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Spending a day in Christian conversation

Posted: October 22 2017 at 12:00 AM

More than 160 clergy and laity from throughout the Northern Illinois Conference came together on Sept.16 to engage in conversation digging deeper into who we are as the body of Christ and to think about the future of The United Methodist Church.

“Today we come together to talk about what it means to be the church as followers of Jesus,” said Bishop Sally Dyck, as she opened the day with prayer and scripture. “We’re not talking about human sexuality or any of the other issues that we disagree about per se. While these issues may come up at our tables, today we are called to really think about what it means to be the church.”

The day of conversation was held at Grace UMC in Naperville and led by retired Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader who encouraged participants to begin the conversation by looking at The United Methodist’s theological task as described in the Book of Discipline.

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“I think a lot of people can tell who we are by what we are doing, but they don’t know why we are doing what we do,” said Bishop Rader. “What do we believe about God and about this church and how does that inform how we are going to act toward each other and the world? We need to let the theology come first.”

Bishop Rader guided the table discussions based on the book Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness from the General Board of Higher Education. The following four questions crafted by the Council of Bishops for discussion by United Methodists across the denomination helped guide the conversations: 1) In our diverse and global existence, what is the shared mission/purpose of the Church? 2) Is there a proactive way for us to live together despite our differences that doesn’t presume that we will resolve our differences? 3) What might be a form of unity that would empower us to live together? 4) What is our witness and what can be our witness to the world in relation to our differences?

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“We’ve got to figure out in The United Methodist Church what is going to be our witness and our contribution to this world,” Bishop Rader advised.

The Rev. Juyeon Jeon, pastor at Epworth UMC in Chicago, said beginning the conversation around who we are as a church instead of focusing on the issue of human sexuality was constructive.

“I think grounding us in what it means to be the church was very helpful,” said Rev. Jeon. “The church I’m serving is reconciling but it can still be difficult to start the conversation and talk about what we believe and who we are.”

“The conversation felt so much more encouraging,” said Schwarzwalder. “I left much more hopeful than I have in the past. At least here in Northern Illinois, it sounds like we are trying to find a way to coexist and to make things possible for everybody.”

The Rev. Daniel Diss, pastor at First UMC in Glen Ellyn, said although his table didn’t come to any conclusions, the participants were very careful to listen to one another. “It’s important to recognize that while we may have different points of view, we need to listen respectfully and to understand that there are hallmarks of church but they don’t have to be identical, depending on where we find ourselves.”

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Bishop Dyck says there will be more time for conversations and they will be different conversations after the Commission on a Way Forward presents a preliminary report to the Council of Bishops in November, a final report next May, and the church convenes for a special session of the General Conference in 2019.

But in the meantime, Bishop Dyck encourages us to think about these questions: Why are you a United Methodist? What do you value about The United Methodist Church? How has the church transformed you?

“What does it mean to be church especially when there are so many differences and disagreements,” Bishop Dyck asked. “Is agreement the basis for being a church? Or could this be a kairos moment when we can give witness to the world that in our disagreement about very important things, we can [nevertheless] demonstrate love through our words and actions.”

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