Invite to Day of Prayer
Two years ago, the Northern Illinois Conference approved a strategic plan focused on three primary goals for our conference and congregations. Task Forces were formed, and even with the challenges of a…
As of January 1, 2021, I will be retired after 43 ½ years of active ministry in The United Methodist Church. My ministry in Northern Illinois began on September 1, 2012 and due to the postponement of General and Jurisdictional Conferences, I extended my time in Northern Illinois until the end of 2020. I have already begun my post-retirement ministry as the Ecumenical Officer for the Council of Bishops/The United Methodist Church. Retired Bishop John Hopkins will be the interim bishop as of January 1, 2021. I know that you will welcome him into your midst!
For this last Reporter and website article, I want to give “thanks for the ministries.” I’m the kind of person that doesn’t look back much but always forward. Hopefully, I spend a fair amount of time in the present, too! So looking at the sendoff videos both at annual conference and recently from churches throughout the annual conference was a good exercise for me in “looking back.” Thanks for the memories of ministries and thank you to all who put those together!
I have seen and been a part of many wonderful memories of the ministries in the Northern Illinois Annual Conference (NIC). From “the blessing of the tractors” to the Urban Strategy summits in Chicago (where some lifelong Chicago United Methodists went to the South Side for the first time in their lives!) to serving children and youth as well as preaching and teaching in the various congregations and ethnic gatherings. I averaged between 60 and 70 presentations, sermons or teachings a year until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and then I tried to connect with as many people as possible through Monday video messages. I have rejoiced in new faith communities and given thanks for congregations who have been faithful through the ages but now provide a legacy for the future as they close or merge. Thanks for the memories of ministries, Northern Illinois Annual Conference!
I have tried to keep you all informed about the changes happening in the denomination and to NIC itself. I leave you with a strong Cabinet that is accustomed to working together and will, help you navigate these changes along with Bishop Hopkins.
However, leaving the NIC causes me to reflect upon some of the concerns I have for you as you go forward. One of those concerns is the effect of how individualistic we all have become—and that includes local churches and clergy. The strength of our mission, witness and outreach comes through a strong mutual covenant among us as our connectional system in United Methodism assumes.
But more and more the relationship has become increasingly contractual. In other words, local church and clergy attitudes and actions increasingly reflect these questions: What will you do for me? What will you give me? On the one hand, the annual conference has much to give to local churches and clergy. A few good examples of that support include help for churches in navigating the health insurance for their pastor, assistance from the NIC Treasurer for churches applying for the Paycheck Protection Program, one-on-one guidance for a Staff-Parish Relationship Committee (SPRC) chair talking through difficulties with their district superintendent, and a variety of NIC-sponsored trainings including safe boundary trainings and leadership trainings. The list goes on and on in terms of what you should expect (and take advantage of) from the annual conference.
But the annual conference needs your support, too! That includes paying apportionments but it’s more than that. It’s to work for its common good and strength. As our denomination goes through this difficult time, heightening in anxiety and tension as we approach (maybe) General Conference, it’s tempting to pull apart the fabric instead of helping to strengthen it. Former (and recently deceased) Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain wrote a book entitled “Morality.” His concern for humanity itself is that we are becoming more “I” and less “we” in our interactions with each other. England survived during World War II because people pulled together as “we,” not fragmented as a bunch of “I’s.” COVID-19 has aggravated and even escalated this individualism, as we have become more polarized and isolated from each other. This could have been a time when we pulled together as “we” but the fact that surges continue reveals that we have not.
Sacks describes the difference between a contractual and a covenantal relationship:
Contracts are about “I.” A covenant generates a different kind of relationship altogether…what makes it different is that in a covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes even to share their lives, by pledging their faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can achieve alone. Unlike contracts, which are entered into for the sake of advantage, covenants are moral commitments sustained by loyalty and fidelity, even when they call for sacrifice. They are about you and I (sic) coming together to form a “We.” A contract is a transaction. A covenant is a relationship. A contract is about interests. A covenant is about identity. That is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform. (Sacks, Jonathan. Morality, p. 313, Basic Books. Kindle Edition.)
One of the reasons that I am ready to retire is because ministry is more contractual than I have ever experienced it before and I think that has a “wear and tear” on clergy leadership—my own and the clergy that I have served—that is spiritually damaging to all when a contractual relationship seeps into church. It damages laity, too, because the church becomes a consumer-oriented endeavor instead of a people who are grounded in a covenant with God, our faith in Jesus Christ, our church and each other.
In order to navigate the changes ahead—from continued days/weeks/months of COVID-19 to post-COVID, changes in districting and episcopal leadership, and whatever it is that The United Methodist Church will yet be, a covenantal relationship is essential.
In fact, in the spirit of sharing one’s pronouns, I would suggest that you make sure that “you” is always plural! If we were southerners, it would be y’all! Thanks for the ministries, Northern Illinois, and may God bless y’all and keep y’all! For in y’all, y’all will rise or fall.
Last but not least, a special thank you to Anne Marie Gerhardt, Director of Communications, for her support during my years in the NIC with the Reporter and website articles, especially through all the videos she helped produce for annual conference and my Monday messages this year alone! And thank you to Rev. Martin Lee and Rev. Fabiola Grandon-Mayer for their translation of the Monday messages.
Mrs. Marcia L. Ruth, spouse of retired member Rev. Orrell Ruth of the Northern Illinois Conference, passed away September 13, 2021, at age 82. During his ministry in the conference, Rev. Ruth s…
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