Finding Common Ground in our Cultural Divide

I have spoken to or overheard several people in the last few weeks and months say something along the line of, “I have stopped watching the news.  I just can’t bring myself to turn it on.”  Now most of these individuals were not saying that because they believed the news to be inaccurate or “fake.”  They were feeling as though the news itself is simply too painful. The shared feeling is that it puts them in such a state of either depression or anger that for their own mental and spiritual heath they had decided they needed to take something of a break from the constant barrage 24 hour news brings to us.  I understand that feeling.

I’m also aware that there are others, maybe others reading these words, for whom the news over the last year or so has been the kind of thing they have wanted to hear for years.  These persons believe that overall things are headed in the right direction politically and they celebrate what they see as positive changes.

Neither of these broad groups of people understand one another.  And we wonder if there was ever a time when we were so divided.  And while I find myself very clearly on a “side” in the debate, I am also as concerned as anyone about the state of the cultural divide in which we live today.

I know there have been many times when we have felt a similar cultural divide.  I mean we had a civil war where we were actually killing one another over issues that divided us.  In the 1960’s and 70’s the divide took many to the streets where tens of, hundreds, even thousands of people marched in protest of the US war in Southeast Asia and for civil rights.

Now, I am not at all trying to minimize the current cultural divide nor am I suggesting there are not some significant ways in which the basis for the current divide is not even more ominous than at other points in our history.  What I am suggesting is that the differences and struggles are not new.  While it indeed is difficult when, (as others I have spoken with express), the anticipation of Christmas dinner brings stress because we know those differences will show up and will make conversation and digestion problematic. We need in the midst of our differences to find a way to celebrate our sameness. I confess, I don’t always know how to do that in our polarizations.  Sometimes, often times, it would be easier to just stay where it is safe and people think as we do. But unless we at least prayerfully try to understand one another both in our broader culture, and in our divisions within the church (which is a whole other conversation!), we will continue to live life in isolation listening to our particular brand and perspective and seeing one another as “the other.”

2,000 years ago the one, the angel, called the “Prince of Peace” was born.  Would that we might discover, in these trying days, the gift of that One again.

Peace,
Bill

Seeing God in the midst of it all

There are a number of things I thought about putting into Castings this week.  Certainly the news is full of issues I might have addressed and invited us to see from our faith perspective.  There are issues in the General Church that could have provided conversation and reflection as we seek to find our way forward through our differences to where God might call us to go.  There are things going on in my own life that I thought about inviting you into using as a relational connection with the kinds of struggles we all face and again inviting us to see God in the midst of it all.

But, ultimately, I don’t want to go to any of those places.  I am not up this morning for engaging in deep political discussion or theological debate or even a conversation about my wonderful grandchildren (well, maybe that!).

In the midst of the violence, the contention, the pain, the stress, the fear, and the uncertainty that every day seems to bring, I just want to share one thing with you this week, it is these words from Jesus:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give to you.
Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
~ John 14:27

Thanks be to God!
Bill

Let’s celebrate 50 Years as the Grand Rapids District!

As we get closer to the time when we will begin this journey as one Annual Conference, I thought it might be helpful to outline for you some of the plans as we move into this new reality.

First, by January 1, 2018 (and probably before) we will have the final boundaries of the new 9 Districts in place and that will be shared across the state.  As you, hopefully, are aware we are moving from 12 Districts which make up the current West Michigan and Detroit Annual Conferences to 9 Districts that will make up the new Michigan Annual Conference.  That means of course that all 9 Districts will be new entities with new names as well as congregational makeup.

But before the Grand Rapids District closes, we are going to have a celebration!  On January 27, 2018 from 9:00am – noon we will gather to celebrate the 50 years of ministry we have shared in the United Methodist Grand Rapids District.  Our former District Superintendent, now Bishop Laurie Haller, will be preaching as we gather for worship.  We’ll hear stories of where we have been and what has been accomplished as we have walked together these five decades.  So make sure that this date is on your calendar, you will not want to miss it! Details are coming soon.

Then as we look forward to the beginning of the “new” District we will have some opportunities to get together in regions to talk about hopes and dreams.  That process will culminate in an Organizing District Conference on Sunday, April 22, 2018.  At that Conference we will elect the needed Disciplinary Committees, District Committee on Ministry, District Committee on Building and Location, and the District Committee on Superintendency.  We will also elect a District Visioning Team that will lead us into our first year helping us to discern what leadership structure we will need going forward.  It has not been finally decided at this point, but we may also be selecting a name for the District at that organizing conference.

Then on July 1, 2018 we will begin functioning as 9 Districts in one Annual Conference.  The caveat to that July 1 beginning is that from a legal and financial perspective we will not be the Michigan Annual Conference officially until January 1, 2019.  We are still working on how those details will be worked out in that six month period, but I trust and am sure we will find our way.

These are exciting times and I look forward, as I hope you do, to the ways our new District and our new Annual Conference will help congregations make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

Peace,
Bill

I keep dreaming…

As I have gone around to our churches over my years as a District Superintendent I have often asked this question:  If we had all the financial resources of the United Methodist’s in Michigan and we had all the people resources of the United Methodist‘s in Michigan and we were starting brand new today, would we deploy ourselves as we are now deployed?

It is a rhetorical question because the very clear answer is absolutely not.  Of course we would not build our churches where they are today if we were starting over.  We have hundreds of churches that were built in a time when people walked to church.  We have hundreds of churches that were built when people rode horses to church!  We are deployed to carry out the mission of the church 50 to 100 years ago.  Unfortunately, we are living in a very different time and the problem is we seem to be trying to hold on to that past even though most of us know it’s not working.

The reason I keep asking my question is that I dream of a day when we will take seriously the challenge of engaging the mission of reaching the world today with the love of Christ.  I dream of a Michigan United Methodist Church that is willing, across the board, to do whatever it takes to make the shifts, the mergers of congregations, the closing of congregations, the beginning of new congregations, and all the other actions necessary, to deploy ourselves in a way that will enable us to appropriately engage the landscape of today.  It will be a huge lift I know!  We are so connected to our buildings.  We are so focused on what works for us and what meets our needs.  And when push comes to shove that reality too often becomes the ultimate consideration.

But I still keep dreaming.  I keep dreaming of a church whose first question is always about those who aren’t here yet.  I dream of a church that will not stop asking what’s next, and how can we do it better, and what will it take to reach our community, our city, our state, our world with the message of God’s grace.  I keep dreaming of a church that is willing to sacrifice any (to use Wesley’s term) “non-essential”, worship style, structure, our buildings, our power, our money, anything to fulfill the mission of effectively, passionately, prayerfully, participating in the building of the Kingdom of God on earth even as it is in heaven.

I keep dreaming…

But I want to invite us all to do more than dream.  I want to invite us to pray, to talk, to really look seriously at the situation we face and the mission before us.  I invite us to take action.  I invite us to begin conversations with the 2, 3, 8 United Methodist Churches around us asking ourselves is there a way that we could do this better?  Could we strategically redeploy ourselves in this community, this city, this county to more effectively be the Church?  I have been a part of those conversations both as a Superintendent and as a Pastor and they have led to some pretty wonderful things.  We must begin these conversations.  We must begin to dream together.  We must be willing to let go and allow God to lead us in new ways.  Cause I don’t think those horse riding days are coming back.

Peace,
Bill

Prayer and Action to End Gun Violence

This week rather than writing my own words I want to share with you a resolution adopted at our 2016 General Conference and thus included in our Book of Resolutions.  Somehow it seemed appropriate.

“As followers of Jesus, called to live into the reality of God’s dream of shalom as described by Micah, we must address the epidemic of gun violence so “that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” Therefore, we call upon United Methodists to prayerfully address gun violence in their local context. Some of the ways in which to prevent gun violence include the following:

  1. For congregations to make preventing gun violence a regular part of our conversations and prayer times. Gun violence must be worshipfully and theologically reflected on, and we encourage United Methodist churches to frame conversations theologically by utilizing resources such as “Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities: Reflections on Gun Violence from Micah 4:1-4” produced by the General Board of Church and Society.
  2. For congregations to assist those affected by gun violence through prayer, pastoral care, creating space, and encouraging survivors to share their stories, financial assistance, and through identifying other resources in their communities as victims of gun violence and their families walk through the process of grieving and healing.
  3. For individual United Methodists who own guns as hunters or collectors to safely and securely store their guns and to teach the importance of practicing gun safety.
  4. For United Methodist congregations that have not experienced gun violence to form ecumenical and interfaith partnerships with faith communities that have experienced gun violence in order to support them and learn from their experiences.
  5. For United Methodist congregations to lead or join in ecumenical or interfaith gatherings for public prayer at sites where gun violence has occurred and partner with law enforcement to help prevent gun violence.
  6. For United Methodist congregations to partner with local law-enforcement agencies and community groups to identify gun retailers that engage in retail practices designed to circumvent laws on gun sales and ownership, encourage full legal compliance, and to work with groups like Heeding God’s Call that organize faith-based campaigns to encourage gun retailers to gain full legal compliance with appropriate standards and laws.
  7. For United Methodist congregations to display signs that prohibit carrying guns onto church property.
  8. For United Methodist congregations to advocate at the local and national level for laws that prevent or reduce gun violence. Some of those measures include:
  • Universal background checks on all gun purchases
  • Ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty
  • Ensuring all guns are sold through licensed gun retailers
  • Prohibiting all individuals convicted of violent crimes from purchasing a gun for a fixed time period
  • Prohibiting all individuals under restraining order due to threat of violence from purchasing a gun
  • Prohibiting persons with serious mental illness, who pose a danger to themselves and their communities, from purchasing a gun
  • Ensuring greater access to services for those suffering from mental illness
  • Establishing a minimum age of 21 years for a gun purchase or possession
  • Banning large-capacity ammunition magazines and weapons designed to fire multiple rounds each time the trigger is pulled
  • Promoting new technologies to aid law-enforcement agencies to trace crime guns and promote public safety.”

ADOPTED 2016

See Social Principles, ¶ 162.

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church – 2016. Copyright © 2016 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

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

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!”