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Leaning into the Future: President’s Address to the Council of Bishops

Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster

Many of us in this room have embraced with enthusiasm the "new" in several other areas of our lives: from computers and cell phones to satellite dishes and iPads. Yet, like others in the church, we cling fiercely and often with passion to the way things have been in the church for most of our lives. There is a kind of widespread confusion of the timeless message of the Gospel of God's love, mercy, and grace with the time-limited structures and methodologies of the last century. For all of our sermonizing about "new creation" we are more inclined to keep doing what we have always done, clinging to the familiar and assuming that things will get better.

More than a decade ago, two British scholars wrote a book entitled Leaning into the Future which is not only the title of this address, but the challenge that is before us as we lead The United Methodist Church in this time. The premise of their work was that paradoxes form the basis of any move into the future. "Leaning into the future," they wrote, "is a potent and practical way of working with change which combines apparent opposites: leading and learning; being forthright and listening; giving direction and allowing autonomy."

Leaning into the future conveys an image of sitting on the edge of our seat, standing on tiptoe, turning our attention toward what is about to happen not what has always been. The people of faith are always on tiptoes, anticipating what God is about to do. The Scriptures are populated with people who lean into the future:

  • The people of Israel wandering in wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, lean into the hope of a new home and a new community with a new life
  • In the Gospel accounts, disciples who follow Jesus anticipate the arrival of the Kingdom, the vision of which is embedded in the message and life of Jesus
  • The Book of Revelation is a story of leaning into a future where we catch a glimpse of the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God

Now it is our turn! We stand at a unique moment in history, and our gathering in Panama this week may be recorded as the time when the Council of Bishops took significant steps into God's future. The paradoxes are many as we invite the church to a new and holy future, but must first work on and address our own hesitancy to change. As Ron Heifetz points out in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, "leadership for change demands inspiration and perspiration" (Page 1) and knowing how to "experiment with never-been-tried-before &ellipsis; ways of interacting that will help people develop solutions that build upon and surpass the wisdom of today's experts." (Pages 2 and 3)

We have the opportunity to lead the church toward greater vitality, impact and influence in the world. By our decisions and actions this week in Panama we will either lean into the future or be content with more of the same. Many of us are convinced that to maintain the status quo, or to assume that what we already have in place will work if we try harder, give more, or change a few of the players is a recipe for further decline. As the Call to Action report puts it, "we have been preoccupied more with defending treasured assumptions and theories, protecting our respective turf and prerogatives, and maintaining the status quo for beloved institutions." (Page 6)

To lean into the future is to radically shift the focus and direction of our lives and of our leadership. To lean into the future is to listen for and pay attention to God's directing Spirit. To lean into the future is to boldly venture into previously unchartered waters in the name of the Christ whose own future-leaning took him to Jerusalem and Calvary.

TEXT AND CONTEXT

I have been reading the 21st chapter of John's Gospel with different eyes recently. It is, according to John, one of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus, and is, no doubt, quite familiar to everyone in this room. Listen to the opening verses once again: John 21:1-8

Our tendency is to imagine that those who walked with and listened to Jesus along the way would somehow "get it." We imagine that if we had been privileged to have had that up-close-and-personal encounter and interaction with Jesus, this world and the church would be in a much stronger position than our current reality. For a moment think about this text in the language of 21st century organizational and systems theory. After spending the better part of three years with Jesus, being exposed to the teachings about God's love and grace and the coming Kingdom breaking in around them, the disciples decide to take on the world and transform it in revolutionary fashion. Well, not exactly!

Peter speaks, and the others join the chorus: "I am going fishing!" When in doubt, when uncertain, or when the future looms as frightening, return to what you know. In other words, they were going back to the way things had always been. Homeostasis is setting in; they opt for equilibrium and a return to the status quo; standing still appears to be safe and normal. They are leaning back to the way things were before Jesus filled them with hopes and dreams. "Wow, those are great stories Jesus, and the world really needs this, but we're going fishing!"

Now watch what happens, or at least what might have happened. Not only do they go fishing again, returning to their old established patterns, but nothing of Jesus has penetrated their lives or their thinking. They fish the way they have always fished. Common sense told them to fish out of a certain side of the boat, and to keep throwing the nets in that direction. It's what the book said! Then there is a voice shouting at them from the shore. "Have you caught anything?" And when the reply is a resounding "no" do you think Jesus might just have shaken his head and thought, did you not learn anything? "Well, try the other side!" In other words, try fishing in a different way and place.

Why do we keep trying to do things the way we have always done them? Again the Call to Action report (page 18) names the reality: that our "continued pursuit of the most prevalent of current approaches, structures, policies, and practices is likely to produce the same results with continued decline and decreasing missional impact. Business as usual is unsustainable." That is the same thing as fishing from the same side of the boat over and over again. It is the time to start casting the net on the other side of the boat. It is time for us to lean into the future, anticipating God's new work in us and among us, and rejoicing in the paradox of not knowing but being confident.

FIRST STEPS: THE FOUR AREAS OF FOCUS

We already have some experience in this because at the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth we did cast our nets on a different side of the boat. In our refreshing and energizing collaboration with the Connectional Table and the General Agencies, the four areas of focus emerged as a way to lean into the future. The messaging, presentations, and confirmations were signs that we might be fishing in new waters. The paradox was evident: these were missional hopes and directions, not program areas that had to be wedged into the already crowded agendas of agencies, conferences, and bishops.

On another occasion Jesus was coming off an outstanding sermon delivered on a mountain top that inspired and intrigued those who listened. His healing ministry continues, he walks on water, and he eats a meal with tax collectors and sinners. This is just too much, with too many new things happening at one time. When pushed about this, Jesus responds with this image, one we evidently prefer not to think about very much. The seventeenth verse of the ninth chapter of Matthew records this metaphor: "No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If they did, the wineskins would burst, the wine would spill, and the wineskins would be ruined. Instead, people pour new wine into new wineskins, and thus keep both safe." (From the Common English Bible)

Have we just witnessed a twenty-first century version of this metaphor in the way we have tried to pour the Four Areas of Focus into our United Methodist institutionalism? While we rejoice in some of the amazing and hopeful things that have happened, have we, for themost part, tried to force them into our structure rather than allowing them to help us lean into God's future? These four areas are, as the Call to Action report suggests "distinctive ways we live into the mission together." (Page 32) They are the anticipations, the signs of a future where we are guided by a deep desire and heart for those who are hurting in this world. We lean into God's future by daring to dream:

  • That we might become a more relevant church by planting new faith communities and revitalizing existing churches in order to incorporate new and younger generations of people into the Body of Christ.
  • That we might lead the way in pointing toward a world that is not plagued by the killer diseases of poverty.
  • That we might once again, as Wesleyans, stand with and stand alongside the poor as partners in God's transforming story.
  • That we might develop leaders grounded as followers of Jesus the Christ and living authentically and abundantly as disciples in whatever vocation they choose.

FUTURE STEPS: THE CALL TO ACTION

The Call to Action Report that flooded our email boxes recently invites us into an adaptive challenge that will "redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." (Page 8) In order for us to lead the way, we must lean into a future that is flexible, nimble, and adaptive. The reverse of that means that we cannot be set in stone, stiff, unmoved, and immovable. Some of the rules and practices that we have come to think of as the only way to do church must fall. In a rather uncomfortable observation, the Call to Action report puts it this way: "Leaders, beginning with the bishops&ellipsis;.must lead and immediately, repeatedly, and energetically make it plain that our current culture and practices are resulting in overall decline that is toxic and constricts our missional effectiveness." (Page 18)

It seems that everywhere he went Jesus was bending or questioning long-standing rules. The disciples pluck grain on a Sabbath; persons in need of healing find restoration on a Sabbath; Samaritans and Geresenes discover and respond to God's love; publicans have their prayers answered. And to those who wanted to maintain the status quo, and to keep the rules in place, Jesus gave an assignment: "If you had known what this means" (as if to say, go home and study this); "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." (Matthew 9:13) Or, perhaps in our 21st century context, I desire evidence of mercy and grace, not structures and rules that become expanding layers of a bureaucracy.

Leaning into God's future must move us toward accomplishing the mission by empowering and equipping women and men in thousands of local churches scattered in countries around the globe to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We join in a global lament that while our bureaucracy has expanded, the world remains in desperate need of transformation as we continue to confront issues of racism and prejudice, of war and violence, and of anger and suspicion that contribute to an inability to engage in civil discourse. As the operational assessment pointed out, we are experiencing a "creeping crisis of relevance," brought on partially as a result of the current economic situation, but also as a result of an institutional inertia that does not inspire or equip the church either for our evangelistic mandate or for living out our social justice commitment. We, the Bishops of the church, must act decisively and with a sense of urgency to cast the vision, exercise influence, persuade, lead, and begin immediately to lean into a relevant future.

NEXT STEPS: GENERAL CONFERENCE 2012

The Call to Action report emphasizes "the value and need for the Council of Bishops to exercise strong and courageous leadership, working in concert and fostering alignment throughout the Connection." (Page 7) As an initial step in that direction, I challenge you my sisters and brothers, colleagues in the Council of Bishops, to begin even now to lay the groundwork for the 2012 General Conference. This will be an intermediary leaning post for our journey into the future and will be an opportunity for us to exercise bold leadership that fosters alignment and advances collaboration. If we have not already done so, we will soon resurrect the old lines about being "potted plants" or "stage decorations" in Tampa. We will bemoan the fact that we have no voice or vote; yet, we will do our best to prepare ourselves to preside over a holy conversation about our church and the future. But what if General Conference 2012 becomes a sign of our leaning into God's future? What if our leaning simply challenges assumptions about the atmosphere that surrounds General Conference and opens the door for discerning a different future for our church?

Before we go there, and start hammering out our solutions, let me offer a series of invitations for each one of us in the coming eighteen months. Starting now, let us proactively prepare ourselves for leading and listening with the whole church.

First: that each one of us covenant to weekly prayer and fasting for the 2012 General Conference. Do you remember the day Jesus came down from the mountain after the transfiguration experience? He is confronted by a need: a young boy was tormented by an unclean spirit, and the disciples who had been left behind could do nothing about it. This spirit, it is written, would cause this boy to "grind his teeth and become rigid." After Jesus rebukes that spirit and drives it away from the boy, the disciples question Jesus: why could we not do that? Jesus answers: "This kind can come out only through prayer." (Mark 9:29)

You may have your own descriptions of what kind of spirit exists at General Conference, but I am only saying that we must engage in an extended season of prayer if we anticipate anything different. A footnote in most translations of Scriptures tells us that other ancient authorities add the word "fasting" to this verse. Of course, John Wesley would certainly include the discipline of fasting which, according to him, is a help to prayer. I am, therefore, asking each of you to join me in an eighteen month discipline of prayer and fasting, and that we do so in the pattern established by Wesley: that every Thursday evening and Friday between now and General Conference we enter into the discipline of prayer and fasting.

Second: that each one of us covenant together to convene and host conversations on a monthly basis throughout the areas where we serve, or where we have retired. These groups would involve lay and clergy, men and women, young and old, and people of all backgrounds and nationalities, and even people who never darken the door of one of our churches. This is not to be an extra meeting. Rather in those places where we already find ourselves, let us enter into a dialog and discussion that "fosters alignment" and "advances collaboration" about how we once again become a movement for Christ, developing a missional focus that, by God's grace, transforms the world. Through these groups and with a few provocative questions, we Bishops can listen and learn, so that we begin to discern what the Spirit may be saying to the church. I am, therefore, asking each of you to join me in leading a series of at least a dozen holy conversations that will inform and inspire our leaning and leading, and reclaim and reenergize a missional perspective for United Methodism.

Third: that each one of us covenant together to promote and encourage participation in the Leadership Summit that has been scheduled for April 6, 2011. As you receive more information about this global conversation this week, I hope that you will begin to plan for creative ways to have key leadership involved in this Summit. We recognize there are logistic and scheduling conflicts, but I am asking each of you to join me by participating in the Summit and urging others to participate on behalf of the movement of Christ in the world through The United Methodist Church.

Finally: that our covenant groups here at the Council meetings be focused on supporting, encouraging, and holding each other accountable to these commitments, especially with regard to prayer and fasting. While each one of our covenant groups takes on a life of its own, and has different levels of commitment and concern, I am suggesting that for the remainder of this meeting and the next three leading up to General Conference, our covenant groups become safe and prayerful communities for this spiritual work. I am, therefore, inviting the covenant groups this week, to forge an agreement about prayer, fasting, holy conferencing, and leaning into the future with hope.

CONCLUSION

I suspect that when those seasoned fishermen (they were all men that morning), heard that voice from the mist on the shore suggesting they try the other side, they were hesitant to put it mildly. How dare anyone try to tell a professional where and how to fish! And, I suspect that someone in the boat, probably Peter, muttered, "What have we got to lose?" You do remember what happened? According to John, "Now they were not able to haul [the net] in because there were so many fish." Amazing: just by questioning a few traditions, stepping outside their fishing paradigm, and leaning in a different direction, the results (the outcomes) were absolutely astounding.

With great hope and anticipation of what God will do with us and among us, I believe it is time for us to lean into God's future, fish from a different side of the boat, and prepare to be astounded by the results. We may not be able to see them now, but "Hallelujah! The Lord our God, the Almighty exercises his royal power! Let us rejoice and celebrate and give God the glory!" (Revelation 19:6, Common English Bible)