Over the last four years we’ve celebrated the overall quadrennial theme, “Who is my neighbor?” and over Annual Conference we highlighted the theme of, “Walk by Faith.” I would like to share some thoughts on what I believe we need to do as we continue to walk together on this journey, and how we have in part, laid the framework for this to happen through the work of the important laity – clergy partnership in this conference.
In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 1, verses 16 to 18, in speaking of Jesus, it says:
“Now as He walked by the sea of Galilee He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said unto them, “Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets and followed him.”
That’s it. He told them, “Follow me” and they did. But in our times, reaching others for Christ isn’t that simple, at least not for us. In reaching these two brothers, Jesus first had to be out and about. He wasn’t just sitting in the temple. Next, scripture tells us that he saw them. We have to actually really see people, not just look in their direction. Not just glance at them, but really see them – in other words, understand them. Jesus also saw what they were doing – they were fishing for they were fishermen. So he not only saw them, but he saw what they did, how they were living. This allowed him to reach them in the place where they were, and to speak to them in a way that they understood. So he had to strike up a conversation with them. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They understood that. He had reached them, and they followed him.
During the eight years that I have served as Conference Lay Leader, I have seen that one of the most important things in reaching people for Christ is relationships. Relationships are crucial such as the relationship between clergy persons and their churches, the relationship between Lay Leaders with their local churches and with their District Lay Leaders, the relationships between District Lay Leaders and their District Superintendents, and between the District Superintendents and the churches in their districts. Of course, I could go on and on, as I’m sure all of you could also do when you stop to think about the importance of relationships in the life of the church.
But God’s word reminds us of the importance of forming relationships with those who do not have the most important relationship in the world – the relationship that each and every one of us must have with Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
- When you have a relationship with Jesus, you will do things that you would not have done if you did not have faith. You will indeed walk by faith, not by sight.
- When you walk by faith you will plant a church where there are no churches, as we’ve seen in our Conference.
- When you walk by faith you hold a Laity Convocation in the dead of winter, hope someone shows up, and have almost 300 people come and hear about the importance of inner strength for greater outreach, as we saw this year during “Inside Out” the Laity Convocation of February 6 at Sycamore UMC.
- When you walk by faith you will have Lay Academies to train and instruct laity in how to be lay servants, and will have a great turnout in the districts.
- When you walk by faith you will stand up against human trafficking as our United Methodist Women have done.
- When you walk by faith you will bring the Word to those in prison, and bring comfort and strength to those in the military and to First Responders, as our United Methodist Men have done.
- When you walk by faith, you will begin a youth ministry when there are no youth in your church, as I was hearing about last night at the dinner for the Hispanic-Latino Caucus/National Hispanic Plan.
- When you walk by faith you will provide free legal services to undocumented workers in a society where some people fear and even hate immigrants and those different from them, as we’ve seen JFON do.
Sisters and Brothers, when you walk by faith, you will walk in unity, as it says in Ephesians 4:1-3. You will indeed “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with long-suffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”
We are at a critical juncture in the life of our Conference. I believe we have to focus on our local churches. We have to equip our leaders and deploy them to the districts and the local churches. We have to do more trainings regionally or by the districts. We need to emphasize the need for the clergy person in each church to meet with their lay leaders and clearly define their roles and evaluate the relationship between the parties. We need the District Lay Leaders to get out into the districts and meet with the lay leaders to strengthen their relationships. We need our District Superintendents to work more closely with the District Lay Leaders in order to empower the Lay Leaders, which will in turn, reduce the burden on the District Superintendents. All of these things will help us build up the connection in our Conference.
It was with fear and trepidation that I accepted this position eight years ago, but I accepted it anyway, because I knew that I would have to walk by faith. And I knew that I could walk by faith because of the relationship that I had, and have, with Jesus Christ. I am not the same person that I was eight years ago, but I know that God is not finished with me, and he’s not finished with the Northern Illinois Conference.
I have been truly blessed, and I want to thank all of you with whom I’ve served and worked during this time. To each and every one of you, God put you in my path to help me along the way, to teach me something, to encourage me – or correct me – but always to be a blessing to me. Thank you, thank you. To God be the Glory!
(This is an abbreviated version of Arnold Rivera’s Laity Address to Annual Conference he delivered on June 7, 2016. The full text can be found here.