I am returning to Phoenix from a trip to San Diego, where I participated in a gathering of the active bishops of our United Methodist Church. Dubbed the “Learning Forum for Active Bishops,” this was a first-of-a-kind gathering of active bishops. Retired bishops were not present for this meeting. The purpose of our gathering was significantly different than ever before. Our gathering was a learning event for bishops that are leading the annual and central conferences as we deal with the challenges and joys of episcopal leadership.
We learned from each other. Part of our time together was dedicated to what we call “best practices.” In these moments, several of the bishops who had expertise in areas of interest to us shared. There was sharing of accomplishments and opportunities to engage in questioning and discussing what had been shared. We began to realize that there was considerable knowledge and experience among our colleague bishops. One of the bishops commented in evaluating the experience: “Being together in a smaller total group with those who are currently doing what I am doing was a high point.” One of the groups discussed appointment-making best practices and led to conversations that revealed that many of the bishops are experiencing the same kind of challenges in appointment-making and through the discussion that ensued, ideas were shared for overcoming some of these challenges.
Many of the bishops felt that these experiences led to more honest and open conversations at a deeper level than we have had previously. For me, this was evident in the spirit of collegiality that I sensed, and the willingness of my colleagues to engage in prayerful conversations with one another. We were sometimes pushed “outside the box” by speaking to a colleague bishop that we did not know very well. We were also invited to different worship experiences in which we shared communion and anointing with oil in unique ways that for me broadened my understanding of what makes worship creative and profound. I hope to share some of these learnings with us in The Desert Southwest Conference in the future.
Our Learning Forum also afforded us numerous opportunities to learn from others. Several keynote speakers shared from a faith perspective in ways that were clearly sharing love and concern and encouragement with the active bishops. Lieutenant General James Dubik (retired) has gained a reputation as a change agent with a deep Christian faith. He shared his accomplishment in bringing about positive changes in his career and likened those changes to the kinds of positive changes we seek in our United Methodist Church. He commented, for example, that leading change often means creating problems. He cited the difficulty we have in effecting change because we are so resistant to making changes. Many persons in our pews prefer to have us do things the way we have always done them. So, Gen. Dubik commented, when we want to lead our congregations to change the way we operate as a church organization, we often meet up with strong resistance. We should not be surprised nor should we be deterred from making changes even if those changes cause problems of communication, understanding, and willingness to participate in these changes.
Another keynote speaker, a United Methodist laywoman who is currently a candidate for ministry, stated that when asked what it means to be United Methodist, 80% of current and former United Methodists in the age range of 18–29, did not know what the United Methodist Church stood for or what our mission is. That is a very telling statistic that reminds us that we must all know what our mission/vision is. This is why I believe that it is essential that each of our congregations has a clear sense of its vision for its ministry. Our United Methodist Church clearly states that our mission as a denomination is “To Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” Given that mission, what is the vision of your congregation’s ministry? What would you like to see your church become? What would we like our Conference to be doing as its mission/vision? Without a goal in mind, we will not be able to work toward achieving that vision.
And finally, let me share that during our time in San Diego, the active bishops participated in an educational and profoundly moving journey to the border with Mexico. I have shared some of my reflections on that experience on my Facebook page. You can read more by visiting: http://tinyurl.com/ctm3eql.
The time spent with my colleague bishops during our Learning Forum was the most meaningful time I have spent with colleague bishops in my eight years as a bishop. I celebrate the opportunity to work alongside other bishops who are committed to working together in collegial ways that honor our gifts and our differences in an atmosphere of mutual respect. What we accomplished in San Diego at this first Learning Forum for Active Bishops moved us along the way in a very positive manner. I anticipate that I will learn from and share with other bishops through the Forum and I hope to enrich my ministry as your bishop in turn.
Will you join me in this prayer: Gracious God, our Loving Creator, we thank you for experiences that open our eyes and minds and spirits to new awareness and new challenges. In our leadership of our local churches, our districts and our Conference, give us a fresh perspective and a creative spirit. Help us to find new ways to share our faith in Jesus Christ that we might bring about vitality in our congregations, with energy to reach out in loving ministries with those who are on the margins of our society. Keep us mindful of the many blessings you have given us that we might share the love we know in Jesus Christ. In the name of Christ who has called us, Amen!