2023 Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, Presented May 22, 2023
View this address at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7hQbysqzKE&t=1935s at timecode 00:31:46.
Welcome back. You look marvelous, and it is great to be back together in person.
All Things Are Possible
I see great possibility before me today. As Jesus said, “With God, all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26) I see Jesus-possibility because I have witnessed Christ in you.
- You faced the pandemic with courage, determination and compassion; and as a result, people participating in our ministries were safe, new approaches to ministry were organized and communities were served.
- As the sin of racism continued to plague the nation and the church, you created a Journey of Hope focused on equity and on our commitment to ACT:
- Aspiring to be better,
- Comprehending how racism is woven into the fabric of our laws, systems, culture, beliefs and behaviors and
- Transforming ourselves and our congregations to create a better church and a better world fee of racism.
We are committed to ACT, and together we are making a difference to end the sin of racism.
- We also have been reforming spending practices, renewing stewardship principles, and reshaping standard policies during financial challenges. As a result, we are more able to sustain our mission.
- When Hurricane Ida blew through, you said, “We are ready.” As a result, we are repairing dozens of damaged homes and inspire hope in homeowners and communities.
- Amid the pain of child sexual abuse in scouting, we stood with survivors and pledged to do the right thing as United Methodists. We worked to foster healing and to ensure safety in our church facilities, while stewarding the resources of the church toward those goals and our mission.
- When it looked like chaos and confusion would result from church disaffiliations you committed to releasing congregations peacefully and respectfully, while faithfully stewarding the resources entrusted to us.
All things, all things are possible through God!
Now, while all things are possible, it does not mean that we emerge from our challenges without pain, without bruises, without doubts. After all, Moses’ conversation with a burning bush raised doubts in his mind. Esther said during a crisis of identity, “I might lose everything.” And Jesus, while deep in prayer in the garden, asked, “Can this cup be removed from me.”
Today I want to thank those leaders who were brave enough to step forward during these difficult times to say, “I am not doing well, I am afraid, anxious, even depressed.” You too were the Moseses Esthers and Jesuses in our midst. You gave voice and feeling to the realities of this time — our time. We are more sensitive, have more understanding, and are more Christlike because of you. Thank you.
I also thank those leaders who stepped forward and said, ”We will not stand for the oppression born of racism, sexism and abuse.” You too have been Christ for us. Thank you.
Yes, we emerge from the pandemic and the challenges of these times wounded and mourning; yet we emerge. We are here and ready for what God has next for us: possibility. As Emily Dickinson once wrote, “I dwell in possibility.” You are the people who dwell in God’s great possibility, and it is a marvelous witness.
I could not be more joyful, more proud, more hopeful in the possibility that has emerged during our deepest challenges. When so many said it could not be done, you kept moving forward. You said with God, all things are possible!
Our Greatest Possibility Lies in Our Congregations
The greatest possibility for our future is through vital mission congregations. Vital mission congregations connect with the people in their communities in new and relevant ways that capture the hearts and minds of the people in our communities.
Vital mission congregations are not buried in their past, nor in only serving themselves. They are congregations that rise up to serve their communities with the power of the resurrected Christ.
Vital mission congregations are:
- Offering inspiring and life-changing worship,
- Connecting believers through small groups,
- Organizing and leading followers of Jesus Christ into the community for hands on mission for mercy, justice and witness,
- Training people to share their faith to make new generations of disciples of Jesus Christ, and
- Teaching and inspiring generous giving.
Celebrate Possibility through Vital Mission Congregations
We have many congregations like this, and we want to grow even more.
One such vital mission congregation I encountered was in Millville, NJ. I arrived early in the morning, and a crew of church and community members had been hard at work preparing a meal for their unhoused neighbors and for neighbors who were out of work, neighbors concerned about where their next meal would come from. The people of First United Methodist Church of Millville, fully engaged and working with the people in the community, are a Hope Center where hope, healing and wholeness happen every day. Possibility!
That day I had the privilege of blessing newly installed showers for the residents of the shelter. I heard the stories of the shelter residents and how the congregation was compassionate and caring. I heard the stories of the volunteers and how the Hope Center gave them meaning and purpose to carry on the ministry of Jesus Christ. Possibility!
The congregation does not end there. A new worship service and new small groups, along with its strong ministry and engagement in the community are growing the vitality and missional sustainability of the congregation. Possibility!
The United Methodist Church at Absecon came out of the pandemic with a renewed and innovative Vacation Bible School that attracted 70 children and 20 teen and adult volunteers. The new VBS was so successful that many of the students continued with Sunday school in the fall. Sunday school is now larger than it was pre-pandemic. Possibility!
The Calvary Church has moved to three different locations in the past several years. Holding, keeping and growing the Ghanaian congregation has been no easy task; but its spirited worship and its focus on reaching others and serving the community has been the difference. Just recently, Calvary launched a second site to reach Ghanaians in another part of the Meadowlands region. God is blessing their faithfulness and evangelistic efforts. Possibility!
Resourcing Congregations for Possibility
Congregations are the outpost for our mission and ministry, and they are the life blood of the body of Christ. This is not to diminish local mission agencies, annual conferences, extension ministries, general church agencies or any other part of the church. We need organizations such as A Future with Hope, Next Generation Ministries, CUMAC(/ECHO) and many others in our area because what they do is more than what any one or group of congregations could do on their own. They work to supplement our congregations’ efforts and not at the expense of our congregations’ efforts. Focusing on congregations recognizes that our congregations have the greatest possibility to connect with people in the community and the greatest possibility of making disciples and transforming the world. Therefore, most of our energy and time will go into resourcing our congregations and recruiting and developing transformational leaders to lead them.
The key role of our EPA&GNJ staff and elected leaders is to recruit and develop transformational leaders. These leaders, both lay and clergy, work with congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ and to grow vital mission congregations for the transformation of the world.
We continue to organize and fund three primary resources so that your congregation can go deeper, wider and further as a vital mission congregation.
The first resource is Pathways, a series of six paths to help your congregation explore and develop a direction to grow and to sustain its mission and ministry. These pathways include the following:
- Pathway Vitality develops and grows healthy vital mission congregations. A companion to this pathway is our Breakthrough creative worship resource that helps a congregation carry out the vital ministries of the church.
- Pathway Community Engagement develops ministries of mercy, justice and witness with our neighbors and the opportunity for some to explore becoming Hope Centers. Let me take this opportunity to share that loving our neighbors means also loving our neighborhoods. We cannot develop our neighbors without integrating and developing public schools, planting community gardens and without developing jobs quality education, safety and affordable housing for all. We develop people as we develop communities.
- Pathway Journey of Hope helps churches work to end the sin of racism. Racism is insidious and is woven into our culture, systems, structures and institutions, including the church. Choosing the path to end the sin of racism means being followers of Jesus who lived what it means to be the body of Christ.
- Pathway Next Generation strengthens your congregation by growing your ministry with young people. If we are not growing younger, we have no future.
- Pathway Sustainability assesses your congregation’s resources and ability to financially sustain your mission and ministry. An unsustainable church has an unsustainable future.
- Pathway Conflict Resolution addresses, heals and transforms conflict within the church. A congregation in conflict is a stalled and regressing church.
Pathways deepens widens and furthers your congregation’s journey toward God’s possibility for your future.
The second resource is the Leadership Academy. The Leadership Academy will house all our leadership training opportunities. These leadership development opportunities will help you and the people of your congregation lead forward in any one or more Pathways.
The third resource is Engage. Engage is the opportunity for members of your superintending team to come alongside your pastors and your congregation to lead you along a pathway, to consult, coach and help your congregation’s leaders implement a pathway over an eighteen-month period. The superintending team consists of the superintendents, associate superintendents and assisting elders.
Staff and elected leadership are seeking to simplify this for you and your congregation. These three resources exist to help you and your congregation be the best for God, while creating a future filled with possibility.
Our Challenges and Opportunities
Let’s look at some of the challenges and the opportunities within those challenges.
- Challenge: Declining Resources / Opportunity: Affiliation and Setting aside Mission, Ministry and Operations Reserve Funds so that we flourish in the future.
As congregations decline, so do the resources for sustaining ministry and mission. By creating and growing reserve funds we generate financial resources to sustain and grow our mission and ministry. I applaud the work of the council on finance and administration in developing a plan and committing to grow our various funds. I call on all of us to be disciplined to follow the plan.
The present affiliation between EPA&GNJ not only sustain our mission but is essential thrive together, without losing our uniqueness as individual conferences. Affiliation is not a merger, but it identifies what we can do better together while continuing our traditions, cultures and uniqueness. We are already experiencing mutual collaboration and it is helping us be more efficient and effective in areas resourcing congregations and administration.
Let me take this opportunity to speak to those who have concerns about all the changes. Your voice is important. Voicing concerns provides us an opportunity for evaluation, as we listen for better ways to accomplish our mission. Change is required and is essential to the health of our mission, our ministries and congregations. I regularly hear from leaders that their congregations are resistant to change. If we do not change, we put the mission at risk.
- Challenge: Ending the Sin of Racism / Opportunity: Journey of Hope and Wholeness
We continue to make progress toward ending the sin of racism. The Journey of Hope Plan has trained more than 100 people, and church leaders are taking bold, faithful steps within their congregations and communities to end the sin of racism. We have accomplished many of the plan’s goals, including:
- a new apportionment and billing formula for congregations in low-income communities,
- strengthening racial-ethnic congregations in GNJ, has 25 churches are in a cohort to strengthen their mission and ministries,
- more than 40% in EPA / 50% in GNJ of our elected leaders are people of color,
- More than 50% of our first first-time pastoral appointments were clergy of color this year.
Together, we are leading to end the sin of racism.
- Challenge: Unity / Opportunity: Covenants that Bind Us Together in Christ through Unity, Not Uniformity.
While some congregations are requesting to disaffiliate due to concerns about ministry with and by LGBTQ persons, 98% of our congregations are continuing to pursue the local and global mission of The United Methodist Church. We will continue to be a diverse church anchored by Christ through covenants that allow for unity and not uniformity and commit to creating paths for all our people. God has a great future for us as we cultivate mutual respect and celebrate our common mission to recruit and develop transformational leaders to make disciples of Jesus Christ and grow vital mission congregations for the transformation of the world.
- Challenge: Seeking what God has next for us / Opportunity: Strategic Direction.
God’s future for us will be a gift to the church and the world. In the fall of 2021, through a survey you said you want staff and elected leadership to focus in five areas.
- Assisting congregations to emerge from the pandemic.
- Creating a disaffiliation path that honors and respects one another.
- Assisting congregations to grow.
- Assisting congregations to connect with the people in their community.
- Developing leadership.
We took what you seriously and worked to create Pathways, a Leadership Academy and Engage. Today, you will have the opportunity to further commit to creating a better future by building on our past and continuing the path that God is shaping for us through the strategic direction. We can achieve significant progress by strategically growing and aligning our resources to recruit and develop transformational leaders who are making disciples of Jesus Christ and growing vital mission congregations for the transformation of the world.
With God, all things are possible, and you have demonstrated God-sized possibility! Together, we have humbled ourselves, persevered through challenges, demonstrated resiliency, and courageously and passionately continued to move forward, keeping our eyes on Christ Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Thank you for all you are doing to pursue God’s possibilities, and may God continue to bless and multiply all that we do together.