NCJ delegates name commitment to anti-racism, LGBTQIA+ inclusion

By Christa Meland, director of communications, Minnesota Conference

At a virtual North Central Jurisdictional (NCJ) Conference this week, delegates elected by their respective annual conferences created and overwhelmingly approved a covenant naming their commitment to anti-racism work and LGBTQIA+ inclusion.

Approximately 250 delegates participated in an official Zoom meeting Wednesday and Thursday, and others from across the 10-conference jurisdiction watched it live online. Delegates spent the majority of their time on three big topics of conversationdismantling racism, the future of episcopal leadership, and the future of The United Methodist Church.

On Thursday morning, by a vote of 135-32, they approved a “Covenant to Build Beloved Community” developed by a six-person writing team determined by the heads of the NCJ delegations. The covenant, written using United Methodist baptismal vows as a framework, calls on the jurisdiction to work to end racism and to create a culture that welcomes and affirms LGBTQIA+ people.

Specifically, the covenant calls on the NCJ bishops of color to convene all BIPOC delegates to discuss how to begin to address trauma in communities of color, requests the Mission Council to report on how their budget incorporates anti-racism work, urges all members of the NCJ to avoid pursuing charges for LGBTQIA+ clergy, and requests that episcopal leaders dismiss charges related to LGBTQIA+ identity or officiating same-gender weddings. The covenant also stipulates that the Mission Council must designate NCJ funds to work with conference anti-racism teams to create a racial analysis at the local church and conference levels—and to align annual conference budgets with antiracism work and intentional efforts geared toward people and communities of color. 

“The shaping of our covenant was based on our baptismal covenant, and baptism isn’t an ending; it’s a beginning,” said Zaagsma, a clergy member of the Minnesota Conference who was on the writing team. “This covenant represents a new beginning for our North Central Jurisdiction, and I think it shows that grace and love are stronger than the challenges we face.”

Rev. Andy Call, a clergy delegate from the East Ohio Conference, also sees the covenant as a step forward for the jurisdiction.

“For the last two-and-a-half years, The United Methodist Church has been defined largely by the voices of those preparing to leave,” he said. “The North Central Jurisdiction took steps this week to articulate the values of the jurisdiction going forward that I hope will inspire those who have been left out or left behind.”

Rev. Duane Carlisle, a clergy delegate from the Indiana Conference, said he’s grateful to have left the gathering with a vision to bring back to local churches as they dream and look to the future.

“My hope is that what we have borne in these two days will offer United Methodists across our connection a vision for ministry and a place where everyone can see their own unique gifts and callings reflected in its affirmations,” he said. “What the NCJ has accomplished in these last two days is evidence that we can be that place of radical love with a resolute posture leaning into justice and care for creation.”The covenant requests the Mission Council, in conjunction with the NCJ College of Bishops, “develop an exercise for NCJ delegates to engage in conversation to understand the impact of homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism within United Methodist Churches during the next meeting of the jurisdiction.”

The writing team that developed the covenant waded through 54 pages of comments from delegates in order to find out was particularly important to them. The five key priorities they named, which shaped the document, were: anti-racism, inclusion, amicable separation, regionalism, and connectionalism.

Just as our baptism is one step in a lifelong journey of faith, this covenant is one step in a journey toward being the Beloved Community that God calls us to be,” said Rev. Brian Gilbert, a clergy delegate from the Northern Illinois Conference who was on the writing team. “A critical part in this process is our antiracist work…It is my hope that by having the jurisdiction gather together multiple groups from across all of our annual conferences, we will be able to promote a spirit of collegiality and idea sharing that will allow each conference to adopt policies, strategies, and visions that will unite us together in the work of being antiracist.”

Nitza Dovenspike, a lay member of the Iowa Conference who was also on the covenant writing team, is personally grateful that the delegates lifted up anti-racism work as a priority and as a call to action. “We recognized the importance of actionable recommendations to continue the journey on eliminating racism,” she said after the covenant was adopted. “My hope is that we, individually and collectively, continue to pay attention to the nudges of the Holy Spirit and remember that God does not withhold goodness from us.”

Regarding amicable separation, the document encourages conferences and local churches to strive for reconciliation and understanding. But for those that “may feel called to a different future in the faith,” it stipulates that annual conferences should “use existing disciplinary and conference provisions to accommodate local congregations seeking disaffiliation.”

Delegates spent more than two hours discussing and refining the covenant before approving it. NCJ bishops were formally asked to rule on whether some of the specific language about LGBTQIA+ individuals and same-gender weddingsnamely, the call to avoid and dismiss charges—restricts the rights of bishops or other leaders from upholding the Book of Discipline and thus is null and void. The bishops have 30 days to respond.

In addition to approving the covenant itself, delegates also voted 131-31 to affirm the recent Council of Bishops document called “A Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church” and 128-31 to affirm “A Call to Grace,” a grassroots open letter that all United Methodists were invited to sign.

“Covenanting to Build the Beloved Community, we look to 2024 with promise,” the covenant stated at the end. “We pledge ourselves to God’s call upon our lives, to each other, and to the future of The United Methodist Church.”

NCJ delegates talk anti-racism and future, vote to reduce bishops by 1

By Christa Meland, director of communications, Minnesota Conference

When Rev. Ron Bell was in high school, his father became superintendent of the Eastern District of the Delaware Annual Conference. As their family was moving into the superintendents’ big, beautiful parsonage in Eastern Maryland, the entire local police department surrounded the house with guns drawn and told Bell and his father to get on the ground with their hands behind their heads. Why?

“Because a little white girl across the street saw black folk in her neighborhood,” said Bell, who serves Camphor Memorial UMC in St. Paul, Minnesota. “That’s when I knew race matters.”

Bell was among six “truth-tellers” who shared their personal experiences with race at a virtual North Central Jurisdictional (NCJ) gathering that took place Wednesday and Thursday. Approximately 250 delegates and alternates participated in the official Zoom meeting, and others from across the 10-conference jurisdiction watched it live online. Delegates spent the majority of their time on three big topics of conversationdismantling racism, the future of episcopal leadership, and the future of The United Methodist Church. 

Dismantling racism

In the dismantling racism portion of the session, retired Bishop Hope Morgan Ward reminded attendees that the ministry of anti-racism centers in discipleship.

“The arc of history bends toward justice, and we will be forceful in pulling that arc down together, all to the glory of God,” she said. She noted that the Council of Bishops has appreciated the work of Brian Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and chief creator of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. He urges four pillars for anti-racism efforts:

  1. Hear and share true stories; in particular, give space to and honor stories of people of color.
  2. Get “proximate” to the suffering and pain of racism and inequality.
  3. Expect resistance. 
  4. Protect your hopefulness.

After hearing from Ward, the six truth-tellers each issued a challenge to the North Central Jurisdiction and the Church. 

“Justice takes more than just words; it requires sacrifice,” said Andres De Arco, National Assistant Director to the United Methodist Hispanic Youth Leadership Academy and a member of the West Ohio Conference. “What are you willing to sacrifice for justice?”
The dismantling racism session ended with small group discussions among delegates. They reflected aloud on a question posed by Bishop Tracy Smith Malone, resident bishop of the East Ohio Conference: As you think about your context and your discipleship journey and life in Christ, how might God be calling you to make a difference, to step out more boldly and prophetically…to put your weight on the arc of history, bending toward justice?

“The delegates of the NCJ put their prophetic weight on the arc of history during this conference and have bent our church toward justice,” said Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, a clergy delegate in Michigan who serves as chief connectional ministries officer for the Connectional Table. “We did that by passing a covenant that focuses the jurisdiction on anti-racism work and inclusion as its top two priorities. For my part, I am going to try to live out those commitments in every area of my ministry and life.”

For Beata Ferris, a lay delegate from the Dakotas, education is key in working for justice. “I believe we need to educate all our congregations to the beautiful culture of the people who we live with in the Dakotas,” she said. “When we understand more of their history and current reality, we can better serve with them in building beloved communities in our spaces.”

The future of episcopal leadership

Delegates on Thursday voted 142-13 in favor of a proposal to have eight active bishops in the NCJ as of the next regular session of the jurisdictional conference—representing a decrease from the nine bishops who have led the jurisdiction in recent years. 

In a presentation before the vote, Rev. Sara Isbell, chair of the NCJ Committee on the Episcopacy and a member of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, explained that if a jurisdiction falls below a certain threshold in membership, General Conference makes a decision about the number of bishops needed for that smaller number of members. Although the General Conference has not yet met to vote on a reduction, for several years, the NCJ has been below the number needed to secure nine bishops—so such a vote is expected at the postponed 2020 General Conference, now slated for Aug.-Sept. 2022. The NCJ could vote to stay with nine bishops, but then it must figure out how to pay them, apart from the Episcopal Fund that typically covers this cost.

The jurisdiction has had an opportunity over the past year to practice operating with eight bishops. Since Jan. 1, Bishop David Bard has been serving Minnesota on an interim basis in addition to being resident bishop for the Michigan Conference, Bishop Laurie Haller has been serving the Dakotas on an interim basis in addition to being resident bishop for Iowa, and Bishop John Hopkins left retirement to lead the Northern Illinois Conference. 

“On the one hand, we tremendously value our episcopal leadership, and yet on the other hand, we have to be thoughtful stewards of the resources we have,” said Rev. Carol Zaagsma, a clergy delegate from Minnesota. “If the mathematics of the Episcopal Fund suggests we’re at a juncture where we can’t sustain and support nine bishops anymore, we need to adapt to that. For me, it’s the prudent thing to do.”

The future of The United Methodist Church

Drawing on John 6: 1-14, Bishop Laurie Haller told the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 to close the day on Wednesday. She pointed out that after the meal, Jesus told his disciples to gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.

“My dear friends, I know that you are tired,” said Haller. “We often think somebody else will gather the fragments of our beloved UMC and transform the world. But now it’s time for us to do something in the North Central Jurisdiction. The future of The United Methodist Church is in our hands.”

Jesus sends you and me out to gather up the fragments, Haller noted, which are our mixed loyalties, our stubbornness to forgive, our reluctance to accept those who are different, and our fondness for judging. But the fragments are also the loving words we say, the songs we sing, the money we give, the food we share, and the care we offer to the discarded and battered of this world.

“No matter how many fragments we gather up or give away, the basket will always be filled with God’s love, for the circle is wide, and no one should ever have to stand alone,” she said. “That my friends, is beloved community. That, my friends, is our vision. That, my friends, is the future of our church. It’s time for us to do something right now.”

Important Information

A Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church
         — Council of Bishops, November 4, 2021

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