Where is the Church moving?
By Bishop Hee-Soo Jung
The Sacred Call
The story of my journey into Christianity begins in my teen years. I grew up on Kang Hwa Island, near the demilitarized zone created between the north and south of Korea. My family tradition was of Buddhist/Confucianism. My family was large, and we struggled to survive economically in post-war Korea, yet our relationship and rituals were rich. I saw Christianity as a gift of clearly defined morals and religiosity. God loved the repentant sinner and I was seeking such acceptance and love for my own life. In my early Christian life, I was not satisfied with my family and embarrassed by what I saw as their sinful ways.
My faith has grown and changed much over the years. In some ways, it has become simpler; in others, more complex. By the time I was elected to the Episcopacy, I understood my identity as part of global Church. As a first generation Christian, I have been blessed with fresh eyes. The forces of cultural Christianity, therefore, have played only a secondary role in shaping my faith. Being the first ethnic Bishop in the Northern Illinois Conference has not always been easy. There has been tremendous welcome and engagement, but there have also been significant challenges.
As an ethnically diverse Conference, both in leadership and laity, many positive strides have taken place. New learning has been required for such leadership. However, some discounted the vision of an ethnic bishop. Cultural differences and language challenges could easily become a stumbling block or diversion in our life together. By God's grace, I have been able to open doors and foster dialogue. I have been able to model our global community and move us forward.
Bringing change to the Church is not a political process. It is not a legislative process. It is not choosing the most controversial issues and riding the coat tails of public discourse. Prophetic leadership comes through the casting of vision, the challenge to change, a willingness to fail, and the courage to stay grounded in prayer. Prophetic leadership is not an easy journey.
Prophetic leadership is the work of planting seeds, consistently restating the vision, proclaiming the pathway to change; even as road blocks are put in the way. Our engrained ways of being the Church, offer security in the face of an anxious and changing society. It is difficult for us to take a leap of faith, to give up our comfortable ways. Inviting people to do this is not always a welcome message. But it must be a consistent mantra.
In my current context for leadership, I believe diversity and cross cultural clergy appointments are enriching our communities. At the same time it is challenging congregations in their status quo. We are working on training, coaching and equipping local churches and clergy to receive pastoral leaders from differing cultures. This cross-cultural/cross-racial work of training and equipping further broadens our understanding and reception of the world parish – leading us beyond a self-defined local boundary out into the world. We have found that receptivity is growing for such pastoral placements, but hidden issues of gender and racism continue to challenge our faith communities.
Issues that vex our society, such as poverty and violence, call for our prophetic commitment toward change. In my tenure as Episcopal leader for the Northern Illinois Conference, we have worked on a number of issues. Striving to bring new understanding and growth to our work with immigration has been a place from which I can speak first hand. We need the diversity that comes with hospitality and a welcoming attitude. We need to continue to find ways to highlight and provide education concerning the richness of diversity, the poverty that drives many people to our country, and the systems that separate families and broadcast an inhospitable signal to those who wish to become citizens in the United States.
The work of interfaith engagement is close to my heart. Growing in my personal Christian journey from a judgmental teenager to a broader understanding of God's kingdom, I can appreciate the richness of our faith traditions and the ways in which knowing our neighbors' beliefs strengthen our own understanding. When our churches model acceptances, we can make a difference in the political world as well. Many of our conflicts and tensions in the world could be better addressed if we understood one another's context, culture and faith traditions.
Over the course of my ministry, I have frequently observed congregations living in a model of inward focus, absorbed by local concerns. This was a model effective in earlier centuries when communities were isolated and the Church was central in community life. However, it is a model that is inadequate to the tasks of our changing landscape in the Christian movement. My call is to be a bridge for the Church into a fruitful future.
In this work, I am being led to awaken the historic Wesleyan spirit in our Methodist DNA and help our congregations see the need to move outward in discipleship. John Wesley had no idea how prophetic his words would become when he proclaimed "the world is my parish." The United Methodist Church is strong in mission, social witness and social justice – these are part of our core and a precious gift to the world. To continue this witness, we must continue to strengthen our own discipleship and grow the Church.
Young people are seeking meaningful engagement. We must move into a model of discipleship lived in action, offering opportunities for hands on witness, and bringing meaning and hope to the world. The age of congregations driven by committee work as their primary task is giving way to small groups that engage and call participants to witness to others. Our focus is now learning how to intentionally engage young people, connect cultures, and create community on a global scale.
Future of Christianity
I affirm the grace of God. I know it is easy to focus on scarcity. However, when we focus on the negative, we begin to live negatively. We must affirm, claim and live from an abundant perspective of God's love and grace. We must learn to live on the faith that God will provide what is needed to do that which we are called to do! The sense of God's every present hope and blessing draws the community together helping us learn to talk through our differences. As we model respect and remember our center in Christ, we grow into the community Christ envisioned.
The Church I envision has a passion for restorative justice. It is eager for new ways of bridging our differences, of finding common ground, of claiming the present of grace in community. The Church is changing. At the United Methodist General Conference, we witnessed the global nature of our being. We were challenged by varying perspectives, differing on social issues. Even theological debates over sin and salvation became part of our context.
One of the most vexing issues of a global Church is the development of our understanding of human sexuality. As societies progress, we discuss this issue in differing terms. How do we have this difficult discussion when some Christians quote selected Scriptures and frame their faith in simplistic concepts as I did in my youth, while other Christians engage from an understanding that follows the lead of Jesus in affirming precisely those whom the religious establishment saw as sinners? Finding this path is vital to developing a holistic, healthy global community.
We must be open to the spirits leading for a future that is shifting the center of growth in the Church from the United States to other countries. It is an emotional shift that will help us grow spiritually and culturally, but may be painful as we engage in learning, release power, and accept new perspectives.
For the Northern Illinois Conference, growth has come through the work of focusing on launching New Faith Communities and fostering healthy discipleship. We've named this movement Harvest 2020, with a vision of growing 100 new faith communities by the year 2020. Great focus and energy is being created by this work. It is helping us shift from self-centered congregations to other-centered engagement. It is slowly introducing new ways of being Church to established communities. And it is starting new communities of faith to address our changing society. As we become a Church in new ways for new people in new places, we expand God's Kingdom vision. To date, we have planted 25 new faith communities with another 20 launching within the year. We are focusing on immigrant populations, young people, building-less churches, reclaimed closed buildings, and satellites. Equipping and coaching is key. Financing this work is a challenge, as we find it difficult to release old ways of being the Church. Reluctance in freeing up our resources and thinking differently still plagues us. Sociologists tell us that it takes at least 15 years to refocus a system.
The Church of the future needs "Resilient Leaders". In a new book on leadership "The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else", George Anders emphasizes an expanded look at leadership characteristics. He believes that one of the best predictors of effectiveness as a leader is resilience. Anders defines resilience as the ability to get back up again and again and again. Professor Kevin Rowe, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity, takes Anders image and pushes it further from the secular field of leadership to leadership in the Church. Rowe notes that resilience is not inner strength, nor self-confidence, nor blind determination, but lived hope that for Christians is rooted in Christ permeating faithfulness.
Bible examples of resilience abound. We are drawn to Biblical characters who show their human flaws but maintain their faith and determination - Abraham and Sarah, Ruth, John the Baptist, and the Apostle Paul. In the United States, we are informed by an attitude of entitlement to "ease" in our lives. We behave as if the world owes us a good life. We stumble when the world does not cooperate. By learning to expect struggles and even gross failure as part of the human condition, we are better able to model and teach resilience. Accepting difficulties allows us to note the daily forms of resilience. Expectations of "ease" paradoxically lead to despair. Once we embrace the struggle of life, we can more easily identify and celebrate the places in which we see resilience.
Resilience does not happen because we wish it to. It is learned in community. Someone hopes for me in despair, I hope for others, which leads to hope within the community.
It is my prayer that I can be a resilient leader for the Church drawing on my faith journey, my life experience, and modeling a hope that surpasses understanding as we struggle in our present age. The Church would do well to cultivate resilience in our leaders, in our pastors, for our churches. We cannot stop the world from changing, but we can learn to more deeply integrate hope into our living as we ground ourselves in Christ.
The Church through the ages has been a place of change; sometimes welcomed, sometimes resisted, sometimes helpful, and sometimes hurtful. Today we continue the journey. As an Episcopal Leader, I pray for the strength of God's Holy Spirit so I can be a beacon of change in ways that help expand God's holy invitation to the table. The work is slow; the results sometimes barely perceptible. But it is holy work and I remain committed to this amazing journey.
This article was presented in the Forum at Chicago Theological Seminary, June, 2012
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).