Get Out of the Institutional Mindset and Into the World – Bishop Grant Hagiya

Episode 7

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EPISODE 007: Bishop Grant J. Hagiya is a graduate of Claremont School of Theology and Pepperdine University, as well as the author of the book, Leadership Kaizen, published by Abingdon Press in 2013.  As a Bishop, he has served as the episcopal leader in the Greater Northwest area, and now in the Los Angeles area. Prior to his election to the episcopacy, he served as the Los Angeles District Superintendent, Executive Director of the Center for Leadership Excellence, and as a faculty member at Claremont School of Theology.

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Molly: From Apostolic times, certain ordained persons have been entrusted with the particular tasks of superintending. The purpose of superintending is to equip the Church in its disciple-making ministry. Those who superintend carry primary responsibility for ordering the life of the Church. It’s their task to enable the gathered church to worship, and to evangelize faithfully.

It’s also their task to facilitate the initiation of structures and strategies for the equipping of Christian people for service in the Church and in the world in the name of Jesus Christ, and to help extend the service in mission.

It’s their task as well to see that all matters, temporal and spiritual, are administered in a manner that acknowledges the ways and the insights of the world critically and with understanding while remaining cognizant of and faithful to the mandate of the church.

These words from our United Methodist Book of Discipline, described the work of “superintending,” a work that’s undertaken primarily by our bishops, and by extension with their Cabinets.

Here in the fall of 2022, we’re getting ready to elect some new Bishops in the United States. Elections will take place at Jurisdictional Conferences in the regions of the US in the first week of November. Many of us who are involved in leadership in the Church have been talking a lot about who should be elected, and what qualities of leadership we need at this moment in the life of the church.

I’m Reverend Molly Vetter, the Senior Pastor of Westwood United Methodist Church in Los Angeles.

For the sake of my congregation, I wanted to extend the conversation a little more broadly–to talk not only about who we’re electing, but what it will take from all of us, to step into these next moments of the life of our denomination. In the midst of significant denominational anxiety, and the inability to meet as the General Conference and make decisions for the whole of United Methodism; in the continuing work of recognizing our shared struggles in living in a changing planet, dealing with catastrophic climate change, reckoning with entrenched and institutionalized racism, coping with the ongoing changes of pandemic, we’re still called to live the gospel faithfully.

So I decided to record a few more episodes of this podcast conversation: Where Do We Go From Here, UMC? My hope is that these conversations will help people in churches like mine– congregations committed to the work of the gospel, congregations that will not waver in our commitment to the full inclusion and celebration of LGBTQIA+ peoples, who see the image of God in every human, who see the long road ahead of us as we work for church and community structures more aligned with the Gospel.

I wanted to invite conversation with some church leaders at various levels, and I’m thrilled that for this first episode I got to sit down with Bishop Grant Hagiya.

Bishop Hagiya is my own Bishop, the Bishop of our California Pacific Annual Conference, and currently serving as Bishop for the Desert Southwest Annual Conference. He will retire at the end of this calendar year after his years of service as a Bishop.

I sat down with him to reflect a little bit about his life and calling, and about the leadership needs of the Church at this moment. I hope you’ll listen in.

Molly: If you’re willing, I’ll go through these questions. I would be curious if you thought of other questions you want me to ask. I’m open to that.

Bishop Grant: I’m just glad I go on these podcasts, and sometimes they have these signature eccentricities to try to get people to think they say: you gotta get hot sauce, and you know all right.

Molly: No hot wings involved in this interview!

Bishop Grant: I’m glad you don’t have any of that..

Molly: So my motivation for this podcast was because some folks at Westwood were asking: What’s going on in the general church? I wanted to be able to interpret it, and seemed like talking to people who are involved in the church at different in different sort of levels and capacities would be a good way to do that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about preparation for jurisdictional conferences, which are coming up at the beginning of November, where we’ll elect new bishops.

I confess that I’ve found myself wondering what this means for the people of my congregation–like for the local church. I confess that one of my fears is that we put a lot of energy into selecting who the next bishops are going to be, but that’s sort of not enough to move the church forward; the risk is that we think, “Oh, well, we elected the right bishops. So now we’re good to go.” You know that’s not the case.

You’ve had a diagram that you’ve shared with us here in Cal-Pac over the years–it’s an inverted triangle that has the people of our our churches and communities at the top as the important piece and the leadership, like our bishops, at the bottom, supporting and enabling that.

So I wanted to ask you at this moment, where you’re sort of getting close to the end of your term as an active Bishop, if you could reflect a little bit about local communities and what your role is and what it has to say to that.

I wanted to start by asking you about the local church that you consider your home church–back, even before you were a pastor. What’s your local church story?

Bishop Grant: Sure, yeah. During the war years my parents were swept up in that whole incarceration thing, and they got incarcerated in Gila, Arizona.

(We just had this big blowout celebration of the 75 camps and assembly centers in National Japanese Museum.) But at any rate, they were West Coast raised and born, and after the war coming out of the camps, my dad was actually drafted into the US Military. They had to go back east, because the West Coast was too racist in that situation.

So they ended up in Chicago, where I was born, and they baptized me there, but they never went to church there. So when they did eventually move back to California when I was about 5, they just said, we’re gonna go to church, we’re gonna take the kids. We ended up at a Japanese American church that’s still going quite strong, called Wesley United Methodist Church in San Jose, California. And that’s been my home church–that’s where I was nurtured.

And reflecting upon that, the Church really provided a sense of transformation from me, personally. Our family was very active. We went every Sunday. Two things the church provided: one was unconditional support. The second thing they provided me was a sense of opportunity to lead.

So let me give you an illustration of both. First one was the support system. When I was about 14 my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Her faith was so strong because of this church and nurture. But it was a very short kind of prognosis that they had, and we lost her right before Christmas. My mom was a type that ran the entire house. She did everything for all of us: home cooked meals, cleaning, you name it. It was unbelievable, the amount of time and energy you put in. So losing her was like the bottom fell out of our family.

I’ll never forget that the people that started coming to our house regularly, each one of us had friends who stopped by. But the church friends were the ones who came the most and stayed the longest, and gave us the most support.

And it’s epitomized in her funeral service.

We knew it was gonna be hard. But the church filled that day, and then they put people in the basement where extra chairs were set up and that filled, and then they had to go–more people started coming, so they had to put them in the education wing, which was set apart from the church. And this was before video or audio feeds. So a lot of people sat through the whole service, not seeing or hearing anything.

It was a very uplifting service. Our pastor was so optimistic about eternal life, and said the right things for us.

But it was the funeral procession that really got to me.

We came out, and we were to lead the cars to the burial site, and I remember coming out of the sanctuary, and looking at all of the sea of cars waiting for us to lead, and I literally couldn’t see the end of the line of cars, and then it hit me: you know with all these people were praying for us, supporting us. How could we not make it? How could we not survive? And we did–that’s due to the Church’s love and prayers and support of us that got us through that.

Molly: Wow. What a beautiful image. Processions are the things that get me teary, whether it’s processions into worship or in protest, something about standing in that line of people that are going somewhere is just a powerful embodiment of, I don’t know, hope. Action.

Bishop Grant: That’s right: and optimism for the future. All the things that we desperately needed. Because the central part of our life was gone. Yeah.

Molly: Certainly a reminder that you’re not alone.

Bishop Grant: Amen. Amen, and the opportunity one is really critical, too. Because I was a young young person, thrust into leadership. We didn’t have a youth director, didn’t have anything like that. And so, at about 15, I became a Sunday school teacher. I became the youth pastor in some ways. They gave me opportunities to teach and to lead the youth. They sent me to seminars, you know. And I was totally unprepared! But they gave me freedom to lead and I think that that’s another thing that’s central to any local church.

And those lessons sort of have stayed with me through my entire ministerial career, too.

Molly: Yeah, if that was a reminder that you’re not alone. I also can imagine that being a Bishop is sometimes a little bit of a lonely job. You’ve got a very specific set of responsibilities and expectations put on you, for the sake of the church in the world. And when you’re making decisions about what to do–whether it’s how to respond to a confidential complaint, or what to say in your episcopal address at Annual Conference, do you pictures of local churches? Like, what do you have in mind to keep you grounded? How do you keep that grounding in the local congregations of the Conference?

Bishop Grant: Oh, definitely. And the diagram that you sort of cited in the beginning is central.

The kingdom of God is the community around the church, and is more important than the Church. So it’s God’s Kingdom, and then the local church, and then clergy, and then Conference leadership.

So the key to that is the fact that everything happens in my mind at the local level. Very seldom does an institution spark the kind of change that is necessary.

So whenever I plan for anything I’m always keeping your church, my old church, the church down the street from me, in mind, as the central locus of all that we do, and all of our focus. It’s really critical for me. We tend to get the loneliness–the higher you go the lonelier it gets.

Unless you’re grounded in a kind of community-center, and that is the local church.

Molly: It’s really critical and a helpful piece to remember what you just said–that the local church is not even the sort of biggest top level, right, that it’s the kingdom of God and it’s God. You know as a Bishop, your job is–you answer to the institutional church. But this is really about something bigger even than the institutional church.

Bishop Grant: Amen. Amen. Yeah, And I would hope that you, as a pastor your local church, would have the same value system.

It’s not about you as a pastors, them as lay people of Westwood. It’s about the community around them and all of those people who need faith and don’t have it around us–who are desperate sometimes, like this 14 year old kid who lost his mom.

You know, I lament the fact that those folks don’t have a faith community that really can sustain them, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s reaching out so that others can have that experience.

Molly: Okay, so if the big goal is not just in service of the institution, but the institution in service of the Kingdom of God and of God, you also have, as a bishop, occupied a very specific set of roles in that in what we ask of you as a bishop.

I wonder if you would be willing to talk about what have been fulfilling and satisfying parts of that job? What if the work of a Bishop has been filling to you?

Bishop Grant: Yeah, I think it is exactly what we’ve been talking about.

We’re asked to go to a lot of settings. COVID has really cut into that, though. I mean people weren’t meeting. But it’s starting to pick up again, and being asked to go to local churches for anniversaries and other things. Just the sense of vitality that you could see –or lack of vitality sometimes, that really hurts you. But the sense that there’s still the people of God who are making a difference where they’re at.

So, in most churches they have a feeding program, or they have a food giveaway, or you know you name it—social services of some kind.

It’s that kind of meaning that they’re making for their local community, and that’s the greatest satisfaction: to see that it’s beyond them. It is more about the people of God wherever they are and whoever they are.

That’s really fundamental. So that’s a good satisfaction, I think, is seeing our churches reach out to their local settings.

Molly: I don’t want to ask you to play favorites, but are there any particular sweet moments that come to your mind as being just like, oh, it’s such a gift to be able to be the Bishop in this place at this time, to be a part of this moment.

Bishop Grant: That’s a great question. Yeah there’s been some real pride moments, and those pride moments always come when we’re thinking beyond ourselves. It’s the Wesleyan paradigm of love of God and neighbor the same as yourself–but even exceeding oneself, so the self drops out, self interest drops out. Whenever a church goes to that level, there is the sense of: this is what it means to be a part of God’s kingdom. This is what it means to be a child of God. To love God and neighbor more than self.

So back in my first church that I served, I remember there’s an occasion where you know you’re preaching regularly blah blah blah. It’s the first time I’m a pastor. One of our families had a farm, and there was a flood, and they were completely flooded out.

And so one Sunday, just on a whim I said: I’m going to their farm to help clean up today after church, and I’m inviting all of you to come.

Now, it was so last minute I didn’t think many people would come, but that afternoon the entire church showed up to help out. This family was just flabbergasted that so many people would be there. In fact, we had so many people we didn’t know exactly how to organize them.

But everybody pitched in, and in that one afternoon we did a tremendous amount of cleanup, and I remember cleaning their bedroom walls: mud, and, you know, you name it.

But as a pastor it was like Oh, my God, these people really care, and they cared enough to drop all their plans to come join us on that particular day. So, yeah, those moments kind of stick out, and I think–you probably have those moments where you’re blown away by the response of your people and the Church, and the community itself.

Molly: It’s a great gift to have the privilege of getting to show up to the place Christ is calling me. And it’s even sweeter when I get to lead people to that place where Christ is calling us. That’s just a tremendous privilege and leadership.

I’m guessing it hasn’t all been that sweet though–what have been frustrations or limitations of your work as a bishop?

Bishop Grant: Well, I think that the slowness of the church to change has really been frustrating. When you’re a leader, you want to make a difference and you go all out, and then the church lags behind, and that’s just the way it goes. It moves at glacial speeds, and what I want is instantaneous success, instantaneous action, and that’s always frustrating.

But that’s something you just got to learn and cope with. So, as you get older you begin to take it for granted, but also keep with it. I think this is the important thing. There are bad actors everywhere–the larger the setting, the more percentage of you’re gonna have. So complaints and those kinds of things–people who act out, both clergy and lay, are never helpful.

And the key is that you need to–Peter Drucker had that simple formula, you know: Feed opportunities and starve weaknesses. We often reverse that: we feed the problems and we starve the opportunities. You can’t help it sometimes, because you’re in charge, and you have to attend to these things. I mean it’s as mundane as: I had once a pastor’s family who wanted to sue the pastor.

This is his family, by the way! Because he went along with the matriarch, after losing the mother, and making some kind of jewelry out of her remains. So it was this big controversy and was so stupid, you know, and yet they want to draw in everybody to complain and to have issues. And it’s those kind of really kind of minute, detailed problem sets that you don’t have time to deal with, and you don’t want to deal with it, but you have to sometimes.

Anyway. One of these days, you think, oh, I could write a book on all of this stuff, but then somebody would sue me, for you know,

Molly: You’d have to publish it right on your deathbed, right?

Bishop Grant: Yeah, right? Exactly.

Molly: All of these things that you’re, describing focus us like in on smaller and into a smaller perspective, more narrow perspective of who we are, as opposed to out toward that, as you were naming it, the kingdom of God and God’s presence in the world. It’s frustrating to have that wrong, backwards movement.

Bishop Grant: You gotta keep that great perspective: It’s about God. It’s not about me. What is God asking of us now?

Molly: Yeah, this has been certainly a season of radical change in the Church, in the culture, in institutions in general. In our nation and national politics, from pandemic, from reckoning with institutionalized racism. All these things have made it a particularly challenging season to be a leader.

I feel like, at least in conversations that I’m in lately, as we’re getting ready for Jurisdictional Conferences, that there’s getting to be more and more rubrics of expectations and questions we have for who would be ready to lead us as a bishop next–for the person we want to elect.

I confess my own insecurity that we’ll spend so much time on that question that we will forget that it’s really before all of us to think about how to lead in the Church in this particular and challenging time, lay and clergy.

I would love to kind of flip the script a little bit, and instead of asking what we need in our new Bishop, I’d like to ask you, a retiring bishop, what qualities and skills and priorities do you see as needed in the laity and clergy of our church, at all levels?

What do we need in leadership now?

Bishop Grant: Yeah. A great question. And hopefully, I want to work on this even after retirement.

We’re at a stage in the church where we’re irrelevant to the general public. The secular world could care less about the church, and so the tendency is to continue to focus inward rather than focus outward. What the real key is, is: younger people just have no relationship with the Church. They have no institutional kind-of feeling whatsoever. And yet they’re hungering for spiritual meaning, for purpose, for community, for all those things that we do really well, but they won’t consider us because we’re irrelevant to them.

So the key to me–and the Church has always been able to rise to the occasion–is new innovations and creativity on how we remake ourselves to be relevant again.

We have a product, and the product is spiritual meaning, community building, things that intuitively we do well. We can’t market this because we’re not relevant to them. We’ve got to remake ourselves, so that we can have an innovative, captivating message that would intrigue them to check it out. Doesn’t mean it’s gonna be in person necessarily. It can be whatever means possible that is going to perk their imagination.

But those are an intersection with change in all of the things you said: environmental change, racial justice, you name it, in terms of the issues that we’re facing as a nation and as a world.

They’re gonna be interested in those things, not in the institution of the Church.

So we’ve got to figure out a way to get out of our institutional mindset and into the world in a relevant way. That’s our only hope. So it really–what I think we need is creativity, innovation, a new way of being the Church, that is going to captivate secular people, younger people, and ethnic people, basically.

Molly: I don’t wanna pick on bishops, but once upon a time I ended up on the same commercial airline flight as a bishop who I saw, and but didn’t say hello to. It was a bishop that I don’t know particularly well. It was a strange occasion, because in church circles when bishops show up, we’re all very like respectful and deferential to your power.

(I’m sure you don’t think that because you’re aware of all the ways we don’t do what you’re asking us to do; but in many circumstances, you’re like a special person who’s been consecrated to a particular role.)

But then to see this bishop out of context at an airport, and think about, like: you have to go through the same security line as everyone else, and fold yourself up into this ever smaller commercial airline seat as everyone else. It was for me an interesting sort of visual parable about this moment I think the Church is in, where we have sort of an expectation of a certain, like, importance we have, or prominence, or entitlement we have, because we know the value of the Church.

We think. Oh, everyone should also automatically know of this value.

But increasingly, in the world, we have to let go of that sort of mindset of people will think that church is good or helpful, and really lean into the things that we’re doing that are actually good and helpful that are redemptive and liberating and justice-building and compassionate–which are still our treasure. But we have to do a lot more taking them out of the context where we normally find them, and extending them to a world that doesn’t know to recognize them as the treasures that they are.

I want to start a campaign–this is sort of an odd sidebar. But: I wanna start a campaign that raises the gift of church as a place where you can come and cry with other people. Where you can sit next to other people and cry. I think that there’s like there’s such a hunger for spaces to mourn, and to grieve and to acknowledge that we don’t have it all. There are so few places where you can do that (and other people don’t, like, run away from you.) So far that hasn’t come out in our like branding campaign…

Bishop Grant: Yeah, yeah, But you’re on onto something I think very important, Molly, and that is–Susan Cain’s new book, Bittersweet, is basically about that theme.

It’s about not just this joy and optimism, but that you have to have the bitter with the sweet. There has to be mourning. There has to be a sense of being down, and living in that sense is critical to get to the highs. I think the church is so afraid that if we emphasize mourning and crying and lamenting, people will be turned off by that.

Cain’s book is saying the opposite: people need that and they will seek that out. So I think you’re onto something there. It’s not something that you’re gonna advertise, necessarily.

Molly: Maybe?

Bishop Grant: Maybe. But if people know that’s what your purpose is, that’s an innovation, trying something out that really–let’s see if it works, let’s see if we’re drawing new people in because of that. So great possibilities, that’s what we need. Continual experimentation with new ideas.

Molly: And not just for the sake of experimentation with ideas that might be the gimmick that turns the Church but experimentation that leans into the treasures of who we are. I mean, lamentation and grieving are woven throughout our Scriptural tradition and our practice of being the church. this is not like we’re trying out, a you know, Easter egg drop from a helicopter cause it’ll get people there. It goes to the heart of who we are.

Bishop Grant: Amen. Yeah, I think going back to our roots, going back to early Biblical roots, Wesleyan roots. There is great mining that can be done there. We don’t have to replicate it. But we can take their values and run with it.

I think the other thing is scale. You don’t have to transform hundreds of lives–that one life you’re going to affect to change the world, is worth it.

I mean Jesus had a lot of parables around, you know, the lost coin and the lost sheep, and the prodigal son and daughter that I think are important for us to remember.

Molly: When the good folks of Wesley UMC in San Jose came around you and your family, they had no idea that you were going to be a Bishop, and what was gonna grow out of their faithful living of the gospel.

Bishop Grant: Amen. A 14 year old lost kid is certainly worth it. And for me it changed my life and made God a reality that I will never ever forsake.

Molly: So in this moment, as we’re getting ready for jurisdictional conferences as we’re talking a lot about leadership, in this moment of uncertainty and change in our denomination, in an unprecedented year, when we’re having a Jurisdictional Conference but didn’t have a General Conference meeting, is there any message or charge, or challenge, or encouragement you’d want to give to folks in local churches–pastors and lay people?

Bishop Grant: Yeah. And that would be: Just stay with the faith. Stay with historic understanding of the relationship between God, Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit that you have. Be authentic in living that out.

Don’t we even worry about the institutional part of that, you know. If the church splits it splits, if the church diminishes, it diminishes. But be faithful to who you are, and where you are. Every local church could fulfill that.

And I think you’re trying to do that at Westwood, to the best of your abilities. No church is going to be the same. Everybody’s different, with a history and a context that’s totally different from each other.

But every church can remain faithful to the gospel mandate, and that is to love God and neighbor as oneself, and to reach out, especially to the poor and the downtrodden who desperately need it more than anybody else.

Molly: Thank you. That’s a good inspiring word to end with.

Bishop Grant: Okay.

Molly: I’m grateful for your time. Thanks for taking time for this out of your busy day.

Bishop Grant: Grateful to be with you, and as you lead Westwood Church and that wonderful community.

I’ve been with them for a long time, from the time I was a district superintendent (DS) and I just want the best for them. I have really just revelled in the kind of direction and leadership you guys have provided for the community.

Molly: Your name came up in a church meeting earlier this week, from back when you were a DS. It came up in that you were a DS who gave permission and authority for leaders in this church to move forward with some plans that needed to be handled.

So, instead of like centralizing, I need to see every piece of this, you were like: go ahead and do that. I so appreciate your leadership.

Bishop Grant: You have one of the best teams–development teams–that i’ve ever experienced in the church. And so those folks just really did a great work for the community and church. Yeah. So thank them.

Molly: I will. Molly: I’m so grateful to Bishop Grant Hagiya for taking this time, and sharing from his own life experience as a Bishop and as a child of God, about what we’re called to in this moment.

I hope there’s something in this conversation that will spark further reflection or dialogue for you, as all of us–not just the bishops we elect–step into active leadership in the church that we’re called to be in Christ.

The work of inclusion and justice requires our full participation and I hope you’ll continue to go with us on this journey. Our podcast series continues next week with another new episode I hope you’ll tune in.

You can subscribe. Listen wherever you get podcasts. Watch us on Youtube. I hope you’ll share conversation with people you know who are committed to this work together.

Peace be with you.

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Episode 7