Bishop's 'State of the Conference' Address Draws Standing Ovation
"We have a responsibility to respond to the challenges that are before us - and if we move as a people of faith, we have the assurance that God is with us," Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr. said, to begin his State of the Conference address this (Wed. June 16) morning, at the opening plenary for Annual Conference Session for the California-Nevada Annual Conference. If we choose not to respond, he said, we may miss the opportunity to shape our preferred future: "That's the tipping point."
"Finances have a way of getting our attention. But ... it's really not about the money!" he said. "That's not the issue. The question is, can we work together in a spirit of trust and adaptability and responsibility to use the resources that we have been given, to empower ministry for all? That becomes our challenge.
"My friends, I assure you: there is no hidden agenda to do you harm," the bishop said, adding that his "love affair" with this Annual Conference still is very much alive. But he said Scripture instructs us to tell the truth in love, even though some will listen and some will not.
The bishop went on to point out that while the population in the region has grown by 10 million, UMC membership has shrunk by about 25%, to around 80,000. He discounted the idea that the dwindling is the natural result of an aging populace. People "are falling out in charge conferences - which means to me that we're falling out of relationship with people we already know," he said.
But, he said, "If they thrive in their spiritual journey we will not lose connection with them."
The bishop acknowledged that some people, "who are already anxious, have asked the question, 'does the bishop have a secret agenda to close churches?' I just heard that pin drop! The answer is 'no.' I have a 'secret agenda' to call local churches to find out what is the most significant way that they can create an environment where disciple-making can occur, and then find a way to do it!"
"Your ability to minister is directly related to the whole," the bishop said, stating that the Annual Conference leadership has "missional oversight responsibility for this geographic area that we serve ... and is responsible to hold one another accountable for doing the work."
"All Christians are called through their baptism to this spirit of ministry," he said. "None of us are our most effective best when we try to operate as lone rangers, in isolation. None of us are self-sufficient. None of us. We are all strengthened when we have the support of a community ... for then we can lead at our best. That's what the circuits are about: to invite clergy into a relationship in which we take strategic responsibility for the areas we serve ... for us to share our practice of ministry intentionally together," he said, adding that it is directly related to the work of superintendents, that the superintendents are directly connected to those circuits through two-way communication.
The bishop said, "The goal is to empower lay and clergy to release their gifts in ministry ... until we're all doing holy dances together!" to which the body responded with enthusiastic applause.
He said what we're called to do is watch what happens when the Holy Spirit works.
If Christians are seen as self-righteous, "look-down-their-noses" people, our job is to "engage the world in love and hope and help," he said, and stated that if we do that, we will be welcomed.
Returning to the many changes underway or under consideration in the Conference, the bishop said, "Friends, our state is Flux. We're like the Hebrew people wandering in the desert. Everyone thought it was a good idea to leave Egypt, until they got there in the desert and things got a little 'flux-y.' But we don't want to go back, we're headed to the Promised Land. What twists and turns we'll make along the way, we'll see."
The bishop said, "We must be accountable for the fruit that we give. No, it's not a numbers game, it's a Scripture game." He read aloud Luke 13:6-9, the parable of the fig tree.
"Friends, Mr. Wesley had a thing about fruit. Jesus had a thing about fruit. I guess it's in my DNA to have a thing about fruit."
He quoted statistics regarding the number of churches holding confirmation classes in the Conference, and the number of baptisms, and said he finds them troubling.
"It makes me think that we aren't being fruitful.
"And what does fruit-bearing look like? It looks like people are enthused."
He did note the "greying" of our congregations, pointing out that 1975 was the last time that the average age of our church was the same as that of our society.
"We cannot just continue as we have. It's time to 'rethink.' Not because it's a cute slogan, not because it's the next program idea, not because the bishop thought of it," he said. "We need the wisdom and the adventuresomeness of each one of us to be working in the places that we are to be disciples," so that people will be inspired by what we do and who we are, not just by what we say.
"We are called to be a people of faith, the bishop concluded," and drew a standing ovation when he said that it's not enough to go through the motions, but that if we "lay our bodies on the wounds and the sickness," of the world, and if we say to those who have lost hope "that God will not let you down, that Jesus Christ came that you may have life," we will be witness to "the transforming power of God."