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NCJ delegates talk anti-racism and future, vote to reduce bishops

Posted: November 12 2021 at 09:54 AM
Author: By Christa Meland, director of communications, Minnesota Conference


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North Central Jurisdiction bishops presided over the gathering. Photo by Rick Wolcott

When Rev. Ron Bell was in high school, his father became superintendent of the Eastern District of the Delaware Annual Conference. As their family was moving into the superintendents’ big, beautiful parsonage in Eastern Maryland, the entire local police department surrounded the house with guns drawn and told Bell and his father to get on the ground with their hands behind their heads. Why?

“Because a little white girl across the street saw black folk in her neighborhood,” said Bell, who serves Camphor Memorial UMC in St. Paul, Minn. “That's when I knew race matters.”

Rev. Juyeon Jeon, senior pastor at First UMC in Bensenville, Ill., came to the U.S. from South Korea in 2008 and said “she worked very hard to assimilate to the culture and language.” But says she deeply realized that race matters through her six-year-old daughter. 

“It was right after George Floyd’s death and I was taking a walk in our predominantly white neighborhood with my daughter, who looks just like me,” said Jeon. “About 100 feet away two men in a car driving by started shouting ‘hey Chinese’ and they kept calling out to us.”

Jeon said she held her daughter close and kept walking but said the experience is still hurtful. “Whatever their intention was I don't know, but I was feeling threatened and mocked and to think this is the reality my daughter will live, I was so upset,” Jeon said. “This needs to be changed and stopped.”

Jeon and Bell were among six “truth-tellers” who shared their personal experiences with race at a virtual North Central Jurisdictional (NCJ) gathering that took place Nov. 10 and 11. ►Watch video

Approximately 250 delegates participated in the official Zoom meeting, and others from across the 10-conference jurisdiction watched it live online. Delegates spent the majority of their time together on three big topics of conversation—dismantling racism, the future of episcopal leadership, and the future of The United Methodist Church. On the second day of the conference, they voted 142-13 in favor of a proposal to reduce the number of active bishops in the NCJ from nine to eight to align with the membership threshold for bishops that’s set by General Conference. 

Dismantling racism

In the dismantling racism portion of the session, retired Bishop Hope Morgan Ward reminded attendees that the ministry of anti-racism centers in discipleship.

“The arc of history bends toward justice, and we will be forceful in pulling that arc down together, all to the glory of God,” she said. She noted that the Council of Bishops has centered the ministries of equity, inclusion, justice, diversity, and antiracism—and in doing so, has appreciated the work of Brian Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and chief creator of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. He urges four pillars for anti-racism efforts:

  • Hear and share true stories; in particular, give space to and honor stories of people of color.
  • Get “proximate” to the suffering and pain of racism and inequality.
  • Expect resistance. 
  • Protect your hopefulness.
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Pictured with her daughter Rev. Juyeon Jeon, pastor at First UMC in Bensenville, was among six truth-tellers who shared their personal experiences with race at the virtual North Central Jurisdictional (NCJ) gathering. Photo courtesy Juyeon Jeon

After hearing from Ward, the six truth-tellers each issued a challenge to the North Central Jurisdiction and the Church. 

“Justice takes more than just words; it requires sacrifice,” said Andres De Arco, National Assistant Director to the United Methodist Hispanic Youth Leadership Academy and a member of the West Ohio Conference. “What are you willing to sacrifice for justice?”

The dismantling racism session ended with small group discussions among delegates. They reflected aloud on a question posed by Bishop Tracy Smith Malone, resident bishop of the East Ohio Conference: As you think about your context and your discipleship journey and life in Christ, how might God be calling you to make a difference, to step out more boldly and prophetically…to put your weight on the arc of history, bending toward justice?

NIC Clergy Delegate Rev. Hwa-Young Chong, who leads Community UMC in Naperville, Ill., said the witnesses from the "truth-tellers" had a profound impact on her.  

“It was painful to hear how structural racism continues to harm and dehumanize the communities of color,” said Chong. “At the same time, these witnesses were so powerful and I think we need to keep telling the stories and naming our hurts and wounds, even though it is very painful to do so.”

The future of episcopal leadership

Delegates on Thursday voted 142-13 in favor of a proposal to have eight active bishops in the NCJ as of the next regular session of the jurisdictional conference—representing a decrease from the nine bishops who have led the jurisdiction in recent years. 

In a presentation before the vote, Rev. Sara Isbell, chair of the NCJ Committee on the Episcopacy and a member of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, explained that if a jurisdiction falls below a certain threshold in membership, the General Conference makes a decision about the number of bishops needed for that smaller number of members. Although the General Conference has not yet met to vote on a reduction, for several years, the NCJ has been below the number needed to secure nine bishops—so such a vote is expected at the postponed 2020 General Conference, now slated for Aug.-Sept. 2022. The NCJ could vote to stay with nine bishops, but then it must figure out how to pay them, apart from the Episcopal Fund that typically covers this cost.

Isbell also pointed out that we’ve had an opportunity over the past year to practice operating with eight bishops. Since Jan. 1, Bishop David Bard has been serving Minnesota on an interim basis in addition to being resident bishop for the Michigan Conference, Bishop Laurie Haller has been serving the Dakotas on an interim basis in addition to being resident bishop for Iowa, and Bishop John Hopkins left retirement to lead the Northern Illinois Conference. 

Before the vote, delegates met in small groups to explore a variety of questions around episcopal leadership.

“Everyone in my small group was committed to the process and participated,” said Nancy Pendergrass, NIC lay delegate.  "I found the discussion about episcopal leadership helpful, especially the priority we place on the roles enumerated in paragraph 403.1 of The Book of Discipline.  We were able to share our thoughts with the jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy, but also I clarified what I believe are the essential gifts and graces our next elected bishop should exhibit."

The future of The United Methodist Church

Drawing on John 6: 1-14, Bishop Laurie Haller told the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 to close the day on Wednesday. She pointed out that after the meal, Jesus told his disciples to gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.

“My dear friends, I know that you are tired,” said Haller. “We often think somebody else will gather the fragments of our beloved UMC and transform the world. But now it’s time for us to do something in the North Central Jurisdiction. The future of The United Methodist Church is in our hands, as we gather here to hope, to dream, to share the gospel, and to claim our connectionalism.”

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Delegates approved a proposal to have eight active bishops in the NCJ as of the next regular session of the jurisdictional conference—representing a decrease from the nine bishops who have led the jurisdiction in recent years. (Not pictured: Bishop Frank J. Beard) Photo by Rick Wolcott

Jesus sends you and me out to gather up the fragments, Haller noted, which are are our mixed loyalties, our stubbornness to forgive, our reluctance to accept those who are different, and our fondness for judging. But the fragments are also the loving words we say, the songs we sing, the money we give, the food we share, and the care we offer to the discarded and battered of this world.

“No matter how many fragments we gather up or give away, the basket will always be filled with God’s love, for the circle is wide, and no one should ever have to stand alone,” she said. “That my friends, is beloved community. That, my friends, is our vision. That, my friends, is the future of our church. It’s time for us to do something right now.”

Bishop Hopkins who shared the closing prayer on the first day of the session said it was a joy to meet in the same place, in person with his colleague bishops for the first time in two years. He said the NCJ Conference demonstrated that we can have a virtual meeting with small groups and have meaningful discussions.

"We were able to tell stories, share perspectives, and learn from each other.," Hopkins said.  "While not everyone has the same views about our church, my prayer is that we can find a way for everyone to feel included in the church we love and serve.  After all, it is the body of Christ!"

Delegates spent time in breakout groups to discuss what they see as priorities for the NCJ going forward and what the NCJ should accomplish in the next two to five years to fulfill these priorities.

“Overall, this special session of the Jurisdictional Conference provided a much-needed sense of hope and direction. I deeply appreciate the hard work of our Bishops, organizers, and the writing team,” said Chong.

Bishop Hopkins who shared the closing prayer on the first day of the session said it was a joy to meet in the same place with his colleague bishops for the first time in two years. 

"We were able to tell stories, share perspectives, and learn from each other.  Although the delegates had a different experience, the NCJ Conference demonstrated you can have a virtual meeting with small groups and meaningful discussion.   Every time I heard someone, I have known over the years speak virtually to the conference, I wanted to walk over and greet them.  Not all of them have the same views about our church.  My prayer is that we can find a way for everyone to feel included in the church we love and serve.  After all, it is the body of Christ!

Read more on the Covenant approved by the NCJ delegates.

To watch videos from the session, click here.

To learn more about the North Central Jurisdiction, visit ncjumc.org.

Anne Marie Gerhardt, NIC Dir. of Communications, contributed to this article.

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