Looking back, looking forward

Rev. Dr. Bud Reeves

Rev. Dr. Bud Reeves

By William O. “Bud” Reeves
Special Contributor

The month of January gets its name from the Roman god Janus, who was distinctive in that he had two faces, one looking backward and one looking forward. At the turning of the calendar, we naturally look back at the past and look forward to the New Year. For many United Methodist preachers, the month of June brings that occasion to look both directions, as we anticipate receiving new appointments at annual conference.

Beginning July 1, I will be appointed to First United Methodist Church Fort Smith. That means I will be leaving the bishop’s cabinet and the role of district superintendent. I am excited about what the future holds, but I have also been reflecting on three years of superintendency, a unique appointment in my 35 years of ministry.

It has been an honor and privilege to serve in this capacity, and I—mostly—have enjoyed it. It has been interesting and educational, and I think it will benefit me as I return to my first love and calling to be a pastor.

Reflections, realizations

I have met many good people, visited many good churches and had some holy moments in both the Northeast and Northwest districts. From the smallest to the largest churches, I have seen the Holy Spirit at work: people reaching outside the walls of the church to touch those outside with the love of Christ. I have seen God in action!

Being a district superintendent is hard work. The sheer size of our districts makes it difficult, and I am thankful for my circuit elders who have been a great help. Beyond that, we have been trying to change the way we think about ministry, and shifting paradigms is tough. As much as we try to live in the new, the old persists, and often it feels like we are living in two churches at the same time, trying to build a bridge while we are also walking on it.

But being a superintendent is also important work. We see the larger playing field of the statewide annual conference, at the same time being involved in the local churches. Somebody has to lead the conversation about deep change in the churches, and often the pastor of a given church is not in a position to tackle that conversation. Deep change can only happen in the local church, but the superintendent can help people connect the dots, facilitate new ministry and even sometimes exert the force of authority to overcome resistance to change.

I did not realize until I became a superintendent what a deeply spiritual work it is. I used to think the hierarchy was primarily administrative and bureaucratic, but I have experienced events on the cabinet that can only be described as divine intervention. We pray early and often every time we meet. I have seen the cabinet agonize to the point of tears over difficult situations faced by pastors and churches. I know I will never minimize the work of a superintendent again.

Concerns and hope

I do not leave the cabinet without some serious concerns. On the large end, I am anxious about the ability of our church on the General (global) level to effectively lead our denomination. We have a stalemate over the issue of homosexuality. The Council of Bishops is so divided they can’t lead. The Judicial Council stymies efforts at reform. Can we afford for the General church to become irrelevant? I’ll be praying hard and long for our delegates and our General Conference of 2016.

On the small end, I am heartbroken over the many small membership churches that will likely close in the next few years. Our culture and demographics have changed, and the small, rural churches that once formed the backbone of our denomination will soon be a rarity. Half of our churches in Arkansas average less than 35 attendees on Sunday morning. They are the last institutions standing in communities that have withered. The young people, if they attend church, drive miles to attend churches with programs for children and youth. Churches with rich histories that are still doing vital ministry will ultimately age out and close. And that hurts my heart.

But I am not without hope. In fact, I am full of hope! I believe we can experience spiritual revival in many of our churches, and we can impact more lives for Jesus Christ than we ever have. The revival will come in strong local churches. It will not be the way it used to be, but it can be great.

The annual conference and districts can help in setting the stage for the revival. But ultimately, revival will come and congregations will be vital when we all—clergy and laity together—get passionate about Jesus Christ and his Gospel for a lost, broken and hurting world. We comfortable American Methodists will have to be as enthusiastic as those disciples in developing countries where the Wesleyan movement is still growing.

Enthusiasm comes from two Greek words that mean “God in” someone. That is ultimately our promise: “Christ in us, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). The Christ-power within us is what will redeem, revitalize and renew our beloved church, and my prayer as I leave one chapter and enter a new one is that “light will flood your hearts and that you will understand the hope that was given to you when God chose you. Then you will discover the glorious blessings that will be yours together with all of God’s people. I want you to know about the great and mighty power that God has for us followers. It is the same wonderful power he used when he raised Christ from death and let him sit at his right side in heaven” (Ephesians 1:18-20 CEV).

I look forward to that!

The Rev. Dr. Reeves serves as superintendent of the Northwest District until the end of this month. Email: breeves@arumc.org.