Partnership and Covenant with Liberia

We’ve been celebrating our connection with Liberia lately.  As you are perhaps aware, the Detroit Conference has had a long standing partnership and covenant with Liberia.  And as we begin this new thing as the Michigan Annual Conference soon, we are seeking to invite churches and individuals from our side of the state to engage with this important ministry as well.

We, on the Grand Rapids District, have had a head start on this endeavor as we have connected with the Lofa River District of Liberia and just a week and a half ago completed our effort to get Superintendent Cecilia Mapleh a truck to enable more effective ministry on her district (click HERE to read the story and see recent photos!)

Last night Bishop Quire, the newly elected Bishop of the Liberian Annual Conference, was here on our District sharing about both his vision for and the needs of his country and the church.  He also shared great appreciation for the truck!

After Bishop Quire shared for a bit we asked questions and one of the questions was what are the primary needs of the people in Liberia?  The Bishop’s response was telling, “Well” he said, “I hesitate to give you the whole grocery list!”  Friends, there is indeed a grocery list!  I listened to stories about parts of Liberia where the church has begun orphanages for children whose parents died during the Ebola crisis.  As the Bishop shared about the lack of schools, medical care, clean water and other needs in many rural areas of the country and the fact that due to the years of civil war there is at least a generation that has very little if any education.  As he spoke about his vision of building up the agriculture abilities especially with the amount of land that the church owns.  As he lifted up the challenges and the commitment of the Pastors and Superintendents who walk miles to serve their churches and people and who experience and embrace extraordinary sacrifices to do it.

As I listened to all that he shared, I thought about some of the things that had taken my attention and energy during the earlier parts of the day. I thought about some of the things that had annoyed me or caused me some level of stress.  And while those things are real and a part of my life and yours as I laid them alongside some of the things Bishop Quire shared with us, the distance between them was significant.

Now I’ve not always been good about knowing what to do with that.  I tend to feel guilty and sometimes that’s all that happens because the problems seem so big (because they are), and I don’t know where to start.  And so I turn on the TV and go on with my life.  I can’t fix it all so I struggle to feel like anything I do makes any real difference.

We learned last night that to put a child through high school for a year costs $300.  So we took up an offering and raised $300.00 among the eight of us that were there.  One child will go to school because we met together last night.

Liberia still has lots of problems.  And that’s just Liberia.  I could write lots of other articles about the plight of Puerta Rico devastated by hurricanes, other countries and people who are living with war and daily life and death uncertainties.

But a Superintendent on the Lofa River District has a truck because of the gifts of our District, and one child will go to school next year who wouldn’t have been able to go had we not met last night.  I guess it’s a start.

Peace,
Bill

Cecilia’s long wait is finally over!

Many of you will remember that two years ago during each of our Church Conferences we received an offering the proceeds of which were to go for the purchase of a four wheel drive vehicle for Rev. Cecilia Mapleh, District Superintendent of the Lofa District in Liberia.  Folks gave at the church conferences and folks continued to give after the church conferences were completed.

Ultimately we reached the goal of $17,000 to purchase the used truck that would take DS Cecilia to her appointed rounds, enabling her to be more effective in caring for the people and churches of her very rural and often isolated district.  We reached that goal in the early part of 2016, and in my mind I expected that DS Mapleh would be on the road by February.  But…it didn’t work out that way!

We have been working with the General Board of Global Ministries, the Liberia Annual Conference and many others to accomplish this task ever since the money was raised.  We have been in phone and email contact with Cecilia and many others at least every other week.  It was nobody’s fault.  Everyone was seeking to make it happen, but finding a safe and effective means of carrying out this mission was a challenge, to say the least.

But thanks be to God, while there may be trouble in the night, Joy comes in the Morning! After some 18 months of finding our way forward, this past week, we received word that the money had arrived and the truck had been purchased.  We also received some wonderful pictures of Cecilia heading down one of the dirt roads of her district, no longer on foot or on a bicycle that doesn’t work at all in the rainy season, but driving a gift from co-workers in Christ from the Grand Rapids District.

As I looked at those pictures (below) my heart was warmed and I was reminded again that while we can’t solve all of the problems of the third world, while we can’t fix all the issues of Liberia, we can make a difference for one servant of Christ and the District she serves.  You have done that.  It took a while!  But you have made that difference.  Thank you!

Peace,
Bill

Love, Respect and Trust

The Cabinet is in retreat this week.  We call it a retreat basically because we are away at a location instead of at the ministry center and we wear casual clothes.  Beyond that it’s long work days!  We have a fall “retreat” in September every year because we don’t usually meet in the summer and there is always lots to do and lots to catch up on.  It also gives us a chance to hear what’s happening in one another’s lives.

It’s that last part that I want to share about this week.  This is my sixth year on the Cabinet which also means it’s my sixth year out of the local church. Being a pastor is who I am.  It is who I am to the core of my being and while I really do love the ministry of District Superintendent, I miss sharing life with a congregation.  I miss being a part of people’s lives on a week to week basis.  I miss the kind of connection that happens in a Bible Study where questions are raised and new insight is gained and decisions made.  I miss it all (well most of it anyway).  And honestly from some of the stories I’ve heard about how Cabinets sometimes function, I know I would never make it in some of those settings.

But I am incredibly grateful for the people I get to work with on this Cabinet.  I am incredibly grateful for the leadership of this amazing Bishop and our Clergy Assistant to the Bishop, John Boley.  We are, the 15 of us, a deep community.  We are a praying community.  We are a loving community.  And I am so honored to be a part of these wonderful servants of Christ and Christ’s church.

And as I sit here thinking about how blessed I am in this community, I can’t help but think about you and the churches of the Grand Rapids District.  Friends my abiding prayer for you is that you are experiencing this same sense of joy and celebration in your Church community.  I pray that as you work together in your community you are discovering − even in the work − a depth of relationship that is rich and life giving.  I pray that as you leave a meeting about vision, or money, or what’s next for your congregation, you leave tired and weary having spent yourself in the task but joyful because you are in it together.  I pray you leave feeling connected and engaged and while there is significant work ahead, and the road may not be smooth, you have your eyes on Christ and you find excitement in the fact that you are rowing the boat together.

I pray that your community of faith, be it big or small, rich or struggling financially, theologically to one end of the spectrum or the other, is a place where you know you are loved deeply by God and by those with whom you share the journey.  I pray you know without a shadow of a doubt that while you may not always (or often) think alike, you have one another’s backs because you love, respect, and trust one another.

I am grateful, deeply grateful that I find that love, respect and trust on the Cabinet.  I pray you are finding that too, and are building that in your Church.

Peace,
Bill

We Can Never “Take a Break” from God

It has been awhile!  I decided when I went on vacation in August that I would take a break from Castings for the month, and my what a month it’s been.  The current events which have taken place in this break have been legion!  Events that have directly affected the lives of people and their culture would have most probably been items I would have chosen to write about, had I been writing Castings in August.  Let me think back with you for a moment to Charlottesville, Hurricane Harvey, North Korea missile tests and U.S. response, Mudslides in Sierra Leone, and massive flooding resulting in the death of over 1,200 people in Bangladesh, and this week (I know it’s September now) the Administration’s action towards ending DACA.  There has been much to invite our prayers, our voices, and our actions.

As I have listened to and watched these stories evolve, as I have observed the many lives affected by them, as I have prayed and given and written emails to leaders, it occurs to me again just how life rolls on from one event to the next.  This is true certainly in the “news cycle,” in the global realities of each day’s story.  For given individuals who find themselves the focus of the stories, their day in the news may well be life changing, but for most of us the events of the world flow one into the next with little affect upon us.  Oh, we may respond.  We may celebrate or get upset.  We may, as I indicated I have done, engage the event in some way either seeking to influence, help, or affect the outcome going forward.  We may simply join the conversation by talking to friends or speaking out on the endless noise on social media.  But ultimately, we move on.  We move on to the next story, the next challenge or joy that is just now coming into view.

At age 61 (yes, I know many of you have me beaten!), I have seen my share of this day to day, year to year cycle.  And that reality, while not minimizing at all the importance of each and every event, trouble or difficulty − because each one involves the lives of real people loved by God − gives me some sense of peace.  The peace comes from the knowledge that God is in it all.  God’s grace has been present in times of fear and worry, in times of pain and discouragement, and God’s grace IS with us now leading us forward.

Now that is not in any way an excuse for non-action.  It is not a panacea, or an invitation to simply disengage.  If ever there was a time for Christ followers to represent Christ’s way of love in the world, it is now.  But we represent that love with a confidence that knows there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and that as we live out that love in all the ways we are able to, God is our guide and our hope from news cycle to news cycle to news cycle.

Thanks be to God!

Peace,
Bill

Introducing A New Volunteer Position: GR District Chaplain!

Friends I have a wonderful announcement to share with you!

Below is a letter from Rev. Tamara Williams who has recently moved to our District. Tamara, as the letter explains, has moved into the status of medical leave as of our 2017 Annual Conference. But while she is unable to serve a congregation full time, Tamara continues to have a deep heart for ministry.

So I am very excited that she is moving into a newly created volunteer position of District Chaplain. Having worked for five years with Tamara on the Cabinet, I have seen first hand Tamara’s compassion, grace, and wisdom, and I know that she will be a gift to all the Clergy on our District.

As you know, while I am a pastor at heart and certainly want to carry that role for you, the Discipline requires me to be a Supervisor as well. Tamara will not have that role and she will not be reporting to me.  She will be “Pastor/Chaplain” in the fullest sense of those words. Please read her letter below.

I welcome Tamara into this new role on our District.

Blessings,
Bill

Dear District Colleagues and Friends,

Greetings from North Muskegon!  I’ve known some of you for a long time, but let me introduce myself to everyone: my name is Tamara Williams, and my husband Jeremy and I just moved at the end of June to Community UMC in North Muskegon, where Jeremy has been appointed to serve as pastor.  At the same time, I began a Disability leave of absence (I was diagnosed last year with a rare neurological condition called P.A.F. – “Pure Autonomic Failure.”  It causes a bunch of weird symptoms, among which my blood pressure issues make it impossible to carry out basic pastoral tasks!).

Knowing I was coming to the Grand Rapids District, and knowing that I have to respect the limits of my body as its strength and stamina fluctuate constantly, I spent many months seeking God’s direction.  I feel God’s leading in two specific areas of my life.  One is to start a new small group for spiritual guidance and support for women who are dealing with chronic conditions (the number of women I’ve encountered here who have everything from M.S. to Parkinsons to Fibromyalgia to rare neurological conditions really blows my mind!).  The other was to talk with Bill Haggard about the possibility of being the “District Chaplain.”  We spoke, Bill liked it… and now this letter to you makes it real!

You also may or may not know that I was District Superintendent of the Albion District for eight years (and for part of the Heartland District for two years.)  😊 Way back in 2010, we re-structured the Albion District (by District Conference vote) and began having a “District Chaplain.”  This was a position we created for the district, which was beautifully filled for seven years by Rev. Jim Gysel in his retirement.  Basically, Jim would contact —and sometimes even visit — clergy and their family members during crisis times such as hospitalizations, illnesses,  deaths, etc.  It was a very practical way for us to take another step in caring for our clergy and their families while also acknowledging that the D.S. has a “supervisory” role that cannot be ignored, and which sometimes gets in the way of truly caring pastorally for clergy and their families. For example, every fall and winter, every D.S. goes away for almost a week on a working retreat with the Bishop, making it impossible to respond in a timely manner to a clergyperson or a member of their family who has a special need or an emergency.

As District Chaplain, Jim was often able to be “present” pastorally, through phone calls, visits, and always through prayer, when I couldn’t be — and often even when I could!  I envision the same.  I don’t want to replace the pastoral presence of Bill; I just want to enhance it.  So know that I am already praying for you by name, and if you have any specific prayer requests or special needs for yourself or your family, you can get them to me by phone or by email (269-967-7104, pastortamara@hotmail.com).

I have no doubt that this ministry will change and morph over time, but my real goal is that our district clergy never feel that they have to face a crisis alone. 

Serving Christ with you,

Tamara Williams

Talking About Life & Ministry: One on One

Well it’s begun.  I am on the Heartland District this week meeting with clergy for our annual “One on One” times together.  For those who may not be aware of this practice, every year clergy persons under appointment meet with their Superintendent to talk about how things are going in life and ministry.

I always insist on beginning the meeting with prayer and a focus on the person themselves rather than jumping too quickly into what’s happening at the church.  I enjoy the opportunity to hear about spouses and children or for single clergy, other family and friends in their support structure.  We talk about how spiritual life is going and what’s serving to enable a deep connection with God.  It is usually a rich conversation.  One that is very important to me as Superintendent.

To be sure, we move on to talk about the church in detail as well.  We talk about the mission, the joys and the challenges that the past year has brought.  We talk about the evaluation from the SPRC or other evaluating group, and from that we talk about places of strength and effectiveness, and places where growth is needed.  We look at the future and what might be next, in the midst of the joys and struggles of the present.

And so as we begin this year’s round of One on Ones I must tell you I again, I’m excited!  Oh, they make for long days and coupled with church conferences (which start soon), long evenings and nights as well.  But it is really incredibly rewarding for the most part.  We have awesome pastors!  We have skilled and gifted clergy!  We are blessed with leaders who love God and love the Church and long to make a difference for the Kingdom of God.  And I get the honor and privilege of hearing from and working with them all!

This really is a great job!!

Peace,
Bill

P.S. I’m taking a hiatus from writing my weekly DS Castings in order to prepare for more One on One’s and the beginning of church conference season! As the song says, “See you in September!”

Pick Up The Rope!

I attended the Heartland District Beach Day this past Monday.  It was held at the beautiful home of Pastor Cheryl Mancier and her husband Carl.  When I got to their home I learned from a sign on the deck railing that Cheryl, along with serving the good folks at the Gathering UMC in Harrison, is also a water ski instructor!  So after sitting down and visiting a bit we headed out to the lake.  We loaded up the skis, lowered the boat off the shore station and headed out into the water.  Once we got into the middle of the lake Cheryl got her skis on and soon she was cruising across the lake moving into and out of the wake from side to side.  It was easy to see both her skill and joy in the sport.

As I watched from the boat a thought occurred to me,  “I could do that!”  When I was a teenager my family had a boat and I used to ski on a regular basis.  As I watched Cheryl my mind rehearsed again the feeling of gliding across the water, feeling the jolt of the drop that occurs as you cross the wake.  It was all coming back to me as I sat in the safety of the boat.  I kept thinking, “I believe I could still do that, I really do!”

As Cheryl completed her tour of the lake and dropped the rope Carl asked me if I wanted to go, (I had shared my former skiing prowess as we pulled Cheryl along).  I thought about it, then I thought about the fact that it had been at least three decades since I had water skied.  I thought about the last time my back was out (see last week’s Castings!) and I said, “I don’t think I better.”

That was probably the smart response.  It was probably the most adult answer to Carl’s question.  After all Church Conferences are starting before long and they are harder to do in a body cast.

It was probably the correct answer given my 61 year old, out of shape, overweight body, but a part of me really wishes I’d said, “Yes!”  A part of me really wishes I had gone to my car, gotten my suit on, and grabbed the rope.  I’m not sure what would have happened.  It might not have been good.  But who knows.  Muscle memory might have kicked in.  The legs and feet and arms might all have responded to what my brain remembered from all those years ago.  It might have been great.  But I won’t know because I stayed safe.  I stayed in the boat.

Sometimes we do that same sort of thing in our church don’t we?  We think about taking a leap of faith, we think about doing something new that will impact our community, we dream big and get excited and we almost run and get our suit.  But then somebody says, “Well we tried something like that before and it didn’t work.”  Or somebody says that it will cost too much and we need to save money in case the pew pads wear out this year.  And we go back to the report of the Paper Clip Committee and their plan to coordinate the paper clips in liturgical colors.

I wish I’d gotten in the lake the other day.  I wish I’d put on the skis, grabbed the rope and given Carl the thumbs up.

What’s your church considering today that could maybe jump start a new ministry in your community if you just grab the rope and go?

Peace,
Bill

An “Aching Back” in the Body of Christ

Have you ever had a back problem?  I have had that unpleasant experience several times in my life.  Most often for me it didn’t happen because I lifted some extra heavy piece of furniture or four bundles of shingles rather than three 😊 (I’m lucky if I can pick up one!)  No, most often it happens as I bend over to pick up a piece of paper on the floor or carry out some other routine task I do several times a day.  But this time I feel the crunch of muscles behaving badly and I know it’s time to start the heat and ice routine as the next several days are not going to be fun.

If you’ve had this “spine tingling” experience you know it’s awful.  The thing about it that’s most distressing is that when the pain is at its most debilitating, there is no comfortable position.  It seems that every way you shift your body a new shot of pain erupts.  Everything within you tightens up to try to protect your back and that only makes it worse.

As I thought about this experience recently, it reminded me of the behavior I sometimes see in churches.  Perhaps the congregation has been through a recent conflict.  Perhaps they have tried something new that didn’t work out so well.  Perhaps they’ve been dealing with the loss of significant givers either because folks have left or because they have died, and for the first time they are facing significant financial difficulties.  Perhaps they are just watching their membership decrease year by year and are wondering what the future will hold.

In many of these scenarios the church begins to “seize up.” People become more and more fearful and try to hold on more and more tightly to what isn’t working, hoping it will somehow just get better.  It feels like everywhere they turn there is pain.  And it is literally paralyzing.

So as we find ourselves in a place like that, how can we − the “Body of Christ” − discover the path to moving more freely in the Spirit when we are “locked up” by fear, dysfunction, or a focus on pain?  How can we move beyond ourselves when all we can think about is how much it hurts?  So many churches I see are living in this situation.

What is the “ice and heat” that brings healing and hope for a future that is good and filled with promise?  What is the treatment that brings curative wholeness?  Well, I think it begins when a willingness to risk starts again, as a disposition to trust the Spirit one more time and seek to follow where God is leading begins to sprout.  It begins as we choose forgiveness and let go of the stone against another that we’re holding in our hands.  It begins as we seek and see a vision for health.  For we must believe that we can get well.  And we must be willing to do whatever it takes to move towards that place of well-being.

Sadly, sometimes folks see no other option but to lay on the couch languishing in the pain.  They don’t dare move for fear the sharp stabbing pain will still be there.  I get that.  But if we are willing to treat the injury, as we take the steps towards healing, ultimately there comes a time when we need to get up and walk.  We need to engage health, or health will forever elude us.

So, if any of this resonates with you in your setting, if with all you’ve tried you still find yourselves stuck on the couch, perhaps it’s time for you, for your church to as Jesus put it “take up your bed and walk.”  Who knows what good things await you and your community if you do.

Peace,
Bill

Taking Time Away

I am taking a few days this week up north doing some planning.  I have done this annually for the past several decades.  When I was serving in the local church I spent these days doing sermon planning for the year ahead.  Now I get ready for Church Conference season and try to take a balcony view of the District and Conference related to my role as Missional Strategist.

This planning time is a week I look forward to every year.  I anticipate the opportunity to take these days, step back and look to what’s next.  I like it partly because I get to spend a week by a lake and enjoy the beauty of the area around Traverse City.  But more than that, it really helps me move beyond the moment and the urgency of the immediate, to both practically plan and dream.

I wanted to write about this time I take away every year because as I talk with pastors I know that some never take time to step back and get a balcony view.  They never take time to get away from the regular daily activities to think deeply, to pray, to listen and to breathe. And my encouragement to pastors, and really to all of us, is to take the time.

For pastors, I believe doing some kind of sermon planning retreat is essential.  Folks do it in different ways.  Some take a week once a year, others take a few days every few months, some work with worship teams and others are on their own.  And I’m not suggesting that my way is the best way, but my belief is that we need to do it some way.

Beyond the sermon creators among us, I think all of us need time away.  I would invite all of us to consider taking time at least once a year to retreat, to create space to hear from God, to connect with God.  If you haven’t had a practice of taking this time in your life, start with a day, start with an afternoon.  My suspicion is this time away will become more and more important to you, and something you eagerly anticipate!

Friends there is so much more I could say about this and I’d say more but I’m ready to get back to my time away!

Peace,
Bill

Enjoying the Perfect Moments in Life

I had lunch with my wife, my son and my daughter in-law yesterday. We ate at a restaurant right by the water. The sky was blue, the temperature was about 78 degrees, the lake was gorgeous and we were together. And to top it all off, the food was wonderful. It was just one of those perfect moments, when all is right with the world.

It wasn’t of course. All was not really right with the world. There were thousands of issues, thousands of problems, hundreds of thousands, millions, billions of people in various states of struggle and stress. But for us, in that moment or that hour, it felt that way.

I am so grateful that Jesus went to banquets. I’m so glad he went to that wedding and turned the water into wine. I think it shows us that even in the midst of dealing with the mess of living in this broken world, even in the midst of seeking to be Jesus’ hands and feet, in the pain and hurt that is all around us, it’s OK to have moments that are rich and perfect – moments that are about living in blessing and joy!

Jesus cared deeply for the poor. Jesus lifted the status of those who had no place in the culture in which he lived. Jesus gave his life so that we might know what it means to live. Jesus was the perfect picture of service. But once in a while he went to parties, he came to banquets, and he enjoyed those perfect days that come along every so often.

Peace,
Bill