Bishop Carter's Reflections with the 2023 Clergy Session of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church
June 15, 2023
Reflections with the 2023 Clergy Session of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church
Bishop Ken Carter
June 15, 2023
I want to begin by saying “thank you” to the clergy of the Western North Carolina Conference. We have lived through, we are living through the effects of a global pandemic—seven million people have died, our patterns of gathering have changed, we were not able to celebrate important events in our lives together—births, graduations, marriages, retirements, deaths—and the pandemic exaggerated fault lines in our culture and communities. This alongside the polarization of our national politics—-the first violent transition of presidential power in my lifetime, not peaceful, not non-violent but one that led to the deaths of women and men. The pandemic and the polarization led to strained relationships. This alongside the murders of black men and women that were documented and continue to penetrate and convict our national consciousness. And this alongside our denomination’s response to the General Conference of 2019, the establishment of an alternative Methodist denomination, the legal permission of voting processes in a number of our churches to discern disaffiliation.
You have lived through all of this. We are living through all of this. Ministry in an ordinary time is demanding. This is not an ordinary season. It has required much from all of us. I want to thank you because through it all you have showed up. You showed up for others. You showed up this afternoon, and, a central part of this conference’s purpose is that we have showed up for each other. That is the connection.
As I have written and said in a number of places, the “we” of the United Methodist Church has been contested. I don’t assume it. If there is something you love or need or benefit from in the United Methodist Church, you will have a great voice and influence in whether that endures. The connection is what we make of it. Your presence here, you’re showing up, you’re showing up each week, is a sign of that. Theologically, it is the incarnation. Thank you.
Next, I want to say that we are on a journey from one place to another. We are experiencing change, from what has been to what will be. It is, Susan Beaumont writes, a “liminal space”. Some of where we have been is a space to which we do not want to return. It was a space for racism and exclusion. And in the last year we have been through a lot. Some would use the language of trauma. Fightings without and fears within. We have lost some of our churches and some of our clergy in the called virtual annual conference this spring. We have lost some of our members, some of our friends, and some of our buildings.
I want to encourage us to detach from all of that. It is a process, but it will be healthy not to stay attached to loss, enmeshed in the grievance, obsessed with the fight. It is time to pivot. Call it metanoia. Let go. Turn toward a new life. We will be a bit smaller, but more focused. Some of what we have lost is a kind of purging. To complete the hard work we have done is for the sake of people we have singled out for exclusion, and for generations of people we are not reaching. We are not going back.
What do you need to detach from? An anger. A resentment. A bitterness. In the language of Hebrews 12, can we lay it aside? In the language of Galatians 5, can we live in the freedom of God?
No More Presentations by Other Expressions of Methodism in our Churches
As a part of the pivot, and to repeat guidance from the recent clergy session, we ask that there be no more recruitment presentations in our churches about other expressions of Methodism. We have been through this season. To continue to do so is inconsistent with our ordination promises and membership vows.Peer Accountability and Support
As I have lived in a season in my own life in a role of oversight, I have come to see the logic of our polity in relation to clergy as being one of peer accountability and support. You have voted on persons who will join you in the clergy covenant. That happens in the district and in the conference. Where there is malpractice or misconduct, it is the clergy session that holds accountability. Where there is an unresolved complaint, and in a worst case scenario, a group of peer clergy would function as a jury in a trial.
A bishop ensures that all of these are fair processes. This is the role of presiding and shepherding. And along with and in tension with accountability is support. A healthy church, a functioning institution has high accountability and high support.
If you are called to depart, do so quickly. Churches could have left in 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, it is now 2023, some are wondering if they might depart in 2024. Our doctrine is not changing, it will not change. Yes, we are on journey to removing the racism and exclusion as our practice of discipleship and sanctification. If you are called to depart, go quickly and go in peace.
We want you to stay and be a part of this. Help us be a community of accountability and support in the clergy office.
We are here for each other. We are here to speak the truth to each other, in love. We are here to watch over one another in love. This is not the time or space for heroic solo leaders. We have seen the demise of that leadership model in the non-denominational world. This is the time and space for connectional clergy who will contribute to the health of the body.
Catherine of Sienna was a 14th century spiritual guide who read the Bible to the degree that she memorized the scriptures and dreamed about them. For context, remember that Sienna is in Tuscany, where they make the best wine in the world from the vineyards that are her land. In a vision given to her as she read Matthew 20, she wrote:
“Keep in mind that each of you has your own vineyard. But everyone is joined to your neighbor’s vineyard without any dividing lines. They are so joined together, in fact, that you cannot do good for yourself without doing good for your neighbor, and you cannot do harm to your neighbor without doing harm to yourself.”
Taking Responsibility for Our Own Spiritual Lives
In the midst of all of this, we are going to need to up our game. Some of you know that I love coffee. Grinding the beans. In 2016 we were in Portland for the General Conference and staying in one of the large hotels. Now by nature I like to get out, and I am wired not to want to spend the church’s money on breakfast in an expensive setting when I can locate something much more economical and often much better. So we found a place, a diner, we walked there with a couple of friends and sat down to order, and I asked for coffee. It came first, I began to drink it and it was amazing. I took another swallow. The same.
When the waiter came by I stopped him and said, “when I ordered coffee I was expecting the ordinary kind of industrial coffee. This is an amazingly good.”
The waiter smiled and said, “you know, around here, in Portland, there is a pretty high bar for coffee. We started there, but we realized pretty quickly that we had to up our game.”
We are going to need spiritual lives that will carry us through all of this. We are going to need to up our game. Rooted in grace, sustained by connection, a journey to holiness. And in that we are going to need to take responsibility for our own spiritual lives. There is an abundance of resources, cohorts, spiritual directors, mentors, teachers.
We know enough. We have enough. It is a matter of the will. You and I, if we are going to make it through, we will need to take responsibility for our own spiritual lives.
We are on the way to a better church. Together with the lay leaders who will join us here in this holy space, you are a crucial part of that.
So, to conclude, thank you. I give thanks for God for you. You have given the most precious gift you have, your time, your life, to serve God and your neighbor through this church. You did not deserve some of what you have experienced since we last met. You are serving in a particularly complicated season. At the same time I hope you have been present to the people who have blessed you, been a means of grace for you, tried to carry some of the weight with you, tried to show their love for you. I want to add my voice to theirs.