Have you ever looked into a kaleidoscope in a dimly lit room? Not very fascinating or inspiring. But then you hold it up to the light and the colors and shapes came alive. Imagination is having enough light to see God’s unfolding story for the church in all of its hues and shapes. That light is the light of Jesus Christ, illuminating our way to a future with hope.
In 2013, together through our strategic ministry plan, we imagined a God-sized future for The United Methodist Church of Greater New Jersey and God has not disappointed us. This vision and strategic ministry plan are rooted and growing in our congregations. All across the conference, congregations are going deeper and further to develop worship, small groups, mission engagement, making new disciples and generous giving.
Morristown UMC is an example of who we are becoming in GNJ and how vital congregations are pursuing God’s call. Morristown has a rich tradition that is exploring what God has next for them. This primarily Anglo congregation has a Korean pastor and is starting a Hispanic ministry. Together they have engaged in Team Vital, assessed their congregation and community, grown their small group ministry to 17 groups and launched a new Hispanic ministry on Pentecost Sunday.
Morristown UMC along with many other congregations are the reason Greater New Jersey moved from the middle of the pack in vitality to number four, and why we had the second highest increase in vitality among conferences in the United States. Come, imagine with me what more God wants to do through your congregation.
We imagined a God-sized goal of starting 90 new faith communities by 2018. Now that’s imagination.
In the last 10 months we chartered a new Ghanaian congregation with more than 200 singing and dancing worshipers, and we engaged a new Egyptian faith community that now has more than 60 worshipers. It is our second GNJ Egyptian congregation.
Conference leaders also recently met with a group of young people that are preparing to launch Greenhouse, a new faith community that will be a second site of Calvary Korean Church. I imagine Greenhouse will be worshiping with more than 200 new disciples in the near future.
Since 2013, we have started 24 faith communities. Come, let us together imagine starting another 40-60 faith communities.
We imagined a God-sized ministry after Superstorm Sandy that would renew, repair and rebuild houses, communities and lives. We are renewing Frank and Mary Ellen Azack’s lives. Both have health concerns and found that after the storm their home could not be repaired and had to be torn down. They did not know where to turn.
When we learned of their plight, our A Future With Hope Ministry turned their frustration and pain into joy. When God is involved, weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5), weeping may tarry during the storm, but joy comes when A Future With Hope shows up.
This week, we are setting a new home on their property. Joy showed up this morning for the Azack’s.
Through our A Future With Hope Ministry, GNJ has now worked with 441 families, teamed up with 11,004 volunteers, and repaired or built 234 homes. Through A Future With Hope, we created one of the most robust and resilient organizations that is one of the last organizations on the ground working with families recovering from Sandy.
In 2013, I shared with you that United Methodists were one of the first on the scene after Superstorm Sandy, and we would be one of the last still working to repair, rebuild and renew homes, families, and communities.
As United Methodists, we cannot imagine people who need help going without help, people who need hope going without hope. When people hurt, GNJ United Methodists helps. Come, together let us imagine what God has next for us.
Today, I announce what’s next for our A Future With Hope Ministry. We are preparing to resource and support you through Hope Centers. We anticipate that our Sandy relief and recovery ministry will come to an end in 2017. This has been a remarkable ministry, and we developed capacity and resources that are recognized in the region and across the nation.
Instead of disbanding this ministry and organization, we will retool and use our current capacity to create Hope Centers to provide training, strategic community planning, and develop affordable housing.
While A Future With Hope began through a tragedy, it has become a force for hope and renewal. While it began in Sandy-damaged communities, it will be an organization that will now work with churches that want to extend and deepen their mission in any community in GNJ.
I am excited about Hope Centers that will provide community development and human services in the name of Jesus Christ. It will work through our congregations and church sponsored community centers.
We are presently developing a joint venture with C.A.M.P. YDP, a community center started by a United Methodist pastor 60 years ago and is supported by GNJ and a number of our congregations. A new partnership will emerge in which GNJ, A Future With Hope, and Hope Centers will work together, so more mission and ministry is happening in the community. This is imagination, and I am grateful for the leaders of A Future With Hope and GNJ for shedding light on what God has next for us.
I can imagine at least five Hope Centers in every county which will create more than 100 Hope Centers throughout GNJ.
We have been imagining the congregation as the primary source of mission. We have focused GNJ resources on making disciples and growing vital congregations to transform the world. We said we will do everything we can to keep more dollars in the congregation. For three years in a row, we kept the Shared Ministry budget flat or decreased it.
The Council on Finance and Administration has proposed a 2017 budget that again decreases the Shared Ministries budget. By not increasing or even decreasing the shared ministry budget for four years, we saved the churches $1,407,000. Imagine that!
We developed and are implementing new resources for our leaders through coaching, PaCE groups, Team Vital, Communities of Hope, and The Laity Academy.
We implemented all of these resources and lowered the Shared Ministry budget while paying 100% General Church Apportionment for the ninth year in a row. Now that’s imagination.
This type of imagination is saving our churches $1,407,000. Come, imagine with me how God will continue powerful and life changing ministry, keeping more of the financial resources in the congregation.
While we are speaking of money, which God uses to make disciples and grow vital congregations to transform the world, let’s not forget what we are doing through our Mission Fund.
We have raised $5.5 million and with it, we have repaired 234 homes, cut deaths from malaria in half and supported community mission through our congregations. It is most astounding that The United Methodist Church, one of the first three partners in the fight against malaria, which now has more than 100 partners, has cut deaths by malaria in half.
Our efforts are saving nearly one million people a year, sometimes just through a bed net. Let’s continue to work together and imagine cutting deaths from malaria in half again and again and again until people are no longer suffering and dying from malaria. With God’s help and your gifts, we can do this.
We also imagine how to do things better to support our laity, clergy, and congregations. I already mentioned how coaching, PaCE groups, Team Vital, Communities of Hope and the Laity Academy are serving the mission.
We have strengthened our Foundation and assets under management will grow to more than $20 million this year.
We are also making our larger events like the Annual Conference session, IGNITE and Bishop’s Clergy Convocation, a better experience. This year more than 90% of you had your Pre-Conference Journal one month before Annual Conference. IGNITE registrations started at the end of last year, and we expect to have more than 1,000 students attend IGNITE this year.
We are offering outstanding learning experiences like The Coach Approach to Ministry, Leading Through Conflict, and the clergy transition workshop. We have also seen our communications ministry create new resources and improve our existing resources. We are not the only ones to notice. The United Methodist Association of Communicators gave five awards to GNJ. These awards were for the advertisements we placed on NJ Transit buses during Lent last year that directed people to our local churches, and for the design of nametags for Annual Conference, which saved us money in production costs and is now being duplicated by other conferences across the country.
We are not imagining how to do things better for awards, but to do things with excellence for God. We want to further our mission to make disciples and grow vital congregations to transform the world. We believe excellence attracts excellence and we strive for excellence, because we serve a great God.
Six years ago we imagined a new conference center that would be a resource for GNJ mission and ministry. While the church is consolidating, while many conferences are cutting resources, while many within the church are saying we need to conserve, we heeded the words of Isaiah, who prophesied in a very difficult time. “Stretch out your tent,” he told the people, “drive the stakes deeper, and lengthen the tent cords.”
Our new Mission and Resource Center is a testimony that God is not done with us yet. God’s imagination far exceeds what we see, and God is willing to light the way. The building came in slightly under budget, and the $5 million project is paid for. The $5 million project is paid for!
The vision for this new facility is already creating mission and ministry opportunities. We have started a new partnership with Drew University, and this fall a seminary course will be taught at the Mission and Resource Center. Imagine with me the possibilities that we will open as we become a satellite campus for one of the premier theological schools.
I see hope rising across GNJ, and I imagine a God-sized vision and ministry in which hope springs eternal out of our congregations and into our communities. God is doing a new thing, an important thing among us. Come imagine what God has for us next.
While imagining what God has for us next, we cannot deny we have present and future challenges. We experience here at home and have witnessed at General Conference that there are deep differences among us.
It is painful, and it is unsettling. It creates fear and talk of division and even separation. It moves some to the edges and others to the center. I do not want to mislead you. This is serious. At the core, we have different understandings of how to interpret the Bible. Can we serve God together knowing there are sharp differences among us?
The movement of God has never depended on our agreement with one another but our willingness to unite to serve God.
Do you think the family that sleeps under a United Methodist malaria bed net wonders what side of an issue we are on?
Do you think the Azack’s, who we are building a new home for, care whether we are to the left of the right on an issue?
Do you think the children at C.A.M.P. YDP, who have a place to go to because we stepped into the breach, care about our vote on a particular issue?
I dare say no in each of these cases. When they saw and experienced the love of Jesus in us, all differences melted away.
Look at all God has done through us. Growing congregational vitality, repairing 234 homes, creating new faith communities, cutting deaths from malaria in half, building a new Mission and Resource Center, and reducing the shared ministry budget. This happens because God is at work through us in the midst of our differences.
It happened because the disciples of GNJ agreed to be hope for the hopeless, love for the loveless, relief for those in the midst of disaster and faith for those who doubt.
Did we first ask the hopeless, the loveless and those in the midst of disaster if they agreed with us? No! Our engagement with others only depended on our love for God and our love for one another.
History tells us we are stronger together than we are on our own. Imagination tells us we are better, more excellent for God when we imagine together.
In no way does this negate that on a few things we have sharp disagreements, but it is a witness that we are willing to allow God to work through us in the midst of differences. Our unity will not be uniformity but faithful commitment to God and scripture, allowing for difference.
I pledge to be a bishop of the whole church and for all the people. Our mission is too important to pick and choose who we serve. You are too valuable to God and to me to only select you because we share the same beliefs. Every time the church has split, the witness has weakened and the mission has suffered. Every time a congregation leaves the denomination, we all hurt and we all grieve.
In the last four years, three congregations contemplated or left the denomination. It is one of the most troubling experiences for me as a bishop. These are hard conversations and they are spiritual conversations bathed in prayer and discernment.
In all things, I seek to glorify God and seek reconciliation and oneness in Christ. These are prayerful and spiritual journeys.
In the midst of differences, our clergy also have a very difficult challenge in leading the church today. I want us all to pray for and support our pastors as they seek to serve God, the church and the community.
I also call our pastors to refrain from harsh judgment, leave that for God. Refrain from being certain, leave room for mystery and faith. Love your people even when they do not show love for you. There is nothing more Christ-like than to love when you are misunderstood.
I can imagine us becoming a church in which the world admires us not because we agree but because we love each other in the midst of our disagreements. Then we will have truly become like the variety of disciples Jesus gathered, like the peaceable kingdom Isaiah describes, like the Shalom community Jeremiah depicts, and like the kingdom of God that Jesus inspires us to become.
As we live the words of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Jesus, we have a greater possibility to tackle some of the deep challenges we are facing. The following are challenges that we will need to pray, imagine and work together to address.
- While our vitality is increasing, we are decreasing in worship attendance. This may mean that we are going deeper, and it will be some time before we start to grow wider again.
- We imagine a greater and larger mission than we have capacity, people, systems and dollars to do.
- There are injustices that we must address. Last annual conference session we committed to learn about incarceration and how laws and attitudes have used privilege to disadvantage African Americans and Latinos particularly. We have held a joint criminal justice reform forum with Senator Cory Booker. The cabinet and others have studied the book, “The New Jim Crow” to broaden our understanding of these issues. I have sought to learn by traveling throughout the conference, meeting with prison personnel, inmates, judges, lawyers and police officers. We have offered PaCE groups about incarceration. There is still more for us to learn and do. This afternoon together we will reflect on these issues and white privilege.
- The final challenge I would like to lift up is that we are discontinuing churches. At this Annual Conference session, we will close five churches. Last session we discontinued five churches. The study we commissioned to develop our strategic plan indicated that we will discontinue 20-30% of our congregations within the next 20 years.
In the midst of these challenges, let’s talk about how we will imagine something different. Something different than closing churches. Something other than allowing injustice that rises out of privilege. Something more than declining worship. Let’s talk about how to build our capacity to catch up to the big vision and mission we continue to imagine. Let’s talk about how we build a church and community for all people.
We have already begun to imagine, pray and work together, and we see the results. In 2013 we imagined a new future through our strategic ministry plan and today while we have significant challenges, we are making progress on our plan and addressing our challenges. Let’s review how we are doing to achieve our strategic plan goals. We said by the end of 2018 we wanted to accomplish nine goals:
- Increase the percentage of churches growing in worship attendance from 32% to 51%. Today 30% of our churches are growing. This is a concern for the health and vitality of GNJ. We have important work to do together.
- Start 90 new faith communities. We have started 24. This is a good start and with God’s help, we can achieve this goal.
- Decrease the number of worshipers it takes to make a new profession of faith from 17 to 15. We have slipped on this one and are at 18 worshipers to make one profession of faith.
- Increase the percentage of worshipers in small groups from 43% to 75%. We have already exceeded this goal.
- Increase the number of young adults in small groups from 2,800 to 3,200. Today we stand at almost 2,900. There is work for us to do.
- Increase our racial ethnic members from 20% to 25%. We now stand at 21%. There is more work for us to do.
- Increase the percentage of worshipers engaged in mission from 8% to 40%. We have already exceeded this goal.
- Increase local church dollars spent on mission 15% to 17% of their budget. We exceeded this goal and are in the top 10conferences in our denomination.
- Raise $12 million through a mission campaign. We have raised $5.5 million which is a tremendous start and has exceeded many expectations.
On five of our nine goals, we have exceeded or made strong progress. With God’s help and every congregation working to grow vitality, we will see growth in the other four by 2018.
We are also making progress on a strategy and action steps to develop greater cultural competence throughout GNJ, addressing injustices and recruiting more transformational leaders to grow vital congregations.
I imagine in the future, every time we discontinue a church somewhere, we will start a new Hope Center and also start a new faith community. Beginning two new ministries for every church we discontinue. While we may not be able to turn every congregation around, we will imagine new possibilities through Hope Centers and new faith communities.
We have imagined and made strong progress. We are experiencing renewal in our congregations and the lives of people. We have made progress on our goals, built a new Mission and Resource Center, repaired more than 230 Sandy-damaged homes, reduced deaths from malaria, reduced the shared ministry budget, welcomed a new Ghanaian Congregation and an Egyptian faith community, and became one of the most vital United Methodist Conferences.
GNJ in the midst of very challenging times is making progress because this is a movement of the Holy Spirit that has been bathed in prayer each step of the way. We are seeing and experiencing transformational leaders throughout GNJ, we have a clear plan and focus, there is greater trust throughout GNJ, and we are using our resources in alignment with our mission and strategic plan. Our future course is to continue the good work we are doing and strengthen our other areas of ministry.
When we do all of this, God sightings emerge from unsuspecting sources and in unsuspecting places. Doug Card is a councilperson in Highlands New Jersey; a town hit hard by Superstorm Sandy. He met a man in town this year who had no way to rebuild his home. The man needed a total rebuild and didn’t have the resources. He had multiple sclerosis and struggled with health concerns. Doug told him about our A Future With Hope.
Today the man has a new modular home built by United Methodists.
Councilman Card told this story to Nicole Caldwell-Gross, Director of Mission for Greater New Jersey because she is leading the Community of Hope training with the Highlands church and community.
Highlands, under the leadership of Pastor Jill Hubbard Smith and seven laity, is one of our first Communities of Hope. They have been trained and have a plan for revitalizing their community. Their imagination and clear plan have attracted members of the town council, the president of the chamber of commerce, the chairs of the Garden Club, the recreation committee, the art society, and 100 other community leaders and residents to work with the congregation.
Councilman Card, who is not a United Methodist but we are working on him, said: “A Future With Hope and the Highland’s Community of Hope, has no agenda but to help people. This group gets things done and is making a difference.”
As United Methodists, God is giving us all the light we need to see hope, to see an engaged disciple, a vital congregation, and a transformed world.
Like looking through a kaleidoscope, the disciples, the congregations, and transformation will look different in different places. But this I am convinced of: in these places there will be faithful GNJ laity and clergy leading the way.
You are a courageous, imaginative people who are faithful and fruitful. Come, let’s imagine together what God will do next. Thank you and God bless you and your ministry.