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Bishop's Monday Message: Upcoming Changes

Posted: November 2 2020 at 09:26 AM

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I’m here at Barrington United Methodist Church where we will be holding our virtual annual conference session. As we approach our virtual annual conference sessions and worship, I encourage you to be sure and attend the pre-conference briefings this week if you are a registered delegate. It is essential that you have read and been briefed on the legislation with the opportunity to ask questions during these briefings. We will have less capacity and time to do that during our virtual session. Saying that, I want to assure you that the essential work of the annual conference is our priority so that we can continue into 2021 with momentum and focus…because there are a lot of changes coming up!

Normally I would use the episcopal address time to update you on these changes. I will have a few minutes to focus and ground our time together at our session, but these upcoming changes deserve a little more time and this video gives the opportunity to review them although they are also covered in the November Reporter.

A big change that is coming to the NIC as of January 1 is that I will have retired as of December 31, 2020, and you will have an interim bishop who is retired Bishop John Hopkins. He will serve the NIC for the 2021 calendar year before a resident bishop is assigned following Jurisdictional Conference in the fall of 2021.

He will be “interim,” which means that he will continue to live in the Indianapolis area where he retired. Especially in the upcoming months with COVID, he will work remotely with a few visits to the office, perhaps the Cabinet and other important in-person meetings, as Illinois begins to re-open for gatherings. He will have access to the condominium in the near West Loop where I have been living for the last 8 years. So if he wants to spend an overnight, several days, or a week here and there, he can do so.  

I’ve known Bishop Hopkins for years—probably back in the 1980s we met when he was the equivalent of the Director of Connectional Ministries (then called the Conference Council of Ministries director) and I was chairing the East Ohio Conference Council on Ministries. We met when we asked him to do some leadership training for our conference leadership. You’ll like him—he’s very outgoing and knows no strangers! You will hear a greeting from him at the end of our annual conference session on the 14th of November.

Speaking of the Jurisdictional Conference in the fall of 2021, it is the body that elects and assigns bishops and creates the areas for episcopal oversight. It will most likely be that our jurisdiction will have at least one less bishop and possibly two starting in 2022. If the jurisdictional conference decides to have two fewer bishops, then there will be no elections at that time. Either way, annual conferences will be “yoked,” if you will, in order to cover episcopal areas.  

Most of us assume that NIC will be one of the conferences that will be yoked with another, but that has not yet been determined. So if and when that is decided as a recommendation from the jurisdictional conference, and if it includes NIC, work will begin with that conference to determine many important decisions, such as where the area office would be. I do want to stress that this will NOT be a merger but a yoking! You will NOT be without a bishop but you will share a bishop with another conference. The jurisdictional conference will determine which annual conference that will be.

But let me turn to another change that could potentially impact our annual conference, depending on how you vote on November 14. That is the legislation that the Cabinet has proposed to reduce the number of districts (and, therefore, district superintendents) from 6 to 5.  

Our upcoming pre-conference briefings will be an opportunity to learn more and ask questions. But let me say that the Book of Discipline says that the annual conference determines how many districts there are and then the bishop in consultation with the Cabinet draws the lines for those districts. In anticipation of this legislation being passed, the Cabinet and I have been working on a redistricting plan for several months. If the legislation is passed to go from 6 to 5 districts, we will release a plan for all of you to see as soon as possible following the annual conference session. There will be opportunities to review it and ask questions. We will receive recommendations for modifications, but I will announce the redistricting of the conference before December 31. 

However, even after that, if you have reason to ask for a reconsideration, you will have two weeks to give the rationale to your District Superintendent. By the end of January 2021, any transfer of a church to another district will be complete. There are so many things to do—databases changed, etc.—so that by July 1, 2021, the districts will be set and the databases will generate proper communications.

But with all this change happening, I have confidence in the extended Cabinet. They have worked together as a team without any internal changes for almost two years. They are one of the best cabinets that I have been able to put together over the years of my episcopacy. They know this annual conference: not just the churches and clergy in their own districts but have been working in consultation regarding all of them. They will serve you well and I hope that you will be very supportive of them as they seek to both onboard an interim bishop and prepare you for redistricting and potentially becoming part of a different episcopal area.

And now another matter. In the last couple of weeks, the State of Illinois’ Department of Health has implemented new mitigations for COVID-19 in some of our regions, and therefore some of our districts. It’s important to follow the guidelines as they are given in order to keep people safe.  I do not want our churches to be superspreaders. The ReTurn guidelines on the website are meant for various aspects of ministry as each church in its region is allowed to open or to return to closing down if you need to. It’s important that you all keep track of any changes in your region.  

I know how discouraging it is to have to close down worship or some gatherings that you’ve been able to safely open over the last months. But we need to be part of the solution for a healthier Illinois. Act as if it depends on you…and your church…because it does!

COVID-19 has brought many changes that both make it more difficult to be the church (and just about everything else), as well as opportunities to do things in a new way that few would have been willing to even try in some places! Thank you to all of you who have really stepped up your leadership, learned some new skills, worked at doing things (like Zooming) that are or at least were initially challenging and being supportive of your pastor and your local church.  

I’ve found myself longing for the great hymns of the faith and humming this one: “How Firm a Foundation.” One of the verses goes like this:

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

Okay, and this one, too:

The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake!

May it be so! Amen!

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