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

Moving Beyond our Fears and Uncertainties

I was in a conversation the other day with some friends and I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but we started talking about fears.  Most of us had one or more of the fairly common types, heights, snakes, enclosed places, and it was interesting to listen and watch the animation that went along with each description to understand the depth of our struggles.

It seems like there is a lot to fear these days.  Beyond the phobias I was discussing with my friends, there is a lot of uncertainty around us and that often breeds fear.  There are fears related to gun violence and there are fears related to terrorism.  There are fears related to international relations and the threats of nuclear confrontation.  There are also fears in many of our churches.

We are declining, we are struggling financially, we are not sure what will happen as we move into the 2019 special General Conference, we are not sure what’s next.  And in the midst of any and all of these fears it is easy to move to a place of debility.  It’s easy to move to a place where our fears rule our actions and we move into a reactive, protective mode and I understand that emotion and desire.  We want something safe we want assurance that in the midst of our fears it will be OK.

As people of faith we have that assurance.  Faith is not a panacea.  It doesn’t wipe out our fear and it doesn’t magically do away with the issues behind our fears.  But our faith does enable us to see our fears from a different place, and from a different perspective.  Our faith in God who is always working for good, who is the essence of good, and who is acting, both in our world and in us, to bring forward that good in every circumstance and situation, our faith in God enables us to see and move beyond our fears.

Knowing who God is helps us to engage our fears with hope and with purpose knowing that God is working with us to see God’s Kingdom come on earth even as it is in heaven.  Faith in God, evidenced so perfectly in Christ Jesus, empowers us to live differently.  Not in denial of the situation, not simply believing that God will just somehow fix it all apart from us, but rather knowing that God is with us working for good in the midst of our very real fears and knowing that even if our worst fears are realized it is not the end, but in God there is always a step forward.

Jesus promise put it so well in John 16:33, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

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

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

Having Pure Motives

I just finished watching again the last episode of one of my all-time favorite TV shows. I have seen it a number of times but every time it grabs me. Every time it brings a tear to my eye. The show is about people with pure motives. It is about high ideals. It is about loving truth and standing on principle and accomplishing good. The show stirs me even though I know the episodes well.

I think story that taps into our emotions like that, story that affects us and touches us to the core of our passion for that which is right and decent, respectable and uplifting, connects us to God, it connects us to Gospel. Whether we realize it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not story, good story, real true story, connects us to God and Gospel.

Art is the same, as it captures us in its magnificence. The beauty of creation is the same as it takes our breath away causing us to simply stand without speech, and marvel at what is before us. It joins us to the wonder of God.

I am not suggesting that these things, story, art, creation, and a host of others we could mention, are God, they are not. But they are all connected to God, they are expressions of God, they are − I dare say − opportunities to experience and encounter God. And all these things remind me that God is so much bigger than the little boxes in which we try to put God.

God is good. God is every good. God is all good. And when we see good, when we experience good, when we live good, it all connects us to God. Yes, God is bigger than the greatest good we have ever seen or experienced, but good is always, in whatever form, an expression of God and a means of grace.

When I finished watching my show this evening, my heart was full. So much turning out right. Even the painful was muted by the characters’ care of one another. And as I watched I was again reminded that I so much want the world to be like that.

You can call me naive and you can call me foolish, you can call me whatever you would like, but I do believe that the vast majority of my mission as a follower of Jesus is to bring good wherever I can. To bring good to my family with the words I use and the way I act. The way I listen and the way I behave. To bring good to my work with simple acts of respect for all people and a movement day by day away from self- centeredness towards humility (I have a significant way to go on all these!). To bring good by standing up for the needs of the few not just the many, to side with those who hold the short end of the stick in virtually every measure of success.

Friends, I want to live out the goodness of God. Like story and art and creation, I want my life to be a reflection of the good God wants the world to see and experience. I want to be, in a world of pain and hurt and violence and injustice…GOOD! I want to live out grace. I have a long way to go, but I believe it’s what I am called to be and where I’m called to go. Anybody want to go with me?

Peace,
Bill

What About Me?

What about me?!  What about my side?!  What about my team, my people, my perspective, WHAT ABOUT ME!!?

This sentiment gets expressed in so many ways doesn’t it?

It certainly got expressed to my parents as I was growing up when I thought my sisters were getting something I wasn’t.  How unfair, unjust it was when they got the larger piece of cake or the extra half hour up before bed time.  But of course, like most children, I got that turnabout reality parents often receive when I had to hear those same complaints from my kids when Robin and I made similar decisions affecting them!

I hear similar sentiments now as a Superintendent sometimes when our VCI teams identify the need for churches to focus on outreach and the people who aren’t in the church yet.  The response is so often, “what about me!  What about my desires and preferences?”

My mind was drawn to this issue this past week as I heard the news reports of the Muslim worshipers targeted by the driver of a car in London.  I went there in my head because as I heard the story of the attack, I was reminded of some voices I have heard over the last year both on social media and in other arenas claiming that when the Muslim community is the target, the media and others get all upset and report the tragedy in significant ways, but you “don’t hear anything about Christians who are persecuted.”   “What about me”, “What about us” has been a response I have heard from some circles.

Of course the reality is that any persecution is incredibly tragic and painful and so far from what any genuine person of any faith would seek.  But as a follower of Christ it seems to me that my last response to another’s pain ought to be “what about me, what about my pain?”  As followers of Jesus we are constantly called to put others above ourselves, to see the need of the one we might lift up.  So when our response is self-focused, when we constantly clamor for our rights, pointing out how poorly we have been treated in whatever setting or circumstance, it often causes us to miss the opportunity to care for the needs of the other.

Many of Jesus teachings identify clearly our calling to be the ones who don’t look for places where we might have been missed, overlooked, or supposedly discounted.  Jesus instead invites us to let go of score keeping and become the servants of all.  Oh I know, it’s not easy for us.  It takes a real focus and lots of prayer to get there.  And I for one have a long way to go.  But spending our lives in “what about me” mode is the opposite of the way our faith invites us to live.  In fact I think Jesus said something about those who cling to their lives, their “rights,” their privilege, and those who instead give their lives away, giving themselves up on behalf of others.  I believe his suggestion is that genuine happiness and purpose come from the latter, and deep loss from the former.

You can check for yourself, but I’m pretty sure that’s what he said.

Peace,
Bill

Creating A New Michigan Conference

Well, it’s about to begin! I’m writing from Traverse City where we are preparing for Annual Conference. Close to 2000 United Methodist’s from across Michigan will gather to take significant steps on the road to becoming the Michigan Conference.

The Design Team has worked for almost two years now and is bringing nearly two hundred pages of legislation to the Conference. The legislation creates a structure built around the mission of the new Annual Conference to empower Christ Centered Mission and Ministry – Bold Effective Leaders and – Vibrant Congregations. The legislation continues the technical and sometimes legal work of bringing together the present two Conferences into the one new Conference. The Legislation enables us to move into this next year poised to take the steps necessary to be ready for the new thing God is doing in Michigan.

I am excited about this week. I am excited about the worship we will participate in together. I’m excited about the opportunities we will have to learn new things that will help us in our ministries. I’m excited about the opportunity this Conference will provide to meet more new friends from the other side of the state. I’m excited because in the midst of questions and the constant uncertainty of the future, we are seeking to do a new thing.

May God continue to guide and empower our efforts.

Peace,
Bill

2017 Michigan Area Annual Conference
Michigan Area Design Team