2020 Annual Conference Episcopal Address

We have come this far by faith

In a moment,
Everything we knew as normal, was not normal;
Everything we knew as typical, was no longer typical;
Everything we knew how to do in ministry, changed.
Our world, relationships and ministry were all turned upside down.

We had a choice, isolate and be paralyzed, or seize new technologies, new ways of being in relationship, new ways of ministry that included how we worship, gather in small groups, serve others, make new disciples and give generously. Within two weeks of being confined to our homes, 500 congregations, led by courageous pastors and congregational leaders, changed how they would be the church of Jesus Christ in Greater New Jersey.

We have come this far by faith and there is no turning back. We have been called for such a time as this and in the midst of changes, we are transforming ministry and lives.

Because of our deep and abiding faith in God through Jesus Christ, when the world turned upside down, we stood up and stayed faithful to our core values and mission – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Crisis led us to deeper conviction, and our conviction turned into courage.

The cross has two sides, one side representing sacrifice and the other resurrection. In the midst of the crisis, you became the cross, making sacrifices, which is leading to resurrection and renewed hope.

We have come this far by faith and we are not turning back. We have been called to be the cross, sacrificing and releasing God’s resurrection power.

When COVID-19 raced across the world and our nation, GNJ leadership deliberately and swiftly moved $5 million to provide congregations with a four-month shared ministry apportionment holiday, to provide grants for emergency food, and to help people in our communities pay utilities, and grants for congregational expenses including clergy salaries and benefits. GNJ through sacrifice, is witnessing a great resurrection, and hope is being reborn. Here are a few signs of the resurrected Christ among us.

  • Our churches expanded their feeding programs to meet the rising needs of people in our communities, and we are now are giving away 20,000 meals a month.
  • We gave $1 million to congregations and Hope Centers for new ministries and to continue to grow our mission.
  • We assisted congregations and GNJ ministries to complete Payroll Protection Program (PPP) applications, which led to more than $8 million in financial assistance through the PPP.
  • We moved Next Generation Ministries online to engage young people in new ways.
  • We opened our sixth college campus ministry at The College of New Jersey through the Trinity United Methodist church in Ewing. Friends, we opened a college campus ministry during the pandemic.
  • By all accounts we are achieving one of our most important goals, no spread of COVID-19 through United Methodist activity. Thank you for the precautions you are taking.
  • We developed and are proposing to this annual conference session, A Journey of Hope plan to end the sin of racism as part of our ministry and mission. This plan is essential for our vitality and disciple-making.
  • And I am here to share good news with you today. We have received a $1 million grant to assist with our work in ending the sin of racism. Yes, that is right, a $1 million grant from the Lily Endowment Inc. to GNJ. Praise God!

We are able to do these things with God’s help and the strong leadership of clergy, laity and staff. Everyone is stepping forward to lead courageously through our current challenges and support one another. Crisis deepened conviction, and conviction gave rise to courage. You sacrificed, and God is resurrecting.

We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in the Holy Word, and we can’t turn around, we’ve come this far by faith.

 While we have made strong progress, three challenges seek to deter us, even frighten us and cause doubt among us. These are real challenges, and we must face them with even deeper conviction and courage. As we face these challenges, God will strengthen us for the journey ahead.

The first challenge is grief and sadness.

  • The death of loved ones, including members of our clergy has been doubly hard during COVID-19 because of the number of people who died, and the reality that we could not be with them in their passing hours as well as the difficulty that we could not honor and celebrate their lives as we would like.
  • The pandemic has hastened the closing of churches. Sixteen churches are to be voted on to close this year, seven of which were pushed to this point by COVID-19.
  • A number of leaders are struggling with fatigue as they continue to work with new technology, and now a number of pastors face the dual challenge of reopening buildings and continuing their online communities.

Today we mourn the loss of more than 200,000 people in the United States and more than one million around the world. You Lord are our Shepherd, we shall not want, you lead us by green pastures, you lead us beside still waters, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will not fear, you God you are with us, your staff comforts us.

The second challenge we face is ministry in a strange land.

  • After moving to online worship, we experienced an initial surge in worship attendance in April and May. People need God in times like these. But now, attendance is leveling off and is even declining in more than 50% of our congregations.
  • Transitioning to in-person worship is difficult. In most cases we are seeing less than 30% of our worshipers attending in-person worship once it reopens.
  • Uncertainties within the denomination continue to disrupt the mission in some of our congregations. We may need to look at what steps we can take to help congregations and clergy get to the next place of where God is calling them, particularly in light of a real possibility that there will not be a General Conference in 2021 because of the pandemic and we are a global body meaning visas will not be available.

In the midst of ministry in a strange land, Jeremiah speaks to us and says, Seek the well-being, the shalom of the community right where you are, for in its shalom you will find your shalom. God did not bring us to this place for our destruction, but for a future with hope (Jeremiah 29: 7 and 11).

Ministry will be different when COVID-19 is defeated. We cannot turn back. We will not be able to resume a pre-COVID-19 ministry like a pandemic never occurred. People will expect online options for worshiping, gathering in small groups and engaging in meetings. Digital ministry will be an important component of developing leaders, making disciples of Jesus Christ and growing vital congregations for the transformation of the world. We are committed to assist leaders and congregations to adapt to the new and emerging future ministry.

The third challenge we are facing is ending the sin of racism. This year we have witnessed again the deep pain, division, violence, riots, oppression and even death.

Black lives matter. Racism from its beginning is rooted in perpetuating a lie, that some people because of the color of their skin do not matter, that they are not fully human. This lie has been perpetuated against Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics/Latinx and Asians.

I invite White people to remember with me a time when you felt that you did not matter, you didn’t count, that you were less than, even less than human. Remember how it felt. Remember what it did to your very soul. Well now just imagine if this was your experience day after day, month after month, year after year, generation after generation. This is the experience of People of Color.

Any time someone does not see that others matter just like you do, it is an indictment against our Creator God. An indictment that the Creator was flawed in creating humanity. Racism ultimately is a sin against God. It is a complete turning away from God.

A Journey of Hope plan urgently calls us to work together to end the sin of racism in GNJ. Many are already on the journey and have made progress in their congregations, homes and communities. Keep making progress. There is more work to do. I call all of us to follow the scriptures,

In Christ there is neither, neither Greek nor Jew, bound nor free, male nor female. With God there is neither, lessor than or more important than, we are all one in Christ, we are all of sacred worth. -Galatians 3:28

We can’t turn around and go back to a view held by white supremacists, to the rhetoric and behavior that oppresses; we must press on, we’ve come this far by faith and there is still more journey for us to travel.

The challenges of grief, ministering in a new land and racism are real and cannot be denied nor neglected. We all are called to work together and support one another. This will require compassion and sympathy as people lose loved ones and congregations close. It will require empathy and support for leaders who are learning new skills, who are frustrated by the pandemic because they cannot be in person to visit the sick, preach the Good News and counsel the hurting. And we need to be strong and courageous and act together to end the sin of racism.

This is hard work, but I have never seen the people of GNJ shy away from hard work. You have been strong in the face of the winds of Superstorm Sandy, you have faced down a pandemic and are leading forward, you are choosing to be an equitable, inclusive and just church – you are difference makers. You are sacrificing and releasing God’s resurrection. This is no time to turn around, it is time for bold, risk-taking courageous faith following the cross of Jesus Christ that will lead us forward. God is with you and will not let you go.

We have come this far by faith, we can’t turn around, we will journey together for what God has next for GNJ. God Bless you all. Amen.