2019 Episcopal Address
This morning, I am privileged to greet you in the name of Jesus Christ, our risen Savior and Lord. It is a privilege to serve the Oklahoma Conference. I have been looking forward to this gathering.
I wish to thank those who have prepared for our conference. First, thanks to our hosts, OCU, St. Luke’s and Wesley. I am also thankful for the work of our ministry teams, staff, and cabinet. The fruits of your efforts are on display this week and we are being blessed by your work.
I especially want to express gratitude to Dr. Craig Stinson for his service to the Oklahoma Conference, in particular his leadership in the conference center for these past fourteen years. I am also very grateful to Reverend Derrek Belase, who will be our Director of Connectional Ministries as we move into a new appointive year.
I want to commend Dr. Joe Harris for his leadership at the 2019 General Conference. His poise, professionalism, fairness, and spirituality made the conference much better and certainly made the Oklahoma Conference proud.
Likewise, I am grateful for the support and encouragement of the appointive cabinet. It has been a most unusual year for appointment making. The process is exponentially challenging as we navigate change. I want to express my appreciation to Reverend Emery Mason for his eight years of service in the Muskogee and Green Country Districts. We also have been blessed with Dr. Terry Koehn, who will become the next superintendent of the Green Country District.
The theme of this conference is “Living Hope.” It comes from the first letter of Peter to the general church. In chapter 1, verse 3, Peter writes, “You have been born anew into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3 CEB).
Living hope requires preparation on our part. In chapter 1, verse 13, Peter writes, “Therefore, once you have your minds ready for action and you are thinking clearly, place your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:13 CEB). There are two prerequisites for living hope. First, our minds have to be ready for action. People or churches that fail to take action are usually stuck or dying.
Second, we must be thinking clearly. Clear thinking should never be equated with the words, “I want.” We make the same mistakes over and over and pay an increasing price for our mistakes when our hearts are set on getting what we want for ourselves. Clear thinking is not writing a plan that will produce what we want; frankly, that is selfish thinking.
Clear thinking requires obedience. Obedience clears our minds so that we can think clearly. Peter links obedience with holiness in his epistle. Holiness in its essence is the nature of God. In quoting Leviticus 19:2, Peter exhorts the church, “Be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Peter’s concluding thought in the section says, “So now, your faith and hope should rest in God” (1 Peter 1:21 CEB).
Living hope requires a bias for action. It centers on holy obedience to God’s truth and grace. When these preparations are in place, we are ready to act. After twenty-one verses of his opening chapter, Peter is ready to reveal his action point. It is this: “As you set yourselves apart by your obedience to the truth so that you might have genuine affection for your fellow believers, love each other deeply and earnestly” (1 Peter 1:22 CEB).
The actions Peter calls for are obedience and love. Obedience is not an end in itself. It is the precursor to the more important action which is to love each other deeply and earnestly.
Are we living hope? What are some examples of living hope in your life, in your church, in the conference, and in the denomination? In what areas do we need to repent for our failure to live hope? Are we fulfilling our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ?
I encourage local churches to use the video and guide entitled, ”What is a Disciple?” I encourage local churches to use the video and guide, which describes a disciple as one who “listens to God and faithfully responds in obedience” at okumc/whatisadisciple. It is a tool to clarify our mission.
Paragraph 601 of the Book of Discipline states, “The purpose of the annual conference is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by equipping its local churches for ministry and by providing a connection for ministry beyond the local church; all to the glory of God.”
In previous years, I have shared four priorities for the conference. Those priorities are developing leaders, planting new churches, invigorating existing churches, and strengthening stewardship and financial alignment.
An update of five related statistical areas is reported on page 75 of your preconference workbook. In summary, worship attendance is down about 300 people. We continue to decline in the number of persons in the pew and increase in the number of people engaging online. The number of professions of faith are down about 10% compared to 2017 and down about 20% compared to 2014. We are experiencing a steady decline in the number of children professing their faith, but increasing the number of adults professing their faith. Spiritual formation groups declined about 5%. Mission engagement continued its pattern of steady growth, expanding by about 7% over the prior year and growing by about 56% since 2014. Stewardship as measured by giving to ministries beyond ourselves grew again last year.
In previous years, I have highlighted conference work in equipping local churches for ministry. Today, I want to highlight some of the connections for ministry beyond the local church that we collectively support.
As I was reading the pre-conference workbook, I could not help but be inspired by the ministries of the churches in the Oklahoma Conference. Please be sure to read and celebrate the good work described on pages 13-14 of your preconference workbook. Detailed reports can be found in the pages following the summary.
These and other ministries are blessing our communities and serving people in need. People are being fed and are able to remain in their homes or have a safe place to live because of your work. People are being served both within and beyond the immediate contexts of our local communities. Those we serve are often forgotten or overlooked. These ministries provide the tools that offer a second chance. And they equip people for leadership and service that maintain a United Methodist presence in a community that we might otherwise leave.
There are more things we do as a conference than are summarized on these pages. I invite you to give thanks to God as you read through the reports. More than that, however, as a lay or clergy delegate, part of your job is to take this information to your local churches so that they too can be blessed. Be an advocate for the ministry that we do together. Recognize that many of these ministries are no longer mandated, but our support is strongly encouraged. We have a lot to be proud of in Oklahoma.
This year, your preconference workbook includes the budget of each of our eight districts on pages 65-72. I encourage you to check out the work of your district and support its initiatives. These budgets have been added to our preconference workbook to provide you and your congregations with information about the income and expenditures of your districts and to help you to celebrate the financial support that your particular district provides to local ministries through District Apportionments.
These ministries happen in large part because your church pays its Conference and District apportionments and the encouraged mission and ministry items. I express my gratitude to you and your church for every dollar you have given. I am especially grateful for those of you paying 100% of your apportionments.
We strive to be good stewards of the contributions you entrust to the conference. I encourage you to review the structure and relationships of the Conference found on pages 9 & 10 of your preconference workbook. This structure, largely the same as it was in 2016, is now administered by about 44% fewer people in the conference office when compared to September 2016. I wish to be clear: rumors that conference office personnel have increased are false; rather, the size and cost of the staff has been significantly reduced in the past two and a half years.
We have much to be proud of and thankful for in the Oklahoma Conference. However, we are facing significant headwinds. I want to name some of those headwinds.
Thus far in 2019, we are facing severe financial headwinds. First, we discovered that our self-funded health insurance plan had been underfunded for the past five years. That forced an immediate increase in premium, which I assure you, no one wanted. However, the program had to be made solvent. And the premiums are now in line with the costs of other conferences. There is an important decision to be made for health care coverage at this conference.
Likewise, the health care supplement for retired clergy has hit a tipping point. Bear in mind, the health care supplement is different from the pension a retiree receives. No pension benefits are affected by proposed action to bring the costs of the health care supplement into line. The health care supplement is an additional benefit that is considered for approval each year at conference. Unlike the pension benefits, it has never been guaranteed. The cost in 2019 for the benefit is equal to 10% of the conference budget.
In the last appointment season, we learned that 14 churches can no longer support the salary and benefits of a full time elder. We are seeing a migration of people from many rural communities. In many of our churches, our membership is aging. People are moving to be closer to their children, moving to care centers, or crossing over to eternity. As buildings age, fixed costs rise. We must adapt to changing realities.
One of the headwinds is the turmoil in which the denomination finds itself. Differences of opinion on how to include LGBTQ+ people in our midst divide us. The decisions made at the 2019 General Conference were welcome by some and not welcome by others. These differences of perspective will likely have an impact on the finances of the local church and the annual conference.
Allow me to summarize the called General Conference held in February. It resulted in some changes in the Book of Discipline. The key provision is that the definition of the term “self-avowed practicing homosexual” was expanded and persons identifying as such continue to be prohibited from serving as clergy.
Among other changes are new, stricter guidelines on how bishops, conference boards of ministry, and district committees on ministry recommend, commission, and ordain candidates. Guidelines for how bishops process complaints related to LGBTQ+ individuals and their supporters now provide less flexibility. Finally, a provision was passed that creates a pathway for a local church to disaffiliate from the denomination for reasons of conscience relating to the position of the church on matters of sexual expression other than heterosexuality.
I remind you that only the General Conference makes policy for the United Methodist Church. No one has the authority to change the policy except the General Conference.
At this Annual Conference we will be electing delegates to the General Conference, which will be held in May 2020. This is where legislation is adopted. We will also elect delegates to the Jurisdictional Conference, which meets in July 2020 and is where bishops are elected and assigned. I invite us to do our best work during this election. Our best work is done when we pray and live the words, “thy will be done.”
At the recent Council of Bishops meeting, one of the leading questions was, “How do we lead with hope?” Friends, I have been praying for hope. I have been praying for the church. I have been praying for us and praying for the world. We need Jesus.
As I have been praying, two things have come to mind. First, Paul’s words to the Corinthians. I have paraphrased this text to communicate what I hear in it. Here it is:
10 Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, “I belong to the traditional plan,” “I belong to the one church plan,” “I belong to the simple plan,” “I belong to the connecting conference plan.” Has Christ been divided?
(end of paraphrase)
Has Christ been divided? Are we at the point where we simply say, pick your plan and go?
Paul went on to make this proclamation in the second chapter of First Corinthians: “When I came to preach to you, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified.”
Perhaps some think we know more than we actually know and we have lost the essence of the gospel while holding too tightly to our own plan. To face the challenges of the day, we need both clergy and laity, to live our faith with a deep humility and respect for the other. We must empty ourselves in order to be humble, grateful servants of Jesus Christ.
The second thing that has come to me as I consider the question, “How do we lead with hope?” are the experiences we had while worshipping and working alongside Methodist friends in Bolivia and Chile. On this trip, which came soon after the close of the General Conference, I experienced a different kind of Christianity. And the experience is much like that which I have experienced in other parts of the world. I saw a people of hope. An extraordinary hope that we do not see every day.
As part of this address, I invite you to watch a video. After it plays, I will share briefly some things we can learn from our sisters and brothers in Bolivia and Chile.
The first thing we might learn from our friends in other lands is that the “joy of the Lord” is more than a cliché. Joy runs deep and motivates people to do things that truly amaze me, when we put their achievements in their context.
The second, prayer has power. Prayer knocks on the doors of heaven and begs for God to intercede. Prayer can change lives. It builds churches. It opens doors to effective witness.
The third thing is that education is a gift from God. In every school we visited, we were greeted with students whose eyes were bright and shining. Several students had learned to introduce themselves to us in English. Their faces lit up as we responded to them. These students were filled with hope and they have dreams for their lives and for their families…God sized dreams!
The fourth thing I want to share is the power of sacrificial giving. The laity and clergy gave in spite of their lack of abundance. Some of the people we met live on a wage of about $2 a day. It is not uncommon for some pastors to walk up to four hours, carrying their small children with them, to serve their second or third church of a two-point charge or an extended circuit. Their attitude is “what do you need?” “We can share with you.”
The last thing I leave you with is the power of engaging in mission. Years ago, I believed that we engaged in mission to help someone else. Now I believe that as we engage in mission, we open our own hearts to God to do a new work within us. Engaging in mission helps us to see the poverty of our own lives and to have true gratitude for the blessings we often take for granted. Find Reverend Jeremy Basset, our Director of the Office of Mission, and let him help you find a place to serve in mission.
So, what does it mean to celebrate a living hope? For me, it means to preach Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. And if that doesn’t bring us Easter joy; I don’t know what will! It means believing in and practicing a life of prayer… not for what we want but for what God wants. And it means being open to and eager to learn and grow very often from the very people we get serve alongside. And it means to sacrifice … to give because we want to share with others as we engage in Jesus’ mission, where ever that may lead.
Indeed, we face headwinds. But we have a heritage. Our heritage is rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ, our living hope. May we be living hope to the people right beside and in front of us… to the people in our home places and to all the people of the world; in the name and through the power of our living hope, Jesus Christ!