By Gary E. Mueller
Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ of the United Methodist persuasion in Arkansas,
I have been with you, and tasked with leading you, for nearly eight years now. A great deal has taken place in our shared life together. God has been glorified through your work as individual disciples, congregations and the Arkansas Annual Conference. Healing has occurred, children have been fed, people have come to experience Jesus’ love and lives have been transformed. And every step along the way, we have been blessed as we have caught glimpses of the Reign of God right here in our midst.
We are now at a critical juncture in our United Methodist Church because there is a proposal on the table that purports to solve our deep and abiding theological differences through separation. This brings much relief to many, both traditional and progressive. It also brings questions and uncertainty to others, both progressive and traditional. And, in the meantime, anxiety grows, tempers flare and polarization increases.
It is in the midst of this reality that I want to speak a word of truth in love.
You need to know that my heart breaks and, then, continues to break more. Not because of what may happen in the denomination, but because of what already has transpired and is even now continuing. Ugly words have been spoken. Hatred has been spewed. Relationships have been shattered. Put it all together and the conclusion is unavoidable: those of us who are the Body of Christ (Jesus’ designation, not mine) have conducted ourselves in ways that should embarrass us at best, and shame us at worst.
Laity are unhappy with clergy. Clergy are unhappy with their leaders, especially the bishop. People feel disconnected from the Annual Conference. Almost everyone is demonizing someone. There is little joy, hope or experience of the Holy Spirit. There are few positive words, hardly any glory sightings about what God is doing and virtually zilch trust of others. We blame others, will do almost anything to avoid taking responsibility for changing our behavior, and act as if we are all victims of a broken system we rely on but despise. Almost daily I hear, “Clergy morale is low. Congregations feel disconnected. Trust is gone.”
So here is my truth which I speak in love. Other people cannot change things. Not the bishop, your pastor, or even that person with whom you radically disagree about matters of human sexuality. Things will only change when you acknowledge that you are trapped in a spiritual crisis and then you choose to address it spiritually.
But we are not inevitably stuck in a “Groundhog Day” of despair. Things can change because God is doing a new thing, Jesus’ resurrection is real and the Holy Spirit is at work in our midst.
“Things will only change when you acknowledge that you are trapped in a spiritual crisis and then you choose to address it spiritually.”
Start with Jesus
He is our Lord and Savior. He is the one who calls us to live the Jesus’ way. He is the one who commands us (and even that is not a strong enough word) to love God with everything we’ve got and our neighbor as ourselves. Fall passionately in love with him again and more deeply than you ever have before.
Take a good hard honest look at yourself
How many negative words do you speak about your brothers and sisters in Christ? How do you add to the toxicity of your church or annual conference environment? How are you harming others through your thoughts, words and deeds? Honestly confess – to God and others – what you have done.
Look at others like you actually believe that Jesus died for them. Stop starting by always judging others before you do anything else. Practice, practice, practice giving others the benefit of the doubt. Say something positive. Repent by behaving in new ways.
Do what Jesus says
Share his grace. Love, really love, others; especially those you struggle most to love. Start practicing the Beatitudes. Live humbly. Act generously with others. Lift people up.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’ll be as clear as I can: I’m weary. I’m worn out by our caving in to a culture of blame, demonization and polarization. I’m tired of our addiction to distrust. I’m exhausted by our desire to win rather than love. And I’m heartbroken by the way we have become a caricature of something Christian because of our lack of faith.
Yet I want you to know something that will never change. I love you. I respect you. I have hopes and dreams God has filled my heart about you. And I believe with every bit of grace given me by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, that God’s unconditional, saving and transforming love in him actually can transform us one disciple at a time.
It’s time. It’s time for me. It’s time for our church. And I hope you sense the prompting of the Holy Spirit telling you that it’s time for you as well. Let’s be who Jesus has created us to be!