Thoughts on Our Way Forward 

Below is the text from comments I made at both the Memphis and Tennessee Annual Conferences.

In March, I was in Africa, in Zimbabwe, and I went to the Mutare Mission where hundreds of children and young people are receiving an education, and health care, and hope because the Methodist church has been doing mission work there since the late 1800’s. The site on which Africa University is planted, celebrating its 25th anniversary, is in existence because the people called Methodists believe that educating Africans on the continent was a vital mission of the church.

Were we to splinter or split, the work of Africa University, and the work of the Mutare Mission, among other places across the world, would be damaged. The matters of human sexuality and unity are presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces in different ways of interpreting scripture and theological tradition.

Over the coming months and year or years, increasingly the Commission on the Way Forward will offer models to annual conferences through the residential bishops who are committed to leading and teaching in their own contexts and working with delegations to the special session of the 2019 General Conference.

Now, what does all that mean? It means that we have a group of about 30 people who are meeting every 6 weeks working on this on our behalf. It means that whatever is brought forward at the General Conference of 2019 will, then, have to be approved by that General Conference. In most cases, I believe the same delegates that were delegates in 2016 will be delegates in 2019, which means by and large it will be a group of the same people.

I also have to tell you that one of the churches in Mississippi who has departed, Getwell Road, was a church that I planted in 1986. I was the church planter, and my heart is absolutely broken over their decision to leave our family.

The day that I was born, my father was ordained an elder in the United Methodist Church. Like many of you, my blood runs through the veins of the United Methodist Church, and it’s a little bit like when people talk about your family; I can talk about them, but you better not. I get a little angry.

I want us to be careful. Literally, the word careful is to be full of care. The meaning of careful is to be full of care.

How do we care for each other in the midst of our differences?

My home church, First United Methodist Church of New Albany, Mississippi is the church Lynn grew up in and I was a part of as a teenager.

Among the children of the elders of that church, there are a number of homosexual people. I have no idea, should this church split, what would happen to that congregation. And I would guess that church after church after church in our family could bear witness to similar stories.

The question I raise within my own spirit is – if we had not adopted The Way Forward, can you imagine what we would be doing right now as a denomination? We would be splitting this church up with a rusty butcher knife, and it would not be a very pretty sight. I will go so far as to say I’m not terribly optimistic that we will find a solution that everybody is going to sing the doxology over.

And if that’s the case, then I pray that we will have enough wisdom to find our way through this and hold on to each other. Schism is the lowest fruit on the theological food chain, frankly, but I simply ask you to bear with us and be patient with us and help us be in conversation together as we work our way toward a future that God has not yet defined. I don’t know anybody that would have signed up for this, but this is where we are.

I give thanks to God for the persons we are commissioning, the ones we are ordaining, those who are saying yes to this denomination. They want to give their life to this church and serve faithfully. Let’s remember that they see hope that maybe some of us don’t see. If you look back over the history of Christianity over the last 2,000 years, there have been a few bumps in the road, right? It has not all been smooth sailing, but somehow, out of that, God has still prevailed.

God is still on the throne. God is still the God of the resurrection. God is still the God of the future, not just the God of the past.

God is still calling us into that future, and I’m going to be trusting that God is going to show us the way.

Now God is not going to give us all the answers from here to the end of the road, so don’t expect that, but you can expect that God will give us enough light for our next step.

When the appointive Cabinet gets together every spring, I think, “How in the world are we going to make these appointments?” But, somehow, out of the mystery of God and the combined wisdom of that group of people, God shows us a way through. I trust that God.

I’m going to do my best to be faithful to you and faithful to God and this church, and I ask you to join me in that faithfulness. I will be faithful to the vows of my ordination as an Elder and my consecration as Bishop. If you have a problem and you feel like you need to talk about it, call your District Superintendent. If your District Superintendent can’t help you, then we’ll help you. I trust our Cabinet. They’re good people. I ask you to be faithful to what God is calling us to do.

Sunday night’s state of the church address probably disappointed some people because they thought I was going to talk about our denomination and not our mission. That was not an accident because

I don’t want this conversation to become our mission.

Our mission is to serve God and neighbor. To go into the world, to offer Christ to those who are hurting, one neighborhood at a time. I’ve been beating this drum for five years. I’m not going to stop beating it. We’re going to do the same thing we’ve been doing. We’re not going to give up. We’re going to keep pushing out. We’re going to keep pushing forward. We’re trying to transform congregations who transform people’s lives through the power of Jesus Christ who is a resurrecting God.

I believe in that God and that’s the God I’m going to bear witness to and I invite you not to be consumed by the negative press that the Church is going to receive in the coming years. And you’re going to get it from every direction.

My experience of the church is that there are some folk over here and some folk over here, but most Methodists are somewhere in the middle. Some of us are right of center and some of us are left of center, but most of us are centered in Christ.

My little 3 point sermon would be something like this: rooted in Scripture, centered in Christ, serving in love.

Rooted in Scripture, centered in Christ, serving in love.  And if we live out of that triumvirate, and if we keep God’s mission at the forefront of our lives, other conversations will not distract us quite so much.

You know in 1 Peter: 5, there’s a line in there that says ‘beware of the evil one who prowls around like a roaring lion and seeking to devour you.”

Maybe you’ve read C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, and Screwtape says “don’t ever let them see the church with its banners waving.” There are forces in the world that do not want us to be seen with our banners waving.

But friends, there is some amazing, amazing transformational work that is taking place in the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences on behalf of the people called Methodists who are giving their heart, mind, and soul to people in need, and we’re not going to stop doing that no matter what happens way up here, right?

I showed you a picture of myself when I played football at two different periods of my life. I’m not sure some of you got it. My college coach used to always say,

“Always leave it on the field.” Now, what does that mean? You’re going to give it your “all” day in, day out.

We were having dinner with some friends the other night and Lynn was talking about when she was in her master’s program and we moved in the middle of her doing her master’s to a little house that had been flooded by Hurricane Katrina, and she was working herself pretty hard, and I said, “Well, you don’t have to get an “A” in everything.” She said, “I don’t know how to try to get a B!” That’s what it means to leave it on the field.

I’m going to be faithful. I want you to be faithful. I can’t make you be. But I can invite you to be. I can invite you to follow Jesus into the world and reach out to those who are hungry and those who are broken. As I said last night, God uses flawed people because he doesn’t have enough of the other kind.

And brothers and sisters, we have no room to point our fingers at anyone. We would be much better off to get on our knees and pray, Lord, have mercy on me a sinner, than to point our finger and say thank God I’m not like that terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad person over there.

As I’ve said to the clergy, Jacob walked with a limp and he was better off with his limp than he was without it. Yes, we limp as a church. Yes, we’re broken. Yes, we’re imperfect and yes, we’ve got to figure this out, but we’re going to do it and let’s stay together as we do it, and let’s love each other.

As I read the gospel, the central ethic of the gospel is love. It’s love.

I’m going to be about loving God and loving the people God loves, and that includes all of us. All the time.