NCJ Conference Special Session Concludes

NCJ delegates name commitment to anti-racism, LGBTQIA+ inclusion

By Christa Meland, director of communications, Minnesota Conference
At a virtual North Central Jurisdictional (NCJ) Conference this week, delegates elected by their respective annual conferences created and overwhelmingly approved a covenant naming their commitment to anti-racism work and LGBTQIA+ inclusion.
Approximately 250 delegates participated in an official Zoom meeting Wednesday and Thursday, and others from across the 10-conference jurisdiction watched it live online. Delegates spent the majority of their time together on three big topics of conversation—dismantling racism, the future of episcopal leadership, and the future of The United Methodist Church.
On Thursday morning, by a vote of 135-32, delegates approved a “Covenant to Build Beloved Community” developed by a six-person writing team determined by the heads of the NCJ delegations. The covenant, written using United Methodist baptismal vows as a framework, calls on the jurisdiction to work to end racism and to create a culture that welcomes and affirms LGBTQIA+ people.
Specifically, the covenant calls on the NCJ bishops of color to convene all BIPOC delegates to discuss how to begin to address trauma in communities of color, requests the Mission Council to report on how their budget incorporates anti-racism work, urges all members of the NCJ to avoid pursuing charges for LGBTQIA+ clergy, and requests that episcopal leaders dismiss charges related to LGBTQIA+ identity or officiating same-gender weddings. The covenant also stipulates that the Mission Council must designate NCJ funds to work with conference anti-racism teams to create a racial analysis at the local church and conference levels—and to align annual conference budgets with antiracism work and intentional efforts geared toward people and communities of color.
“The shaping of our covenant was based on our baptismal covenant, and baptism isn’t an ending; it’s a beginning,” said Rev. Carol Zaagsma, a clergy member of the Minnesota Conference who was on the writing team. “This covenant represents a new beginning for our North Central Jurisdiction, and I think it shows that grace and love are stronger than the challenges we face.”

Rev. Andy Call, a clergy delegate from the East Ohio Conference, also sees the covenant as a step forward for the jurisdiction.
“For the last two-and-a-half years, The United Methodist Church has been defined largely by the voices of those preparing to leave,” he said. “The North Central Jurisdiction took steps this week to articulate the values of the jurisdiction going forward that I hope will inspire those who have been left out or left behind.”
The covenant requests the Mission Council, in conjunction with the NCJ College of Bishops, “develop an exercise for NCJ delegates to engage in conversation to understand the impact of homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism within United Methodist Churches during the next meeting of the jurisdiction.”
The writing team that developed the covenant waded through 54 pages of comments from delegates in order to find out was particularly important to them. The five key priorities identified from those discussions, which shaped the document, were: anti-racism, inclusion, amicable separation, regionalism, and connectionalism.
Nitza Dovenspike, a lay member of the Iowa Conference who was also on the covenant writing team, said the team kept coming back to baptismal vows as they approached the document and reflected on how to renounce some of the forces of evil in our midst. “It gave us the power to do the work of anti-racism in the spirit of building beloved community,” she said. “We all have baptism in common.”
She personally is grateful that the delegates lifted up anti-racism work as a priority and as a call to action. “We recognized the importance of actionable recommendations to continue the journey on eliminating racism,” she said after the covenant was adopted.
“I appreciated the sincerity of conversations and the outcome of the Covenant that was approved by the Jurisdictional conversation. It expresses a hope for a United Methodist Church that is anti-racist and queer-inclusive, that is more equitable in its global structure by providing for a regional conference in the United States akin to our Central Conference siblings, as has been proposed by the Christmas Covenant” shared Rev. Allie Scott, delegate for the Wisconsin Conference.
Regarding amicable separation, the document encourages conferences and local churches to strive for reconciliation and understanding. But for churches that “may feel called to a different future in the faith,” it stipulates that annual conferences should “use existing disciplinary and conference provisions to accommodate local congregations seeking disaffiliation.”
Delegates spent more than two hours discussing and refining the covenant before approving it. NCJ bishops were formally asked at one point to weigh in on whether some of the specific language about LGBTQIA+ individuals and same-gender weddings—namely, the call to avoid and dismiss charges related to them—restricts the rights of bishops or other leaders from upholding the Book of Discipline and thus is null and void? The bishops have 30 days to respond.
Rev. Jenny Arneson shared her hope for The United Methodist Church, “My personal hope for The UMC is that we can be a denomination that lives out a future of hope through local churches in ways that inspire action by showing and sharing our love of God and neighbor by striving to be inclusive of all God's people and connected in mission with God's people around the world.”
In addition to approving the covenant itself, delegates also voted 131-31 to affirm the recent Council of Bishops document called “A Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church” and 128-31 to affirm “A Call to Grace,” an open letter that all United Methodists were invited to sign.
“Covenanting to Build the Beloved Community, we look to 2024 with promise,” the covenant stated at the end. “We pledge ourselves to God’s call upon our lives, to each other, and to the future of The United Methodist Church.”
Read Full Covenant Here →

NCJ delegates talk anti-racism and future, vote to reduce bishops by 1

By Christa Meland, director of communications, Minnesota Conference
When Rev. Ron Bell was in high school, his father became superintendent of the Eastern District of the Delaware Annual Conference. As their family was moving into the superintendents’ big, beautiful parsonage in Eastern Maryland, the entire local police department surrounded the house with guns drawn and told Bell and his father to get on the ground with their hands behind their heads. Why?
“Because a little white girl across the street saw black folk in her neighborhood,” said Bell, who serves Camphor Memorial UMC in St. Paul, Minnesota. “That's when I knew race matters.”
Bell was among six “truthtellers” who shared their personal experiences with race at a virtual North Central Jurisdictional (NCJ) gathering that took place Wednesday and Thursday. Approximately 250 delegates participated in the official Zoom meeting, and others from across the 10-conference jurisdiction watched it live online. Delegates spent the majority of their time together on three big topics of conversation—dismantling racism, the future of episcopal leadership, and the future of The United Methodist Church. On Thursday, they voted 142-13 in favor of a proposal to reduce the number of active bishops in the NCJ from nine to eight to align with the membership threshold for bishops that’s set by General Conference.
Dismantling racism
In the dismantling racism portion of the session, retired Bishop Hope Morgan Ward reminded attendees that the ministry of anti-racism centers in discipleship.
“The arc of history bends toward justice, and we will be forceful in pulling that arc down together, all to the glory of God,” she said. She noted that the Council of Bishops has centered the ministries of equity, inclusion, justice, diversity, and antiracism—and in doing so, has appreciated the work of Brian Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and chief creator of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. He urges four pillars for anti-racism efforts:
  1. Hear and share true stories; in particular, give space to and honor stories of people of color.
  2. Get “proximate” to the suffering and pain of racism and inequality.
  3. Expect resistance.
  4. Protect your hopefulness.
After hearing from Ward, the six truthtellers each issued a challenge to the North Central Jurisdiction and the Church.
“Justice takes more than just words; it requires sacrifice,” said Andres De Arco, National Assistant Director to the United Methodist Hispanic Youth Leadership Academy and a member of the West Ohio Conference. “What are you willing to sacrifice for justice?”

The dismantling racism session ended with small group discussions among delegates. They reflected aloud on a question posed by Bishop Tracy Smith Malone, resident bishop of the East Ohio Conference: As you think about your context and your discipleship journey and life in Christ, how might God be calling you to make a difference, to step out more boldly and prophetically…to put your weight on the arc of history, bending toward justice?
Rev. Dan Schwerin shared, “I am grateful for the arc of history bending toward justice, and I am energized to continue our work in Wisconsin, for me with the Bishop’s Task Force but also in collaboration with the Anti-Racism Task Force. I also want to do the relational work that helps us do the collective work. This requires me to constantly go to my knees, be humbled, and then keep moving.”
The future of episcopal leadership
Delegates on Thursday voted 142-13 in favor of a proposal to have eight active bishops in the NCJ as of the next regular session of the jurisdictional conference—representing a decrease from the nine bishops who have led the jurisdiction in recent years.
In a presentation before the vote, Rev. Sara Isbell, chair of the NCJ Committee on the Episcopacy and a member of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, explained that if a jurisdiction falls below a certain threshold in membership, the General Conference makes a decision about the number of bishops needed for that smaller number of members. Although the General Conference has not yet met to vote on a reduction, for several years, the NCJ has been below the number needed to secure nine bishops—so such a vote is expected at the postponed 2020 General Conference, now slated for Aug.-Sept. 2022. The NCJ could vote to stay with nine bishops, but then it must figure out how to pay them, apart from the Episcopal Fund that typically covers this cost.
Isbell also pointed out that we’ve had an opportunity over the past year to practice operating with eight bishops. Since Jan. 1, Bishop David Bard has been serving Minnesota on an interim basis in addition to being resident bishop for the Michigan Conference, Bishop Laurie Haller has been serving the Dakotas on an interim basis in addition to being resident bishop for Iowa, and Bishop John Hopkins left retirement to lead the Northern Illinois Conference.
Before the vote, delegates met in small groups to explore a variety of questions around episcopal leadership.
Rev. Jenny Arneson, on the work of her small group, “It was good to hear the stories of others in my small group about when we first learned that race mattered.  That question can be powerful when discussed in a safe group and my small group listened well to one another's stories.”

The future of The United Methodist Church
Drawing on John 6: 1-14, Bishop Laurie Haller told the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 to close the day on Wednesday. She pointed out that after the meal, Jesus told his disciples to gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.
“My dear friends, I know that you are tired,” said Haller. “We often think somebody else will gather the fragments of our beloved UMC and transform the world. But now it’s time for us to do something in the North Central Jurisdiction. The future of The United Methodist Church is in our hands, as we gather here to hope, to dream, to share the gospel, and to claim our connectionalism.”
Jesus sends you and me out to gather up the fragments, Haller noted, which are are our mixed loyalties, our stubbornness to forgive, our reluctance to accept those who are different, and our fondness for judging. But the fragments are also the loving words we say, the songs we sing, the money we give, the food we share, and the care we offer to the discarded and battered of this world.
“No matter how many fragments we gather up or give away, the basket will always be filled with God’s love, for the circle is wide, and no one should ever have to stand alone,” she said. “That my friends, is beloved community. That, my friends, is our vision. That, my friends, is the future of our church. It’s time for us to do something right now.”
Delegates spent time in breakout groups to discuss what they see as priorities for the NCJ going forward and what the NCJ should accomplish in the next two to five years to fulfill these priorities.
“It was lovely to dream about what the United Methodist Church could be these past few days. It was a wonderful respite from the anxiety that has surrounded us for so long. I pray we may learn from this experience, heed the call in our Covenant and in the Call to Grace, and move with the Holy Spirit into God's future” shared Rev. Allie Scott.