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Setting a Table for All: Bishop's State of the Conference Address

Posted: June 15 2023 at 02:00 PM
Author: Victoria Rebeck


The Annual Conference theme, “Come to the Table,” prompted Bishop Dan Schwerin to recall tables at which he’s sat.

Small tables with Formica tops, covered with oil cloth. TV tables. Picnic tables. A long wooden table at Great Grandma’s house for learning addition and subtraction. Tables with laughter, tables of abundance, tables of learning new customs, and tables of comfort and sharing. A season of kids who delight in gross things done at the table. His favorite table is eggs and toast with his wife, Julie.

“Tables are about making room for others to break bread together, and if your together is not together, it is difficult to eat together and enjoy the company of who we are,” Bishop Schwerin said in his state of the conference address on June 6.

“Tables can be the place where your fault lines hurt even more, or they can be the place of equipping God’s newness. There is something sacramental about a table that has had difficult conversations, with respect and dignity, and a sense of God's presence. We know from the gospel accounts that betrayal at a table of fellowship stings deeply.”

Summarizing the article “America is in a ‘Great Pulling Apart.’ Can we pull together?” (Washington Post, Jan. 31, 2023), Bishop Schwerin concurred with author Danielle Allen that our nation is in a period she calls “the great pulling apart.” Americans are pulled apart by income inequality, unequal outcomes meted out by justice systems, health care, and education. We are pulled apart by polarization and an unworkable and hurtful immigration policy.

“To be the body of Christ is as countercultural as it has always been,” the bishop observed. “How is The United Methodist Church in the Northern Illinois Conference a resistance and alternative to the great pulling apart in our culture?”

That alternative is found at tables, he said, and the Bible contains many stories that include tables.

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Bishop Dan Schwerin

“Our best parables are about inviting those in the highways and hedges to the table, about taking the last seat and putting others before us,” he said.

Since his arrival in Northern Illinois, Bishop Schwerin has met with 64 different groups—local churches, local pastors, lay leaders, the Annual Conference Shepherding Team, the five districts, superintendency committees, the NIC Foundation board, the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary board, caucus groups, Net Zero meetings, and more.

In these gatherings, he says he has heard celebration of our anti-racism work and challenge that we are barely scratching the surface of equity.

“The civil-rights pilgrimage and the migrant support work are so powerfully necessary,” he said. “We have so much potential for Hispanic ministry in our conference and I look forward to continued attention to those possibilities.

“I have heard joy related to being a Reconciling Conference in The United Methodist Church since 1986! That makes this our 37th anniversary year of leading the denomination toward fully including LGBTQIA+ folks. I also hear the pain of people who do not feel safe in their church. Inclusion and equity are a must if we are to live out God’s dream of table.”

Expressing gratitude for the signs of faithfulness he has seen here, he mentioned Rev. Christine Young Sun Kim, a missionary from the Northern Illinois Conference to Tanzania. She has led the development of a global middle secondary school during the Covid-19 pandemic. Next year the first class will graduate, and the ministry continues to grow.

Some Northern Illinois United Methodist expressed their concerns to him frankly.

“I heard the conference described as ‘unwell, dysfunctional, mistrusting, having a victim mentality, lacking transparency, understaffed, unaccountable, bullying, and hopelessly political,’” he said. “I have seen bullying with my own eyes. Let’s be clear: for bullying to take place there must be a bully, the bullied, and bystanders. Siblings in Christ, I will not be a bystander.”

Clergy spoke of being exhausted by trying to minister in an uncharted time of pandemic. Racism and heterosexism have hurt people in overt and insidious ways. The pain of learning that children were abused in some of the Boy Scout troops that may have met in our churches is heart-wrenching.

Even taking all this into account, “I believe in this time of pulling apart we have a prophetic and evangelical opportunity to be people who are about coming together and bringing together and healing together as a resistance and alternative to the hurt and harm in our culture,” the bishop said. “I believe love has always been God’s daring, alternative to hurt and harm. We need leadership capable of mending and building up.”

It is expected that Northern Illinois Conference will be asked to share a bishop with another conference. This is already done in some other annual conferences. Those conferences are not merged. They still operate as distinct annual conferences, as they have always done. They have the same bishop.

Bishop Schwerin explained that Northern Illinois will soon increase its planning, with a mix of people who are diverse, representing different leadership roles in the body, and will operate transparently. The team will report progress and seek feedback as they go. Building relationships between the conferences is a priority, he said.

Looking to the ministry ahead, the bishop reaffirmed the importance of a diversity and respect in leadership.

“We must be one with multiracial and diverse theological leadership to cast vision for a beloved community framework or our gospel message is bankrupt and increases harm,” he said. “The healing that we need is multi-faceted but grounded in ethics that reflect a belief that all people are of sacred worth. We must equip all the callings in our span of care that enable our conference to live out of a beloved community framework, beloved first. Clearly ‘beloved’ must describe the composition and ethos of our community.”

Growing into a healthy conference “will require leadership that is grounded, mature, and builds trust that allows us to focus on the vision,” Bishop Schwerin said. “For every one of us, we must be the change we wish our conference to be.”

He concluded by returning to the image of gathering around a table.

“I believe God is preparing a table,” he said. “I believe God is preparing this remnant church to cast vision for a great coming together as a resistance and alternative to the hurt and harm in our culture.

“As the table of a new church is being set, a new hospitality for the whole people of God is needed, and I believe courageous spiritual leaders set the table for the good of the whole.”

Watch the Episcpal Address

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