure, but be willing to learn from it and try again.
How Can You Contribute To This Affiliation?
- By praying for us, for God to reveal the right next steps. By praying for God to circumcise hearts and open eyes. By praying for God to transform us as we cross this bridge together.
- By catching people doing the right things and celebrating them. By encouraging one another and being compassionate when missteps occur.
- By having an open mind to new ways of thinking and living out our mission together.
Beloved, may it not be said of us that we contributed to chaos, division and negativity. May it not be said of us that we were resistant to an opportunity to experiment, risking, failing, learning and growing together. Instead, may it be said of us that we were open-hearted and open-minded, trusting God beyond our self-interest and the status quo. May it be said of us that we were skilled servant workers who selflessly engaged in ministry to bring God glory. May it be said that we loved well as we crossed the bridge into our new beginning together. May it be so!