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Bishop's Column: Change is Strange

Posted: October 30 2020 at 12:00 AM
Author: Bishop Sally Dyck

We keep saying that we are in unprecedented times. But the fact of the matter is we are in a time of great change. Everything has changed and we know that more will yet change. And change is strange!

Consider the word “strange.” The dictionary says that the word “strange” has a Latin root in “extraneus” (i.e., outside of us). We feel pummeled some days—or at least I do—by all the change. If you watch the late-night comedy shows (I watch the morning-after clips), they make jokes about how fast change happens in the course of a week. I read somewhere that Lenin once said, "There are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen.” I feel like we’re in the latter! Change is strange: fast and unrelenting.

Just one change—the COVID-19 pandemic—has had a cascading effect on so many aspects of our personal lives, families, education, institutions, the church, business and the economy. Everything has changed. Decades worth of change have occurred in the last eight months to all of us.

As an annual conference, there have been—and there will be even more—changes in the future.  We don’t know what many of them will look like yet, such as:

Redistricting. Anticipating that the legislation to reduce the number of districts will be passed at annual conference, the Cabinet and I have been working on a plan for redistricting. It will affect many, but my experience with redistricting is that once district leadership is sorted out, it flows fairly smoothly. You may have a different district superintendent and district committees and groups may be slightly different from what you have now, but soon things will settle in!  

My retirement and the coming of an interim bishop. Over the next year, retired Bishop John Hopkins will provide episcopal guidance for the Cabinet, support the Annual Conference Shepherding Team with its work and provide general oversight. An interim situation implies “temporary” or “transitional,” so by definition, it suggests continuous change to a certain extent. Bishop Hopkins will do a great job as he helps guide the conference through changes in the near future.

General Conference 2020 (we still call it that). So many questions surround whether the General Conference will happen in person or virtually. General Conferences always generate a degree of anxiety, but this one, in particular, generates hard conversations in some local churches and among clergy as to what The United Methodist Church will be like going forward. What will our annual conference look like if churches leave the denomination (if they do)? What will the denomination look like if annual conferences leave (if they do)? All of these things are more questions than answers.

North Central Jurisdictional (NCJ) Conference. At some point in 2021, there will be a jurisdictional meeting. There is still a question about how many bishops will be elected, if any. It’s pretty clear that NCJ will have one less bishop and that may—although we don’t know yet—impact this annual conference, meaning that NIC will be “yoked” with another conference and share a bishop with that conference, starting 2022. Again, we don’t know yet.

I could go on with unknowns and their resultant changes. And just this short list demonstrates that change is strange!

But how do we deal with all this change? 

Over the last few years (for a variety of reasons), I have read a lot of Holocaust and post-Holocaust literature. Think about how strange the change was to a whole people as a result of World War II. The great Jewish philosophers, theologians and authors who lived through the Holocaust all emphasize that those who have thrived afterward did not allow the experience—no matter how horrendous—to define whom they were. The healthiest response is to not let change define us, but deal with how to respond to it. That seems very hard to do (and almost trite to suggest), except the Holocaust survivors themselves advocate for that philosophy.

Sometimes we deal with extraneous change by saying and doing things that actually increase the anxiety and drama—which makes it even more difficult to keep change from defining us. “Not letting change define you” means that we work hard at assuming the best of others and work from there instead of the opposite. If we have questions or concerns, it’s important to check them out with someone who knows before passing on rumors and rumors of rumors!  

I encourage all of you—laity and clergy—to acknowledge that your leaders going forward are all servants of the church. We are not perfect people, but we work to address these changes in the most transparent, consistent, caring, creative and even reasonable way that we know how. But as you know in your local churches, sometimes these changes come hard and fast, and it takes a minute to work out all those transparent, consistent, caring, creative and even reasonable approaches. So stay connected and in good communication; I know that your District Superintendents and Bishop Hopkins will do the same with you as they are able or ready to answer your questions and address your concerns.

There’s extraneous or outside change and there’s internal or spiritual change. Our Christian faith is nothing if not a call to change! Through Christ, we are changed from the inside out: the change of our hearts and minds through Christ. As it says in the epistle: “be ye transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:1). We need to pray for the transformation and renewal of our minds and hearts as we face extraneous changes such as how to face all that is and looks unfamiliar; holidays that aren’t going to be how we’ve always spent them; whatever this federal election will bring. All the extraneous changes challenge us to be open to the renewal of our hearts and minds in Christ.  

I read about a 92-year-old woman who was being moved to a nursing home. As an attendant wheeled the woman down the corridor to her new room for the first time and described her room and her new life in the care facility (undoubtedly trying to talk it up), the woman interrupted and gushed, “I love it!” “But you haven’t seen the room yet,” the attendant pointed out. “That doesn’t have anything to do with it,” she replied.  “Happiness”—or she could have said peace—"is something you decide on ahead of time. Whether I like my room or not doesn’t depend on how the furniture is arranged. It’s how I arrange my mind.” 

Practicing vital discipleship helps us in arranging our hearts and minds during these times. It takes discipline (as in discipleship) to follow Jesus (to be a disciple) in ways and challenges that are difficult. The renewal or arranging of our hearts and minds doesn’t just happen; the spiritual disciplines position us in relation to God’s grace and mercy so as to be transformed within as we are pummeled with extraneous change. Let us pray that we will experience the transformation of the renewal of our minds and hearts, allowing Christ to arrange them in such a way that we can embrace God, each other, our neighbors and colleagues in an open, loving and trusting way. Otherwise, our suffering is and will be great.

This is how Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for (God). Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what (God) wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

May it be so!

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