Connecting across regional lines
As the two United Methodist membership bodies encompassing the cities of New York and Chicago, it isn’t surprising the New York and Northern Illinois conferences share much in common.
But when the administrative bodies, or cabinets, of those conferences met jointly in September, they found a kinship that extended beyond practical discussions about how to address social justice concerns or build up membership.
The experience was so uplifting that they are recommending joint cabinet sessions to others around the United Methodist connection.
The Rev. Darneather Murph-Heath, superintendent of the Elgin District in Northern Illinois, was pleased to gain a support system outside her own conference.
“We have some things that resonate with one another and we can communicate our feelings,” she explained. “It helps to open us up to being global people… and saying we are not alone in this situation.”
The two cabinets were first paired together during last November’s “Extended Cabinet Summit” sponsored by the United Methodist Council of Bishops, which focused on cultivating vital congregations. A few months ago, they decided to get together again when both, coincidentally, had cabinet retreats scheduled for the same week in September.
Discussions at the Interchurch Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side ranged from policies and procedures to issues of conference life, such as the rise in part-time ministry, to what is happening on a denominationwide level with the Way Forward Commission, said New York Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton.
“We really spent a significant amount of time just building relationships together and what we found in the midst of that was just a sense of commonality, of joy and frustration, of struggle and opportunity,” he noted as the joint meeting concluded on Sept. 14. “It’s been pretty refreshing.”
What they have in common is not just about being part of two of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. “When you think about our conferences, we have this major urban presence but both of our conferences go through significant suburban and rural (areas),” explained Northern Illinois Bishop Sally Dyck.
An “incredible diversity” exists in all those locations. “We have all kinds of different language ministries,” she added. “Most of our new church starts are immigrant communities.”
The two bishops acknowledged the possibility of some joint work on common issues in the future, such as immigration concerns. Both conferences currently have a local congregation hosting an undocumented person who sought sanctuary there — at Adelberto United Methodist Church in Chicago in Northern Illinois and First and Summerfield Church in New Haven, Connecticut, in the New York Conference.
Members of the two cabinets appreciated swapping ideas and information. “For me, this is actually connectionalism at its best,” said the Rev. Robert Walker, assistant to the bishop in New York.
His colleague, the Rev. Elizabeth (Betsy) Ott, New York-Connecticut District superintendent, affirmed Walker’s assessment. “This models some of what we ask our churches and our pastors on the ground to do, to build connectional relationships of support and mutual sharing of best practices,” she said.
The Rev. Arlene Christopherson, assistant to the bishop and director of connectional ministries for Northern Illinois, enjoyed the walking tour organized by their host into Manhattan neighborhoods and even the sub-basement of Christ-Washington Heights United Methodist Church.
“It gave us an appreciation I think, of some of the challenges that are going on, and the repurposing of buildings in New York,” she noted. “At the same time, we shared some of our stories of the challenges we have of some large, underutilized facilities.”
One of the many things that the Rev. Young-Mee Park, DeKalb (Ill.) District superintendent, said she is taking away is how the New York Conference is intentional about developing cooperative ministries with small congregations.
The Rev. Zaki L. Zaki, superintendent of the Chicago Northwestern District, appreciated the chance to discuss how cabinets can lead “from the depths of our spiritual experience” and was impressed with New York’s commitment to investing in and creating strong laity. “I’ve truly felt affirmed, inspired and empowered,” he said.
“I think what surprised me was how quickly this group has jelled,” Bickerton said. “There is a sense of trust here, there’s a sense of excitement and willingness to share our stories.”
A common mission and purpose was the key to success. “These folks around this table are just totally committed to trying to make the gospel of Jesus Christ relevant in the context in which they serve,” Dyck said.
As the “new kid on the block,” the Rev. Alpher Sylvester, Connecticut District superintendent said it was “phenomenal” to see the leadership being modeled by the two bishops and to supplement his training at the extended cabinet summit with advice from experienced superintendents.
Sylvester and the Rev. Denise Smartt Sears, Metropolitan District, also appreciated practical advice on digitizing files, a process that Northern Illinois already has completed. They are the “guinea pigs” as the New York Conference begins that process.
Digitized files and forms are especially helpful when working with local churches, said the Rev. Lisa Kruse-Safford, Rockford District superintendent, allowing instant access to reports both before and during charge conferences, for example. “There’s just a lot more immediacy and it helps that process move forward,” she explained.
But a digital divide does exist and Bickerton said his conference is re-examining its move to a digital-only platform for communications that “has left some of our rural places in the dust.”
Communications is a technical challenge for the Rev. Tim Riss, a rural superintendent for New York’s Catskill Hudson District. “In our Catskill Mountains, we have serious problems with connectivity,” he explained. “We don’t get cell-phone coverage, we don’t have high-speed internet. It’s quite a challenge out there.”
Northern Illinois, which still prints its newspaper, has to look at what is most helpful to communicate in print and what information should be digital only, said Christopherson.
Conferences can coach local churches about better internet access, she added, and pointed out that rural communities in Illinois include “farmers who have master’s degrees and use sophisticated algorithm programs in planting their crops.”
Bloom is the assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service and is based in New York.