So…What Is Going On in United Methodist Church? – Bishop Tom Bickerton

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EPISODE 001: Pastor Molly checks in with Bishop Bickerton about what’s going on, now that General Conference is postponed to 2024 and the Protocol has fallen apart. Maybe it’s not all bad news: instead, this can be a season of permission and faithfulness. Bishop Tom Bickerton is the President of the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church, and was a member of the Mediation Team that crafted the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.

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Discussion Questions

  1. Bishop Bickerton talks about a sense of paralysis in the UMC. Where do you see the church stuck in paralysis? How?
  2. Bishop Bickerton references a Lovett Weems article that named the postponement of General Conference as a good thing. Do you agree with this assessment? Why or why not?
  3. If the further postponement of General Conference could be taken as granting us permission to move forward, what do you think we ought to take permission to do? How can we boldly live our values?
  4. Using whatever position of leadership or power you have, how can you make space for other LGBTQ+ people to experience full belonging and empowerment in the church?
  5. Bishop Bickerton mentions current efforts aimed at explicitly improving alignment in terms of how we’re moving forward and our broader narrative, and describes how that effort is building trust. What do you see as the connection between increased internal communication and the building of trust?
  6. Where do you see signs of life in the UMC?

Transcript

Molly: Fifty-four years after it was officially formed, our United Methodist Church faces real challenges. Dramatic shifts in our cultural landscape have altered the place of our mainline Protestant church in our communities. Long-simmering theological tensions, frequently visible in disagreements about the acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ+ members, gave rise to a brokered protocol that would allow conservatives to leave to form a new denomination. Then, the Covid pandemic further disrupted all of our lives, and prevented the UMC’s General Conference from meeting. Now postponed to 2024, questions about our denominational life remain. Despite the anti-gay policies that remain in our UMC Discipline, more and more of us continue to move forward with the work of full inclusion, including not only Westwood UMC, but our Western Jurisdiction as a whole. Conservatives, previously organized as an Association, on May 1 formally named themselves a separate denomination. So, as people committed to our grace-filled way of living the gospel, where do we go from here?

I am Rev. Molly Vetter, the Senior Pastor of Westwood United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, and it’s my joy and privilege to invite you into this conversation.

I first imagined this podcast series as an opportunity to connect my congregation, and the lay people of our church, with discussions happening in the broader church as we meet the challenges of this moment—as we discern how to be faithful to our values of love, justice, and inclusion in the midst of our denomination.

I’m glad to be able to share this online, in hopes that it might be resonant or an insightful addition to the conversation going on wherever you are.

I’m thrilled that the guest for this first episode is Bishop Tom Bickerton. Just installed as the President of the Council of Bishops of the UMC, he is an important leader in this moment of our denomination life. Long a leader in efforts for faithful living of our mission, vision and values, he had helpful ways to frame our conversation—and even a word of hope. So that you to Bishop Bickerton for being with us, and thank you for listening in. I invite you to listen to our conversation.

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Molly: I’m so grateful that you are willing to take time with me. I wanted, first of all, to be able to talk to my congregation about what’s been going on in the church, and then hoped that this also might be relevant to other people in other places.

But I wanted to tell you just a little bit about who we are. I’m at Westwood United Methodist church in Los Angeles, and we are a congregation that’s long been committed to full and inclusion and work for love and justice in the world. We see that is our gospel calling, and it’s pretty deep in our sensibility, in our DNA, and who we are.

Our congregation was pastored by Mel Wheatley for almost 20 years, from 1954-72, until he was elected bishop. As you know, was such a pioneering bishop in terms of working for inclusion in the Church. We count him as one of our saints, whose spirit continues to live on in our commitment. That means there are deep roots to the sort of way we are in the world.

And watching from Los Angeles, it sometimes feels like we’re a little bit on the outside of where the centers of power are swirling in the church. So I’m really grateful that you’re willing to give us your perspective from where you are.

I’m curious if you ever run into someone that you haven’t seen for a while who doesn’t spend all day, every day in the middle of United Methodism, and they ask how things are going in the Church—Do you have, like, the elevators speech-size digest of how we’re doing in the United Methodist Church?

Bishop Bickerton: Well I think probably the answer is Yes, but it’s it’s an evolving answer, as you well know, because there’s so many moving parts going on in the church right now. 

You know the elevator speech, really has been centered recently, Molly, on a phrase that I’ve been using. In fact, I used it when I assumed office with the Council of Bishops last week.

I’ve been trying to focus us here in New York and in other places across the denomination around the thought that God has opened the door for us, and that door is revealing the next expression of what Methodism is called to be, and it will be different. We will be smaller, leaner, more nimble.

My prayer is that we will be more inclusive. We will be more in alignment with our theological convictions. And it’s an exciting day. 

The question is, if God has opened the door for us to see the next expression of Methodism— The question is, do we have the courage to walk through the door?

And so that’s kind of the elevator speech with the even with the non-united Methodist folks. It is that I’m finding more hope right now than I have in a long time, and I think it’s time to capitalize on that and stop this paralysis that’s happened the last few years, in particular.

Molly: It’s good to hear you say that you’re hopeful. It does seem like even as there’s an open door a lot of the usual ways that we get forward movement are cut off from us right now. The General Conference can’t meet this year because of Covid related concerns, and all the logistical complications of the global gathering.

You were a part of the Protocol negotiating team, which in the heady early days of 2020, seemed like it might be a route for us to take to a different future. Now with the formation of the Global Methodist Church, it seems like the Protocol is irrelevant because of their choice of departure.

Do you have a sense of what the route is that we take to get to a hope filled feature?

Bishop Bickerton: I can give a stab at that from my perspective. I think I want to start on the 30,000 foot view, and kind of build on what I just said. I really think that our current paralysis is more about choice than it is about something imposed on us. I choose not to be paralyzed anymore.

I think it’s time for the church to move forward—and you have to move forward in spite of, not when the conditions are perfect, so the conditions are far from perfect. And what it really amounts to at this point is: do we have the courage to really proceed forward?

I think we’re lulled to sleep by all of these different things. Okay: General Conference can’t meet so we’re paralyzed, or you know, the protocol can’t get passed so we’re paralyzed. That’s a choice. 

Lovett Weems wrote an article I don’t know, 2 or 3 weeks ago, about the postponement of General Conference being a good thing, and I subscribe to what Lovett was talking about, because I really believe that part of our paralysis is that we’re dependent upon a meeting that has been dysfunctional for 50 years.

Molly: That’s certainly my experience.

Bishop Bickerton: It’s almost like a drug we were addicted to it, and it hasn’t born much fruit, really.

And so how do we lead in spite of? Because in reality we can be naive and think: “Oh, the protocol would have passed! That would have given us the pathway.”

Well, you know, there would have been judicial council rulings about it. It would have been delayed because of those rulings. It probably was not going to be passed in the form that it was presented—none of us expected that. But we thought, you know, we got this temptation that “Oh, this is gonna solve everything.”

I’ve been to General Conference too many times. We micro-manage even the best of proposals, and we’ve turned down some good ones over the years; and of course we’ve been in this longstanding struggle to change the Discipline and been disappointed each and every time.

So, I think that we are easily lulled to sleep, to think that if we did just have that meeting, everything would have been solved. I don’t buy that. 

I think that we’ve been given the gift of this delay to really—we’ve been given 2 years—to really hone our narrative, to embolden people around what mission and ministry in the church should look like. 

We’ve been given, in some sense, some—maybe it’s self-appointed permission—but permission to move ahead.

If we choose not to, saying, “Well, this has to happen first…” We will find ourselves increasingly irrelevant and we will find ourselves in this paralyzed position, not just for another couple of years, we’ll find it for another decade. And then what will we look like at that point?

I’m choosing as a leader to say: let’s reset ourselves right now. Let’s answer the questions before they’re ever asked. Let’s get nimble, let’s get fresh. Let’s get excited again about what It means to be church, and not wait for the circumstances to get right to do so. 

Molly: Thank you. One of the first times that I learned your name, and figured out who you were, was at General Conference in 2008, which was your first general conference as a Bishop. You were very vocal in promoting Nothing but Nets, which became a part of Imagine No Malaria, which was a global health initiative that formed a core priority of the denomination.

Are there projects like that—what’s giving you hope now? What’s the thing you’re invested in that feels like it’s got life in it? 

Bishop Bickerton: You know before I get to the specific of your question, let me just use that question as a way to build on to what we just talked about.

You know, Nothing But Nets, and then Imagine No Malaria, happened before permission was given for it to take place, and the system didn’t like it.

You know, in fact, in 2008, there’s a really funny story about that. When I made that presentation in front of the General Conference, the night before—I was on United Methodist Communications, and the folks at UMCom said to me: Would you like to use a teleprompter for your speech tomorrow?

And I said, back then, I said, well I’d never used one of those, sure I’d like to try. So they said: stay after the session. We’ll practice with the teleprompter, get you all ready.

When the day of the presentation came, I had a Bishop who was at the podium—and I was still insecure, so I had my notes on the pulpit, just in case. So there was a colleague Bishop, who made it presentation right before me, and she took the notes. She took my notes, so they called on me. I went to the podium, and my notes were gone. I thought, “Oh, okay—no problem here, I’ve got the teleprompter.” When the teleprompter started, my speech came in backwards and upside down. So there I am, you know, naked in front of the entire general conference, with no notes, no teleprompter.

What you experienced that day in 2008 was spontaneity from beginning to end. There was no plan for me to leave the pulpit, no plan for me to go down to that altar and raise that $10 bill, and it did, it literally discombobulated the organizational group around General Conference.

That’s an illustration of what—we don’t handle spontaneity. Well, we don’t like initiatives happening that haven’t that we haven’t been given permission to do.

The energy of Nothing But Nets and Imagine No Malaria came out of its spontaneity, and it still bears witness today, because, you know, there I was, a part of a team that raised $75 million to achieve that goal. Today I serve on and I’m the President of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and I’m spending that money now, even today, with global health projects across the globe.

You know there’s not, I don’t sense, spontaneous initiatives like that on the horizon that are jazzing me up right now. But as I sit on global ministries, I look at the work that we’re doing with JFON (Justice For Our Neighbors)  and immigration ministries that are just really vital right now. The work of global health is still very relevant too, especially on the continent of Africa. And there’s a lot of engagement happening at that point. 

I just came out of a GBGM Meeting just a little while ago, and we’re back on a 2018 pace for giving to UMCOR. That’s been that’s been largely centered around Ukraine relief. So what jazzes me up these days is how my Church injects itself in relevant ways when the situations arise. Immigration, the Ukrainian War. Our response of putting our theology into practice has always been something that has not only pleased me, but it’s just energized me. 

I think the other place, and this is a bureaucratic answer, so I apologize.

Molly: That’s where you spend a lot of time these days!

Bishop Bickerton: I’m really getting energized by a word that has been really difficult for this denomination: that word is alignment. 

When General Conference was postponed, all of these administrative decisions and all these protocols and things, were pushed down to the annual conference level, which means there’s potentially 50 different ways of doing the same thing. That’s not only dangerous for practice, it’s dangerous for our narrative. So we’ve been working, really, night and day, trying to get Chancellors, Treasurers, Bishops—The system on the annual conference level, if you will, aligned together.

I think we’re building trust, and we’re building a sense of relationship, and I think that will only serve to help us as we come out of Covid, and find ourselves back in in-person meetings, and looking at: how do we engage this next expression?

Molly: Do you have any advice or a charge to give to a local church like ours?

Bishop Bickerton: Hold forth. Hold on. Be creative. Press, press, press. Hold your values—don’t compromise them. Do it with joy. You know this Covid thing—I think one of the one of the things we’ve been robbed of in Covid is joy. We miss one another. We long to spend time in relationship, fellowship, strategy together. 

You know, I’ve been doing this work, superintending and bishoping work, now, this is my—I’m getting old Molly—this is my 24th year. 

I miss the local church. I miss those deep-seated relationships, being able to nurture one another, out of those relationships. I miss, you know, being able to celebrate a baptism and then teach about it. Offer communion at an open table. Boldly welcome people of all walks of life into the fellowship of the Church. Celebrate growing together, even in the midst of our disagreement.

I would just say that to a local church: savor those moments, and don’t take them for granted because they are precious. Take it from one who’s been away from it intimately for 24 years.

The weekly nurturing and fellowship that happens in a local church, especially one like yours, my gosh! I’d say to your people, just celebrate that every single day! It is a gift and a privilege.

Molly: I’m grateful for your persistence and leadership through this time. It’s been just a human joy to get to know you a little bit more, in this last bit of time, in some of these conversations about narrative and alignment. I’m super grateful for your time today in the midst of your busy-ness and recovery. Thank you for taking time.

Bishop Bickerton: Thanks, Molly, and bless you in your work and ministry, and I’ll just say: back at you. You’re a real gift to the church, and we love you for your commitment and your response to your call. 

Molly: Thank you.

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Molly: I’m so grateful to Bishop Bickerton for his time with me today, and for his leadership in our denomination. I feel inspired as I imagine further ways to take permission, to step into the opportunity of this moment. I hope you’ll join me in being committed to living out our values of love, and justice, and inclusion here, now. 

Next week we invite you to join us here, again, for further conversation about where we go from here. I’m thrilled that the guest for next week’s episode is Randall Miller. An active lay person in the UMC, he’s served at all levels, and is one who is both an institutionalist and a rebel. I invite you to join us next week for more conversation. Thanks for being with us.

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