Miracles Everywhere – “You are the God who performs miracles, everywhere” – Psalm 77:14
God is in the miracle business, everywhere. Twelve years ago, the United Methodist Church in Union was on the verge of closing their doors. They calculated they had six months before they would run out of money. After failing to find another church to merge with them, they turned their focus to the community and found new life. Today, the UMC in Union has blossomed into a multi-cultural congregation fully connected with the community and they are thriving. They have a renewed mission and enthusiasm. Miracles Everywhere!
Two years ago, it looked as if we would need to close Camp YDP in Paterson but God stepped in and today there are 85 children being served every day. Miracles Everywhere!
For the last three years, GNJ has had to pause its camping ministry for youth. This summer, we have three camps scheduled for young people at Pinelands Center with more than 100 youth from around Greater New Jersey and a vital new NextGen Ministry launched. Miracles Everywhere!
Last night we heard testimony from Heather Valosin who shared her miracle story. Ten years ago, she was told by her doctors that she had a choice. She could have high risk surgery during which she would likely die. OR she could could choose an alternative treatment in which she might die in 48 hours. But God had something different in mind. God broke in with an AND. God broke in with a miracle. Heather had the survey AND thrived. God ordained Heather last year. Miracles are Everywhere!
We serve a God who performs miracles everywhere and wants to do even more miracles through the United Methodists of Greater New Jersey.
I thank God for all the Holy Spirit is doing throughout GNJ. I also thank all our clergy, laity and congregations for your deep desire to allow God to work through you, as together we call and equip transformational leaders to make disciples and grow vital congregations to transform the world. I know God has a great future for us because I see and experience God’s love and power through our leaders and congregations.
Today, we celebrate the Holy Spirit who breathes power, wonder working power, sending GNJ leaders and disciples into the community to stir up faith, hope and justice. We are seeing more and more of these leaders and disciples in our most vital congregations where worship is passionate, small groups are deepening faith and commitment, new disciples are being made, generous giving abounds and community hands-on mission is the norm. GNJ is a leader in growing vital congregations and it shows through the miracles performed everyday by our clergy and laity who lead their congregations to serve Jesus Christ.
Again, for the eleventh year in a row, God enabled us to pay 100% of our General Church apportionments. Our giving is the seeds of miracles in new congregations that are making new disciples in Tanzania, the Ukraine, the Philippines and right here in GNJ. This past year we started a new Hispanic faith community in Morristown, Nuevo Esperanza. It is already thriving – welcoming new disciples of Christ who are looking for miracles in their midst.
We completed a scholarship endowment at Africa University that will ensure future generations of scholar leaders are raised up in Africa for many years to come.
Our giving also builds clinics, works to bring an end to deaths from malaria and educates new leaders in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines.
Through our 13 United Methodist seminaries here in the U.S. we are equipping outstanding leaders, including our own Drew Theological Seminary. I invite everyone who has a degree or is working on a degree from Drew University to stand.
I continue to remind the Drew University Board of Trustees that we are the number one employer of Drew University graduates. I want you to continue to stand. I also want everyone to stand who has a degree from one of our other United Methodist related colleges, universities and seminaries. I also want all our graduates of Black related colleges to stand.
The degrees these friends and colleagues have earned are because of the Wesleyan movement and United Methodist connectional giving which ensures a quality education is available to all people, regardless of race and wealth. It is our 100% apportionment giving to the General Church that makes a difference.
Bishop Mande Muyombo, elected a bishop in 2017, is the first graduate of Africa University to be elected bishop. Africa University, built by The United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe, is training leaders in business, agriculture, theology, education, human services and now, bishops. Let us greet Bishop Muyombo.
GNJ has also been generous and adventurous in raising $17.7 million over the past five years for our Superstorm Sandy recovery and relief efforts. The largest fundraising for a cause in the history of the United Methodists of Greater New Jersey. These funds came from our congregations and UMCOR and they also came from foundations, individuals, corporations, and Major League Baseball. Sometimes we have a hard time believing in The Phillies, Mets and Yankees, but Major League Baseball believes in us. All our funders believed we would make a difference in the lives of people displaced by Superstorm Sandy. And we did.
We have learned a great deal from our Superstorm Sandy ministry and we are passing our knowledge on to others. We have sent people to West Virginia, Florida, Houston and most recently Puerto Rico. A team of five people from GNJ went to Puerto Rico to share about case management, volunteer recruitment and management, construction management and budgeting. We have raised $426,000 so far for hurricane relief, half of which is for Puerto Rico. I am proud to say, that under the leadership of Bishop Hector Ortiz and a talented team, Puerto Rico is further along than we were eight months after the storm. Bishop Ortiz we are grateful for your leadership and the emerging partnership we are developing. Join me in greeting Bishop Ortiz.
All of this is possible because of the leadership of our pastors and the generous giving of our congregations. In the last five years, our giving rate has gone from 78% to 88%. More churches are giving 100% and more churches are getting closer to 100%. Miracles everywhere! Thank you for your generosity.
Celebrate Worship Attendance Growth
Today, we celebrate that GNJ increased worship attendance in 2017. This is a significant accomplishment and a sign that God has a future for us. This growth has occurred because more of our congregations are connecting with the people in the community, using technology to engage people in worship, and creating worship that is inspiring and relevant. In addition, we are starting new faith communities. The Hope congregation in Voorhees recently launched a second site in Mt. Laurel that now has 55 people worshiping. Trinity UMC in Rahway holds a Solid Rock Café with 30 people drinking coffee and praising God on Friday nights. The Tenafly congregation has trained Sunday school teachers to work with autistic children which is reaching more people in the community.
Our future is in our people and that is why growing the number of worshipers is not only important but essential to the mission. Without people, the mission of transforming lives, communities and the world will not be possible.
Celebrate Community Mission
If congregations are growing, but not serving the community, not serving the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, then we are not the church of Jesus Christ.
We have been a force in community change and world transformation in which God has worked through us to create miracles everywhere. We have no further to look than our own A Future With Hope ministry that will complete 271 homes by the end of June and is now launching Hope Centers. So far, we are working with seven Hope Centers with eight more in development. We are on our way to reaching our goal of launching 100 across GNJ. A Future With Hope along with Nehemiah Properties are also assisting seven congregations to repurpose and renew their property into housing and ministry space for the community. Our A Future With Hope organization is working wonders extending our mission so that we are relevant, transformational and impactful.
We are making significant progress because of lay and clergy leadership. Laity are deepening their skills. We are seeing increased interest in and participation at all our lay leadership trainings.
We are also seeing our clergy engaged in PaCE groups, coaching and the Clergy Leadership Development Initiative. Clergy are taking greater risks, knowing that some things will fail, but others will bear fruit. Clergy are willing to talk about the things that are not going well so that we can learn together and share the bright spots in ministry so that we can model each other.
Our leadership programs are beginning to bear fruit. Mosaic Ministries has had 21 young people explore ministry opportunities with 10 now serving full time in GNJ. Two Mosaic graduates, Lakesha Groover and Michael Reed were commissioned last night. Mosaic is also introducing new young leaders to GNJ. Nine Mosaic participants came from other conferences and they decided to stay and serve in GNJ. In the first six months of her appointment to Covenant UMC in Plainfield, Lakesha Groover helped the congregation go from paying 0% to 45% of their billables. In the first 11 months, Covenant UMC has started to increase their worship attendance. Mosaic Miracles!
Clergy recruitment is also bearing fruit. This appointment season we recruited seven clergy, all of whom will be helping us in strategic appointments. Two of them were recruited by their GNJ clergy friends. Miracles through friends!
We also are raising up gifted and promising clergy through our congregations – leaders who have been called from our pews.
God is doing wonders in GNJ evidenced in our mission, leadership, worship and generosity. And God wants to do even more.
Our Path Forward
Our path forward this annual conference could not be clearer. There are five items that the GNJ leadership are inviting you to support and pursue.
- Our first path forward is to approve and carryout our strategic plan. This plan builds on what we have accomplished in the last five years in which we:
- Grew vital congregations
- Grew small groups
- Grew mission
- Increased giving to mission
- Grew worship attendance in 2017
- Launched the Laity Leadership Academy, coaching, PaCE Groups, Team Vital, and Communities of Hope
Amazing accomplishments when some thought it would be just another plan that would sit on the shelf.
The new plan calls us to:
- Develop leaders who make disciples who make disciples
- Work with our congregations to develop disciple making ministries and processes that transform and change people’s lives
- Assist 100 of our congregations to grow from one church size to the next
- Our second path forward is to continue to grow our intercultural competence. We are in the first year of a 10-year plan to increase the intercultural competence of GNJ. Today we have 150 cross racial appointments and 100 multi-cultural congregations. But we do not have to be sick to get better. We can do better at working to end racism and grow a more interculturally competent church. We have started with our Board of Ordained Ministry and Cabinet and plan to move out to the rest of the leadership, clergy and congregations.
- Our third path forward is to develop the next generation of disciples and we are already seeing progress. This summer we will have three camps at Pinelands Center, grow IGNITE to 2,000 students and launch two new campus ministries, one at Drew University and the other at Rutgers. We are on the way to a younger and more diverse group of disciples.
- Path four is to approve the 2019 budget that reduces the percentage we apportion churches so that more resources are available to the local church. These reductions depend on more congregations paying 100% of shared ministry so that the giving rate rises to 91.5%.
- Path five is to approve the Miracles Everywhere Campaign that will raise $5.2 million to build Hope Centers, make new disciples with students, fund new congregations and clergy in Tanzania, and assist with hurricane recovery.
We can do this and more. God wants to do miracles everywhere in GNJ and you are a part of God’s plan. Trusting God and working together we will continue to experience the renewal and turnaround we have been praying for and working toward. I am grateful for your leadership, determination, and hard work.
Current Denominational Challenges
While we know our path forward in GNJ, we face challenges within The United Methodist Church.
While The United Methodist Church approved women’s ordination in 1956, we still have congregations that oppose women clergy and can’t pass constitutional amendments that recognize equality between male and female. While we voted to end segregation of The United Methodist Church in 1968, today, many of our congregations are segregated and we have some congregations opposed to cross- racial appointments. When you talk with these congregations, they point to the Bible and cite passages that seem to allow discrimination against women and people of other races. They cite cultural values over God’s truth.
One of the things I am proud of in GNJ is our diversity of race, ethnicity, language, commitments to social issues, and theology. We have 100 multicultural congregations and 150 cross-racial appointments. We have conservatives, liberals and moderates. We have learned that while we do not all think alike, we love alike, we honor one another and we serve together. For this reason, God has called GNJ to be a leader for our denomination to demonstrate how the church can serve together in the midst of our differences.
The United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations have faced numerous challenges, crises and disagreements over the years. In our current 50-year disagreement about the place and role of gays and lesbians in the life of the church, we are failing to engage in the deeper challenge facing the church — how we read and interpret the scriptures. These issues have led people on both sides of the controversy to misinterpret and misunderstand the deeper challenges in our church.
Understanding and interpreting scripture is not a new challenge. In fact, the Bible as we know it today was not determined to be the Word of God until 405 A.D. It wasn’t until more than 300 years after the deaths of Jesus, Peter and Paul that the church finally agreed which books would make up the New Testament. In other words, the church, during those 300 years, were still discerning what books to include and which books not to include. Interpretation and understanding wasn’t as clear then either.
Difference in understanding has always been a part of the church and will always be a part of the church.
For this reason, I will do a series of articles this fall on Scripture, Myth and Revelation to help clarify these three important Judeo-Christian understandings and how the differences of thought and tradition strengthen us as a church.
The Commission on the Way Forward empowered by the 2016 General Conference discerned three models about the role and participation of gays and lesbians in the church. They are the Traditionalists Plan that seeks to add harsher penalties for gays and lesbians and their heterosexual supporters, The Connectional Conference Plan which seeks to divide the church into three branches: liberal, centrist and conservative, and the One Church Plan that offers local and contextual decision making about how we include gays and lesbians. The One Church Plan is the closest to how we currently live in GNJ.
It may take a miracle to hold our denomination together and so I call each of you to prayerful waiting and Christ-like engagement. The 2019 Special Session of General Conference will discern whether there will be change or no change in our understanding of how we include or exclude gays and lesbians. If there is change, General Conference will discern what is best for the mission and our life together. While I am sure we will not all agree with the 2019 Special General Conference decision, I am convinced that GNJ has the character and commitment to rise above our differences to respect one another, to honor each other’s understandings and to work together.
In our disagreement about the place and role of gays and lesbians in the church, I call all of us to be of one heart in our desire to discern the mind and will of Jesus Christ for the mission and ministry of the church. I call the church to pray for one another and to receive each other as brothers and sisters.
Let us lead the way forward!
Facing into Challenges Within the Culture
If the most pressing challenges we face only turn us inward, then we are lost. The world longs for a moral voice, a compass to navigate the problems of our society.
The challenges of today’s culture can be witnessed in a list of Twitter hashtags:
I hope all our pastors are giving prophetic voice to these challenges in their preaching and teaching. I expect that small groups and Bible studies are using thoughtful materials to understand the systematic oppression that people face within our society and are leaning on Biblical principles to engage our culture’s challenges. Jesus echoed the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” -Luke 4:18-19
The challenges of our time call for a courageous church to be the body of Christ for the world; to recognize the Spirit of the Lord is upon us to make a difference, to be a future with hope, to expect miracles.
Today I believe the Spirit of the Lord is upon us to take up the challenge of our segregated public school system in New Jersey. Our public school system is one of the most segregated in our nation, more segregated than any state public school system in the South. Let me say that again – more segregated than any state public school system in the South.
How can this be? New Jersey has one of the best school systems in the nation and New Jersey is the fourth most diverse state in the nation.
It is the unique nature of how New Jersey is organized into 565 municipalities creating even more school districts coupled with unfair housing patterns. Black and Latino students primarily live in our cities – Atlantic City, Camden, Trenton, Newark, Asbury Park, Paterson and our northern cities along the Hudson River. These urban clusters create a pattern of segregated schools for more than 270,000 Black and Latino students.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us to change these patterns. We know that Black and Latino students who attend integrated schools have higher graduation rates and higher rates of entrance into college. We know that White and Asian students learn better when they are in culturally enriched environments.
Today you will have the opportunity to take a stand to create more integrated school experiences for the Black and Latino students who find themselves in the most segregated schools in New Jersey. You have the opportunity to affirm GNJ’s participation in a lawsuit that can change the future for all students of all backgrounds.
This complaint calls for a change in how we educate students for a more diverse world. We will seek a remedy that continues community-based schools. Families and students who want a more diverse experience may choose magnet schools or voluntary transportation to another school that allows for greater diversity. We are not looking to create forced busing but school choice that allows students and families to choose a more diverse and well-rounded education. A diverse and well-rounded education is in keeping with our Wesleyan principles of education. John Wesley and the Wesleyan movement created more than 100 schools of higher education and secondary schools in the U.S.
For all students, action as a result of this lawsuit will begin to bring an end to segregation and will be an opportunity to receive a better education, a more diverse education and a well-rounded education.
But let’s talk about an important concern. Most of us here today believe that Black and Latino students should have the right to choose to go to an integrated school. Most of us here today would agree that a voluntary system of choosing to go to magnet schools that offer specialties in the arts, sciences, math, etc. is a good thing. But you are wondering, “Can GNJ take on one more controversial issue?” After all, we are determining the future of the church and its way forward.
Here is what I have always found, there is no convenient time for justice. There is no right time for the church to be engaged in mission, justice and mercy. This is God’s time for us to act. God is not waiting for us to get our polity in order. God is calling us to be the church of Jesus Christ today not for when it is convenient for us. Students need us today, not after our special session of the 2019 General Conference. You may say, we might not have a United Methodist Church next year. I tell you we do not have a United Methodist Church today unless we engage in the hard challenges of our time. This is God’s time and this is our time to act. Let GNJ lead the way.
Lead on for justice. Lead on to start new faith communities. Lead on to make the next generation of disciples. Lead on to grow vital congregations. Lead on to be one church. Lead on to grow our diversity and to be culturally competent. Lead on to proclaim that God wants women to lead men. Lead on to end segregation in our schools. Lead on! Hope on! God is ready to do miracles everywhere! Lead on!
Thank you and may God bless our future.