3:00 P.M. ET November 6, 2012
They minister in very different circumstances, and their areas confront very different challenges from the destruction of recent hurricanes to the ravages of diseases such as AIDS and malaria.
But, the 14 new bishops elected around the globe this summer and fall do share one goal in common — increasing the number of vital United Methodist congregations. Such congregations are on a trajectory of growth, and they reach out to a hurting world.
In November 2010, the United Methodist Council of Bishops committed itself to making congregational vitality the church’s “true first priority” for at least a decade. Fostering vitality is on the agenda as the council, including its newest members, meets this week at Epworth-by-the-Sea retreat center on St. Simons Island, Ga.
Bishops agree the denomination as a whole faces struggles ahead. The United Methodist Church is still growing overall. However, the denomination’s U.S. membership continues its decades-long decline. The order of the day is to reverse this slide in U.S. worshippers, strengthen the church worldwide and fulfill the denomination’s mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The 14 new bishops in the United States, Africa and Eurasia are developing their own ideas about how best to reach these goals.
Here are some of the ways they are going about fostering vitality.
For many bishops, it is too soon to announce any specific plans. They are still engaged in listening sessions with clergy and lay people in the conferences they lead.
Bishop Jonathan Holston, the first bishop elected this year, told the South Carolina Annual (regional) Conference, that he is going to concentrate on listening, visiting and observing as much as possible in the days and months to come.
“With the assistance of conference leadership, it is my hope that we will discover the future God has for all of us,” he said in a Sept. 24 column in the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate.
Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, who now leads the North Alabama Conference, also said she is still working through a process to discern the priorities of the conference.
She has met with conference leaders and teams, and through November she plans to visit each district in the conference to meet with both clergy and laity, she told Danette Clifton, the conference’s director of communications. In December, Wallace-Padgett plans to meet with her cabinet to process what they have heard during the listening sessions, and then identify priorities. Meanwhile, her theme when she preaches at the conference’s churches has been renewal.
Bishop Gabriel Unda Yemba leads the new East Congo Episcopal Area in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the church is growing rapidly but the people live under the threat of rape and other atrocities by the M23 militia.
“My plan is to inspect the entire episcopal area and ascertain the needs of the various ministries of the church and then find ways of creating an effective delivery system for the development of East Congo,” he said through an interpreter after his election.
“It is my sincere hope that by the grace of God to see this episcopal area develop from its ashes to a livable and peaceable area,” he added.
In his “listening tour” in the New York Conference, Bishop Martin McLee has told church leaders that he does not “have a master plan for New York and Connecticut, but I serve a Master with a plan.”
However, he did offer some specifics at a clergy retreat Oct. 1–2 in Stony Point, N.Y. He said he is “expecting excellence” from clergy and expects a conference group to lay out parameters for determining excellence. He also said congregations and clergy must be better prepared for cross-cultural appointments in a structured, intentional way.
Bishop Young Jin Cho kneels to wash the feet of Lucy Thompson, student from Reveille United Methodist Church in Richmond, during his installation service on Sept. 22. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Conference/Neill Caldwell.
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Just as they are listening to their fellow United Methodists, the new bishops are also seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance in developing their plans.
Bishop Young Jin Cho, who leads the Virginia Conference, said during his installation service that the fundamental issue facing the denomination is a spiritual one. “No spiritual vitality, no vital congregations,” he preached.
Rediscovering “our spiritual vitality must begin with the bending of our knees in prayer,” he said. “We human beings cannot create spiritual vitality for our churches. We are not messiahs. Spiritual vitality is God’s gift to the church.”
He promised to be a “praying bishop” and to visit all Virginia Conference churches and pastors each month in his prayers.
Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, who leads the West Virginia Conference, issued a prayer challenge to conference members in her first sermon. She asked that during lunchtime each day, West Virginia United Methodists ponder where they have seen Christ at work and where they have missed Christ at work and ask God to give them “the eyes of Christ, the ears of Christ and the courage of Christ to risk faithful acts and actions in this world.”
Similarly, in her Oct. 21 installation service, Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey urged members of the Louisiana Conference that she now leads to pray at 1 p.m. daily for church leaders, the Louisiana Conference and the broader United Methodist Church. She has asked Louisiana United Methodists to continue the practice until Advent.
“My prayer every day is that God will continue to use you to shape and form incredible people, vital, life-changing, disciple-making communities of faith,” she preached. “Disciples are not made at General Conference. They are not even made at annual conference. They’re made in communities like yours, where churches like yours are serving not in buildings but at the intersection of people’s lives.”
Some new bishops are encouraging their fellow United Methodists to envision a more vital and spirit-filled future.
In his installation service, Bishop Gary E. Mueller asked the Arkansas Conference “to imagine what it’s like for us to be a church, a church filled with people who have been … filled with so much grace and love just the way we are that the only thing we can do is just share it with other people.”
In his column for the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper, he has been outlining his expectations. In addition to disciple-making, he has invited his conference’s congregations to raise $1 million for Imagine No Malaria, the denomination’s fight against the disease.
Bishop Mark J. Webb gave the title “Imagine” to his Upper New York Conference installation service sermon.
“God will use us to make disciples for Jesus Christ so the world will be changed,” he said, and people have a choice “to hold onto our reality or we can imagine God’s reality.”
In his introductory video, Bishop Michael McKee told the North Texas Conference that he feels “like we have a powerful presence of United Methodist witness in this particular annual conference.
“And over the coming years … we are going to expand that presence in such a way that people will know that we care deeply about their human hurts and their human hopes,” he added.
Bishop Eduard Khegay will not take on his new role in the Eurasia Episcopal Area until January 2013. But as a nominee for bishop, he recommended 10 steps for strengthening the United Methodist presence in an area that stretches across 11 time zones and spans Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Kazahkstan and other former Soviet Republics.
Among those steps are developing an institute for mentoring and spiritual formation, launching risk-taking missions and centering churches on the small-group experience and serving.
He is among the bishops offering concrete steps to address the challenges they see in their areas.
Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, in his blog, is urging the Florida Conference to reach out to seekers, especially young women and men “who are searching for communities that will mentor or disciple them in a walk with God.”
Bishop William T. McAlilly, who leads the Nashville Area that encompasses the Tennessee and Memphis conferences, has announced goals for his first 100 days, first year and by 2020. In the first 100 days, he wants to begin moving the two conferences in his area toward alignment. By 2020, he wants Nashville Area United Methodists to be reaching one new disciple for every member annually and to have started two or more new congregations for every one that has closed. He also wants the area to recruit 10 new clergy a year above the current average and raise the number of healthy congregations by 50 percent.
Bishop John Wesley Yohanna leads United Methodists in Nigeria, the country with the world’s second-highest number of people — 3.3 million — living with HIV and AIDS.
“I will work hard to restore the functionality of the hospitals and health centers within the episcopal area,” he said. “We need skilled volunteers, sufficient medical equipment and drugs to keep our medical institutions running. Once we have the machinery in place, we would be ready to combat malaria and HIV effectively.”
He also is leading three annual conferences that have seen internecine struggles among church members. Thirteen Nigerian delegates boycotted his election.
“My prayer for Nigeria Episcopal Area is to restore peace in the Nigeria UMC by going to the people, discussing with the people and finding solutions together with the people,” he said.
*Hahn is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service. Danette Clifton, the North Alabama Conference director of communications, contributed to this story.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.