Dear Friends in Christ,
I greet you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I have just returned from the Council of Bishops’ meeting and want to update you on three matters we discussed.
- General Conference
- Racism, Colonialism, Tribalism and Privilege
- Church Trials Against the LGBTQ+ Community
Before I turn to these items, I want to share with you one of my great joys from attending Council of Bishops meetings. The Council of Bishops is made up of 66 bishops leading annual conferences and an additional 70+ retired bishops. During meal times and at other times, I have the opportunity to meet with bishops one to one or in small group conversations. This past week I had the opportunity to fellowship with bishops from the Congo, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Puerto Rico, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, Northern Illinois, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Tennessee, Eastern Pennsylvania, New York, Boston, Florida and North Carolina.
These were rich conversations as I learned about the mission and ministry in places all around the world. My friend and colleague Bishop Unda Yemba shared with me the story of traveling a thousand miles to a remote village in the Congo where he was the first bishop of any denomination to visit the area since 1964. A stretch of the road was not passable by car, and so when the villagers heard a bishop was coming, they repaired and widened the road so that a car could reach the village. Children who had never seen a car before ran through the village alerting the villagers that “a house on wheels” was coming into the village. People from all denominations greeted and celebrated the bishop’s arrival and testified to the great work God was doing there. Praise God!
I also talked with a pastor from Houston who described a ministry with 600 youth that was transforming lives through poetry, an alternative school and youth development. Praise God!
God is doing great things through The United Methodist Church, and the shared ministries apportionments that we give to the General Church makes all this possible. Thank you for your generosity. Thank you for allowing me to share with you just a couple of the many wonderful things that United Methodists are doing.
There is deep concern about the next general conference session in May 2020 and rightly so. The differences in the church continue to seek a way forward, making it challenging to find resolution to our ministry with the LGBTQ+ community. What we know is that more than 70 percent of United Methodists in Europe, Asia and Africa want to move forward the traditionalist plan, which calls for tougher restrictions and penalties for those who are LGBTQ+ or those sharing in weddings. And there are more than 70 percent of United Methodists from the United States that want to eliminate the restrictions and penalties.
At the next General Conference there is legislation that calls for dividing the denomination into four different denominations, another to divide into three different denominations, another to regionalize the church around the world allowing the United States and other regions to self-govern, and lastly there is legislation to develop additional penalties.
I will continue to lead GNJ as you requested in 800 conversations and the survey, not to divide the church but to lead, providing room for all congregations to thrive and live with their convictions.
The bishops also heard from the secretary of the General Conference, Rev. Gary Graves about plans for the May 2020 General Conference session. We were also made aware that the General Commission of the General Conference ruled the disaffiliation legislation allowing congregations to leave the denomination with their property that passed by two votes null and void because of illegal voting. The judicial council did not rule on the issue of illegal voting, and as of now the disaffiliation legislation is null and void.
Rev. Graves shared that new procedures will be put in place to ensure the policy that delegates not elected by their annual conference will not be able to vote. This raises serious concerns for me. It is not unusual for delegates from Africa to be denied visas. It can also be a challenge for bishops to attain a visa to come to the United States. General Conference delegates often have to travel hundreds of miles to the U.S. embassy in their country, having to make several trips to attain a visa. Often there is no reason given why a U.S. visa is declined, or sometimes the visa is granted after the General Conference session. At the last General Conference half of one delegation could not get a visa, and a number of individuals from other African delegations could not get a visa. I understand why bishops in several countries invited non-elected representatives so that African annual conferences could be fully represented. Being a global church is challenging, and sometimes we need to make accommodations.
Racism, Colonialism, Tribalism and Privilege
The bishops spent two days in conversation with one another about how we will address and work to end racism, colonialism, tribalism and privilege in our own lives and leadership and also within the church. It was heartbreaking to hear stories of how bishops have been treated because of their race. Systemic oppression exists in the world and in the church. We treat people differently and do harm through our words and actions that oppress people of color. I am thankful for the work we are doing and our 10-year commitment to end racism and privilege and develop intercultural competence. I am also proud that GNJ participated in filing a lawsuit to desegregate New Jersey schools. While there is still a lot we can do in GNJ, we are helping to lead the way in creating equity for all.
Church Trials Against the LGBTQ+ Community
The bishops spent time discussing church trials, recognizing that we lead in different contexts and that the 2019 Traditionalist Plan will be implemented differently in different contexts. A majority of the bishops, approximately two-thirds, covenanted to do everything possible to avoid referring complaints for trial concerning the LGBTQ+ community. I was one of the bishops who joined in this covenant. As I shared at our special annual conference session, church trials harm everyone and divide the church. I urge us to continue our legacy of seeking to do no harm to the LGBTQ+ community by not filing complaints.
In closing, I had a conversation with our partner conferences’ bishops from Puerto Rico and Tanzania. Both wanted to be remembered to you and thank you for the ongoing support. Bishop Ortiz reports the hurricane recovery work continues to go well, and our Miracles Everywhere funds have made a significant difference along with the volunteer teams we have sent. Bishop Muyomba shares that our pastors’ school, also supported by the Miracles Everywhere Campaign, has had tremendous impact. Two new churches have been started since our pastors’ school. District superintendents report that pastors are using the material they have learned, and that the laity are grateful for the new knowledge and skills of their pastors. Bishop Muyomba also reported that since the materials brought by GNJ to the pastors’ school were translated into Swahili, the materials are being shared in the Congo as well. What a blessing GNJ is at home and around the world. Thank you for your continued generosity.
These are challenging times in United Methodism and in GNJ, but there have been challenges in the past. During each challenge we may regress some, but we come through them with better understanding and renewed strength. I am especially proud of GNJ. Several bishops shared with me about their appreciation for GNJ’s Way Forward Plan. They too believe that annual conferences can lead the denomination through these times.
Be of good courage, be prayerful and continue to focus on the ministry and mission in your community. This is where lives are being transformed and renewed.
Keep the faith!
Bishop John Schol
United Methodists of Greater New Jersey