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DYK: Leaning into the past to plan the future

Posted: February 28 2024 at 06:36 AM
Author: Rev. Arlene Christopherson, Assistant to the Bishop

Gavels From Original Log Cabin Wood

Wood from the original Rock River Conference cabin was carved to make these two gavels, which have been used by NIC bishops.

This winter my husband, Gary, and I have been cleaning out my mother-in-law’s house as she transitions to assisted living. It was her home for 62 years, the place where she raised her family and spent much of her life.  

Sifting through the contents of her home revealed much about the joy and fullness of life. Yellowed and brittle kindergarten report cards for her three boys, a thank-you note I wrote to her in 1982 for hosting our wedding shower, baby blankets, and family photos.  

With the decision of our North Central Jurisdictional Conference delegates to move the Wisconsin Conference and Northern Illinois Conference into a relationship of sharing a bishop (not merger) beginning in September, we to can lean into our past to plan for the future.  

Rev. Dan Swinson, a much-relied-upon historian in our conference, offered some research to the Shared Bishop Taskforce for their work. Dan reminds us that when the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 sketched out five new states, the northern borders of what would become Indiana and Illinois were both set on a line south of the southern shore of Lake Michigan. This line roughly followed the present course of Interstate 80. Were it not for politicking, it would have placed the entirety of the present Northern Illinois Conference in the state of Wisconsin. 

In 1840, when the Methodist Church set its conference boundaries, it included Wisconsin, Iowa, and the northern part of Illinois as one conference area. The first five sessions of the Rock River Conference were held respectively in Mt. Morris, Ill.; Platteville, Wis.; Chicago; Dubuque, Iowa; and Milwaukee. A plaque in Mt. Morris marks the spot where the Rock River Conference first convened.     

Sharing a bishop as part of a wider regional area is not new in our history. In the 1800s the role of the bishop was tailored to meet the needs of this vast territory. Bishops equipped the leaders of the church to equip the laity in the pews, as they made disciples of Jesus Christ. The work predated phones, highways, and Zoom. 

Over the years conference boundaries changed, the role of bishop changed, but the mission always remained the same: making disciples. This season we lean into change once again as we rethink the ways in which a bishop can most effectively lead in equipping the saints both lay and clergy as we make disciples of Jesus Christ. Leaning into the past, we can learn for the future.  

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