Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr. was warmly received, last Saturday, by Central United Methodist Church in Stockton – the most recent stop on his "Rethink Conference" tour.
Then the bishop donned a hard hat, to illustrate the fact that "we're in a reconstruction zone."
He said he's been doing a lot of listening since returning to the California-Nevada Annual Conference, the place he considers home, to serve in his final appointment.
"And in doing some listening, I've heard a lot of wonderful stories of faithfulness that are happening in our life together in all kinds of ways. But I also heard a lot of worry, a lot of pain, a lot of concern – and in some places, a sense that people have lost heart – and that was a bit alarming,” he continued.
"We are a covenant people. We are a people who are called to live out of our faithfulness, but it would appear in some ways we've gotten a little adrift, and it's time to really think about who we are and what we're called to do."
The bishop said often we have emphasized program and organizational structure without mission being at the core of our efforts.
"Our calling, as John Wesley laid out for the early Methodists … our purpose was to reform the nation, particularly the church, and to 'spread scriptural holiness throughout the land,'" the bishop reminded.
"John Wesley didn't desire to start a new church," he added, "he desired for the church that he was already a part of to look and act like they believed in the Word they were proclaiming.
"It's time to re-think who we are, who we're called to be, and how we engage the world that we live in – for many of the things that we once did … no longer seem to work."
He said the "Rethink Church" movement is "very apropos" to what we're encountering here in California-Nevada. And he challenged his audience to "open our doors and create new doors to welcome people – younger people, people of the wide diversity around us, neighbors who we haven't welcomed before – in every way we can – if we are going to live fully into the challenge to be the people John Wesley dreamed of, when he imagined us going forward."
The bishop spent some time unpacking some pieces of legislation coming before Annual Conference Session in June, which he believes are key to efforts to revitalize The United Methodist Church in Northern California and Nevada.
The Conference Council on Ministry (CCOM) is asking for a suspension of the rules governing Conference Leadership and Agencies, to allow time to re-organize around mission. Current boards and agencies will be fully involved in this "rethinking," the bishop said. Under the recommendation, a full progress report will be made to ACS next year and a plan presented for action by the 2012 conference.
The Cabinet and Conference Committee on District Superintendency are asking to reduce the number of districts from seven to four, as the next step in shifting ministry development to clergy circuits. The bishop said the consolidation also will allow the Conference to fund two superintendent-level positions which are needed if we are to move forward: one for leadership development and one overseeing new church development and new ministries within current congregations.
The Clergy Benefits Task Force, backed by the Board of Pensions and Council on Finance and Administration (CFA), is recommending that clergy pension costs be billed directly to churches by 2010 so that congregations can make "responsible decisions about their ability to fund the full cost of their ministry."
We've often gotten things "out of balance," the bishop said, and have replaced the ministry of all believers with an overarching dependence on clergy staff. In the heyday of Methodism in this country, he noted, it was commonplace for lay disciples to do the lion's share of ministry in the local church. A clergy person would come by every month or six weeks, "to train the people, make sure everything was in order, give the Sacraments, hop on their horse and ride out of town."
"There are places where that style of ministry is still appropriate, and in those places, we've got to figure out how to do it," the bishop told his audience. But too often we've gotten into a mindset of thinking unless we've got a paid clergy person, preferably one that went to seminary, we don't have a bona fide ministry. That's nonsense! The ministry of the people of Jesus Christ is going on, or should be, in every place one of us shows up."
The bishop went on to explain that the current formula which sets a pastor's minimum salary allows that minimum to escalate artificially, rather than following the fluctuations of the economy. The Equitable Compensation Commission is recommending the minimum salary structure be changed to correct that imbalance.
After his presentation the bishop entertained questions and comments for about half an hour.
A number of people voiced enthusiastic support for various aspects of the bishop's vision.
The bishop was asked whether the proposed redistricting will create unmanageably large geographic areas – but he explained that other Conferences have much bigger districts than the ones which would be created by the consolidation here. In addition, he pointed out, the circuit system and the Conference's movement toward greater reliance on technology mean superintendents are not required to physically cover the territory they oversee in the way they once had to do.
This weekend, the "Rethink Conference" tour takes the bishop to Livermore and Palo Alto, California. All interested persons, lay and clergy alike, are invited to Asbury UMC in Livermore from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 17, and/or to First UMC of Palo Alto from 3 to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 18 to hear the bishop's presentation and engage in conversation with him.
Next weekend Visalia UMC will host "Rethink Conference" (Saturday, April 24, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.) The series wraps up on Saturday, May 1, 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. at Sparks UMC in Nevada.